I finally read The Great Gatsby for the first time this year. We didn’t read any F. Scott Fitzgerald in high school. Our teachers were more concerned that we be educated on Charles Dickens (related: I hate Charles Dickens’ novels). But in my quest to read all The Books One Ought to Have Read, I finally got around to it a few weeks ago.
In case you haven’t read it, The Great Gatsby is set in 1922. A young man named Nick Carroway is swept up in the affairs of the fabulously rich thanks to his cousin Daisy & her mysterious connection to his enigmatic neighbor Jay Gatsby.
It’s a beautifully written little book (only 159 pages in the edition I have), so I was able to breeze right through it. But I can’t say I really enjoyed it. Just like with This Side of Paradise, I kept thinking, “How can such stunning writing be leaving me so bored?” I basically wanted to just slap both Gatsby & Daisy & then tell Nick to stop being such a pushover. Yes, I do realize that Nick is the vehicle through which Fitzgerald tells the story, & he didn’t want his narrator interfering too much, but I don’t see why that means he had to be completely devoid of personality.
In fact, my primary emotional involvement in the story was how sorry I felt for that poor puppy being trapped in that apartment with those people.
I’m probably just too plebeian to understand the genius of Fitzgerald. Or something like that.
But then I had a thought: just because I didn’t care for the story on the page doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like it as a movie. There have been 4 film adaptations of The Great Gatsby, & because I don’t do things half-way, I decided to watch all 4 of them to see which was the best.
Warning: Spoilers follow for The Great Gatsby.
1926: The Great Gatsby
Director: Herbert Brenon
Starring: Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton
This silent adaptation was released just one year after The Great Gatsby was published; reportedly F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald hated it so much that they walked out in the middle of the showing. Tragically the only footage of the film left in existence is the trailer, which you can view here.
1949: The Great Gatsby
Director: Elliott Nugent
Starring: Alan Ladd, Betty Field, Macdonald Carey
Running time: 91 minutes
I really liked this one, but that’s chiefly because I adore movies from this era. This adaptation took the most liberty with the story, focusing more on Gatsby’s criminal activity to give it a film noir feel. It also ends with Nick & Jordan married, which makes me believe the studio demanded a happy ending from a story that was never meant to have one.
In addition, through watching 4 versions of The Great Gatsby, I’ve come to the conclusion that Daisy is just a ridiculous character — self-centered, childish, yet she’s supposed to be desirable or we lose touch with the whole story. This is a very difficult balancing act; in fact, there don’t appear to be any actresses who can really pull it off, but the style of speaking in the movies of this time period somehow made it easier to forgive Daisy her obnoxiousness.
1974: The Great Gatsby
Director: Jack Clayton
Starring: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern
Running time: 149 minutes
I thought this version was going to kill me. I really, truly did. At 149 minutes, it’s the longest one, & I felt every mind-numbing minute.
This adaptation stays true to the book for the first half; in fact, the dialogue is almost verbatim what’s in the novel. It’s when the second half hits that they started adding scenes, trying to build more substance & history into Gatsby & Daisy’s relationship than is in the book. But it’s here where the already boring film just completely falls apart.
At one point, there’s a scene where Gatsby & Daisy are by the pool. Gatsby’s already quit throwing his parties, so I figured the fateful trip to the city would come soon, & then the movie would wrap up. Nope, I paused the film to see how long was left, & THERE WAS STILL OVER AN HOUR.
The main problem (on a long, long list of problems) with this adaptation is Mia Farrow. I don’t know if it was her idea or if she was instructed to do this, but 29 year-old Farrow played hard on Daisy’s childishness, whining & pouting & talking like a little girl. The whole thing is just completely silly. This film is notorious for the utter lack of chemistry between its two leads, & I’m thinking Robert Redford isn’t the one to blame.
2000: The Great Gatsby
Director: Robert Markowitz
Starring: Mira Sorvino, Toby Stephens, Paul Rudd
Running time: 90 minutes
This one was…fine. No major praise, no major complaints. This version starts with Gatsby getting shot in his pool, then goes back & tells the events leading up to it. Like the 1974 adaptation, this one also takes the liberty of adding a few scenes here & there to pad Gatsby & Daisy’s relationship, but it’s not nearly so painful.
I do have one minor complaint, however: this one pulls its punches when it comes to Daisy. While the book leaves a wonderful vagueness surrounding Myrtle’s death, this film makes it very clear that Daisy didn’t mean to run over her husband’s mistress. Then at the end when Nick calls Daisy to tell her of Gatsby’s death, Tom instructs the butler to say they’re not at home, then pulls Daisy away. Granted, Daisy didn’t contradict Tom, but it gives you the impression that she’s really a great person, & all the wrong things she’s done are basically Tom’s fault. That’s simply not the case, & it cheapens the point of the whole novel.
2013: The Great Gatsby
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Running time: 142 minutes
Owing simply to the fact that it’s the newest, this version was by far the easiest to watch, & after the 1974 disaster, I fully appreciate modern standards of pacing. This is the one that also came the closest to how I imagined Gatsby’s parties: as over-the-top champagne circuses alive with gold & glitter & girls. Is it how an actual party in 1922 would have looked? No. Do I care? Also no.
This adaptation also had my favorite Nick Carroway. Tobey Maguire is the first one in all 4 films to portray Nick as a naive, I’m-just-happy-to-be-here, good guy vs the bland wallflowers of the other versions whose main purpose is to listen to exposition. It’s a welcome change.
One last point I want to make about this version is that it adds training wheels, so to speak. It takes the time to spell out the meaning of several themes in The Great Gatsby, as well as