The Great Gatsby: Book Versus Movie

'Gatsby' obsessive Jon Reiner analyzes the liberties that Baz Luhrmann takes in adapting the novel—what he gets right and what he gets wrong.


“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can,” urges Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in Baz Luhrmann’s high-octane adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which opens today after a worrisome stutter step and both fevered and dreaded anticipation. The famous line, which in the novel breaks the code on Gatsby’s “twilight universe” and portends his doom, illuminates the screen with a cautionary subtext Fitzgerald didn’t intend: Please Baz, don’t you do it! Repeating the lifeless moviemaking past of this masterpiece would again give the world something far less than great. “There are no second acts in American lives,” Fitzgerald famously claimed.

Since its publication in 1925, Fitzgerald’s tale of corrupted dreams has become the glittering gem of American literature. But it is a cloudy jewel in the crown for filmmakers. The screen adaptations have all flopped. There was a 1926 silent version starring Warner Baxter, based on Owen Davis’s Broadway stage transfer, now lost but for the trailer. Then there was the 1949 noirish crime story starring Alan Ladd, coinciding with the book’s popular rediscovery. The first two were so deflating that Fitzgerald’s daughter Scottie banned any further productions, until Robert Evans and David Merrick muscled her into going along with the Robert Redford and Mia Farrow effort, scripted by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 (coincidentally, the year of DiCaprio’s birth). It, too, was poured flat, like last night’s champagne. Luminous star power and smart product tie-ins—Ralph Lauren’s wardrobe designs for the ’74 film helped ignite his career –failed to translate the book’s profound magic to the screen. (The choppy, inert 2000 TV movie with Toby Stephens, Mira Sorvino and Paul Rudd barely registered a blip). Fitzgerald’s own sad end also came via Hollywood, felled by a heart attack in gossip columnist Sheilah Graham’s apartment at age forty-four after he was released from an MGM screenwriting contract. The best novel of his late career, the Irving Thalberg-inspired The Love of the Last Tycoon, also made into a starry clunker, in 1976, was left unfinished. Fitzgerald and celluloid have been a weak mix. The noose of “unfilmable” hangs his books. Enter Baz Luhrmann. Could he solve the problems that stripped the novel’s vitality from the earlier adaptations and create his own masterpiece version of this elusive story? Would daring to be different be enough?

Despite the sorry history, it is understandable why talented directors like Luhrmann keep coming back to Gatsby, and why studios keep giving the green light to rewrite the past. The damn book is commercial catnip. For starters, there’s the aphrodisiac of a built-in audience. The novel’s colossal popularity endures across generations of readers; my 13-year-old son and 17-year-old niece both read it in school this year and were blown away. She’s seeing the movie with a large group of classmates who’ll be costumed in cloche hats and tuxedos, channeling Jay Gatsby’s party crashers. Gatsby has become an event, something normally reserved for adaptations of books featuring wizards and vampires. Secondly, Fitzgerald threw casting directors a golden bone by rendering Gatsby and his posse as late-20 and early-30 year-olds, enabling a pageant of smooth-skinned bankable talent to credibly portray the principals. No story-crushing rewrite cutting the protagonist’s age in half and doubling his fortune is necessary. Lastly, the exoskeletal collision of unstoppable ambition and unattainable love driving the plot between Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan is accessible melodrama: Poor boy with big dreams reinvents himself to win beautiful rich girl; climbs to the summit of wealth; hosts dazzling celebration for an instant; fails to win girl; takes the rap for her; dies alone, still believing in her virtue. Producers lunching at the Polo Lounge smell that perfume of tangibles as box office. Based on such a reading of the text, why wouldn’t Hollywood continue to cast its lot with a swanky bunch of hedonists from the Jazz Age?

What these surface baubles obscure, however, are the novel’s deeper incompatibility with the needs of a movie, the impediments that still-birthed the earlier films but that Luhrmann has creatively tried to dodge.

Like a thoroughbred, the novel gallops around a short track of three fleeting summer months in 154 pages, surprisingly slight dimensions for a literary classic and a skimpy meal for a screenwriter. Imagine the pressure of having Scott Fitzgerald over your shoulder and discovering he’s given you little to work with. As Coppola was horrified to learn when he holed up in a Paris hotel room with the book and a deadline, there’s almost no dialogue between Gatsby and Daisy. It would be easier to adapt the Sunday Times.

Then, there’s the biggest challenge of them all—the novel’s language. The story is most fully realized in Nick Carraway’s gossamer narration: “For a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” It is as if God had a typewriter. But externalizing Nick’s poetic narration as movie dialogue, instead of leaving it as momentum-stopping voiceover, would sound preposterous coming out of even Jeremy Irons’ mouth. Gatsby obsessives like me, who reread the novel at the start of every summer, consider it sacred text, and will always prefer the master’s lyricism. (Hunter Thompson typed several complete drafts of the manuscript in his lifetime, seeking osmosis.) We may have been enchanted by Gatz, the Elevator Repair Service’s 2010 seven-hour theatrical recreation of the novel, and amused by Andy Kaufman’s stand-up reading gag of the text in the 1970s, but those entireties don’t help a film director. If the literal is the enemy of creative, then literature is the enemy of film, especially in a work as literary as Gatsby. We readers will never be pleased, so Baz Luhrmann can’t worry about us. He has to do something completely unorthodox. It may be impossible to cinematize Fitzgerald, but dramatizing his vision would do.

In the months and years leading up to its release, a cyclone of sights and sounds have signaled Luhrmann’s latest Gatsby, a party that has eluded the other pedestrian hunts. Like a war drum, this film is loud and proud. The previous filmmakers paid no attention to the flim-flam of the title’s “Great,” as if it was a cry barked by a sideshow carny, but Luhrmann’s cacophony introduces at long last a director opening the tent flaps on that neglected part of the amusements. Watching scenes that make Las Vegas casino commercials seem tame, you have to admire the guy’s nerve. For this project, it’s an essential trait.

Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce aren’t cowed by reverence to the original, and they invent a narrative framing device to liberate the exhilarating prose from the page –sort of. Structurally, they have Nick tell the story’s events from the remove of a Midwestern sanatorium where he has been committed for “morbid alcoholism,” and is encouraged by a cocksure psychiatrist to write about the escapades back East that shattered him. Luhrmann and Pearce conveniently drop into an earlier scene the detail that Nick “always planned to be a novelist” while at Yale, and introduce him as Fitzgerald’s stand-in. It’s a canny choice. They wink at Fitzgerald worshipers primed to hate any textual liberties. The sanatorium is a shrewd fealty to the author’s biography: Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda was institutionalized, and he himself suffered from debilitating alcoholism. The sanatorium is named “Perkins,” invoking the surname of Fitzgerald’s legendary editor at Scribner’s, Max Perkins.

Nick’s writing process allows him to voiceover the vaunted original prose more organically. (Though not more naturally in Tobey Maguire’s leaden, methodical delivery.) The fabled lines fly from his Underwood typewriter’s keys as graphics across the movie screen, a consummation between the book and the film. It’s a gimmick, and this isn’t the first movie to use it, but the invention honors the fact that there is a great novel at the heart of this hard-working but uneven film. For a production that’s been criticized for turning Jay G. into Jay-Z (the rapper provides the soundtrack), it’s a sweet and unexpected testament to Fitzgerald’s talent. As a means of fixing the fundamental problem of adapting Gatsby, the conceit does a serviceable job of correcting a deficit. And, frankly, it is less clunky than the sanatorium-set exposition of Joseph Cotton’s character in Citizen Kane, that other iconic story of an American small-town boy’s single-minded social climb that’s derailed by possessive love for the wrong woman. (Citizen Kane is sometimes offered as a more successful filmic telling of the Gatsby story—a notion that may have influenced Luhrmann and Pearce’s writing.) At the movie’s end, when Nick finishes typing the manuscript of a novel titled The Great Gatsby, his transformation to Fitzgerald is complete.

It sounds absurd to say this about a $100 million-plus production, but the movie benefits from cost cutting in a way that also depicts a central intent of the novel. Economic necessity dictated building a Gatsby theme park on Australian back lots rather than using New York (and Rhode Island) locations, as the earlier films did. Conceptually, creating a fantasy world unto itself is a more dynamic and immersive approach to the book. Luhrmann has said that the first draft of the script was written in the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, whose Flatiron-district view summoned 1920’s New York. Fortunately, he left the city soon after. Fitzgerald carefully concocted the fictional Long Island Sound enclaves of West Egg and East Egg to serve as visual articulations of Gatsby’s endgame. They shouldn’t be recognizable landmarks on a New York map, but postcards in the protagonist’s moony head, the way that the Emerald City is for Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. In the novel, Nick describes Gatsby’s mansion as “a factual imitation of some Hotel De Ville in Normandy,” and Catherine Martin’s scenic wonderland is a portal to Gatsby’s facsimile point of view. The garish and effects-generated architectural excesses convey the illusions that infuse Gatsby’s monomaniacal determination, and are keys to understanding his baffling myopia. Luhrmann’s and Martin’s visual interpretation is the film’s best case of cultivating the cinematic seeds Fitzgerald inadvertently planted. Here, the filmmakers have stunningly defeated the past, and succeed at making the production their own.

Unfortunately, the same triumph isn’t achieved in the principal characters. For an actor, the chief obstacle against making Gatsby great on film is Gatsby himself. As in the book, Jay Gatsby is a two-dimensional self creation that Luhrmann instead shows us in 3-D to no substantial storytelling benefit. Gatsby is a cipher, armoring himself with blinding distractions to deflect intrusions into his real past and protect the charade of his creation myth. In the novel, the contours of his life and the demons burning his soul are filled in by others. Luhrmann and Pearce overcompensate by writing speech after speech of confessional exposition for Gatsby which, rather than making him less of an enigma, cause him to sound like a lovesick adolescent at camp keeping his bunkmates awake. Unlike the winning set direction, this clumsy expositional expansion from the novel is so literal that it suffocates rather than breathes life into the character. In the novel’s devastating conclusion, when we learn and empathize with James Gatz’s authentic identity, he becomes fuller than a man in absentia. Tragically, he’s gone by then. Faced with the prospect of a husk of a man carrying a 143-minute film, the screenwriters alter the sequence, so that Gatsby’s secret is revealed much earlier. But the information doesn’t bring us any closer to identification. If we are to believe, as Nick does, that “Gatsby turned out alright in the end,” we have to see it and feel it. What is an actor to do?

I was hopeful that the disarming Leonardo DiCaprio could pull it off, revealing the DNA inside the disappearing act unlike the aloof Redford. He’d done it before, investing the slippery Frank Abignail, Jr. with pathos and an evolutionary arc in Catch Me If You Can. DiCaprio’s feline face now looks a little older than Gatsby’s’ announced age of 32, and though he’s drawn with Gatsby’s memorable features, there is too little demonstration of “one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life,” as Fitzgerald described him. DiCaprio spends much of the movie keeping Gatsby’s hot air balloon filled—very effectively when he orates to Nick the fabricated story of his life, taken verbatim from the novel and juxtaposed cleverly with pathologically reckless driving—but his magnetism seems to come solely from his vast reserve of expensive toys and not at all from the lessons of his home-schooled charm. Partly for this reason, the passion between Gatsby and Daisy is almost non-existent. Their relationship seems to be a plot contrivance that’s gotten out of hand. Aside from a noticeable lack of chemistry between DiCaprio and Carrie Mulligan, some of this is Fitzgerald’s fault.

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Fitzgerald was a romantic but not a sensualist, a limitation in his writing he acknowledged. The Romeo-and-Juliet steam has to heat up to a boil in order for the Gatsby romantic storyline to hold the rest of the probing journeys together. Fitzgerald has Gatsby’s and Daisy’s sexual intimacy happen off the page. That’s typical. In the entire Fitzgerald canon, Dick Diver’s “Do you mind if I pull down the curtain” to his mistress Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is The Night is about as graphic as it gets. Luhrmann mildly spices Fitzgerald’s prissiness, showing Gatsby and Daisy kissing, and includes a brief montage of bedroom shots, but in matters of the flesh he stays largely faithful to the decorum of the novel. It makes for an interesting contrast to the orgiastic bacchanal of Gatsby’s parties, paralleled in higher relief than in the novel, but it doesn’t provide the lovers with enough spark to reclaim each other.

These character flubs end on a particularly disappointing note. At the moment the gunman’s bullet is passing through Gatsby’s heart, Daisy, who has chosen to remain with Tom, attempts to telephone him. It’s an astonishing sentiment, and represents the screenwriters’ most Hollywood twist on the novel, the kind of concession that damages the relationship to the original story severely. It confuses the depravity of Daisy’s allegiance to Tom. The reversal is of the same caliber as Stella Kowalski leaving Stanley at the conclusion of the screenplay adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Among the other principals, Tom Buchanan is even more brutal and less emotionally developed than by Fitzgerald’s hand. Luhrmann uses Tom exclusively as a bully, and there is no sense of what could have ever brought he and Daisy together. Nor is there any of the finer definition that made them sharply “careless people.” Equally diminished is the treatment of Jordan Baker’s character. Contrary to the screenwriter’s lament of having to cover the novel’s holes, Luhrmann and Pearce reduce Jordan from a captivating ingénue to a seldom-heard-from message carrier. Her chatty affair with Nick, an appealing counterpoint in the novel to Gatsby’s and Daisy’s tortured silences, is absent from the film, making these character cutouts more cardboard than flesh.

It’s a shame, and an avoidable one. The book’s verdicts on the American myth are brought to life through the memorable studies of Gatsby, Daisy, Nick, Tom, Jordan, Myrtle Wilson, and even Meyer Wolfsheim, Jewish in the book, but incongruously portrayed in this film by the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, perhaps to combat any accusations of anti-Semitism. Luhrmann and Pearce prove unable or uninterested in discovering a method or the language to transmit those characters from the page to performance. For that reason, this Gatsby, despite its innovative attention to external details and successful story inventions, does not rise to the level of its parent.

It’s an unfair comparison, but central to audiences’ excitement about a new Gatsby film is the hope that it will measure up to a work of art that is “commensurate to [our] own capacity for wonder.”

In a word, that it will be great.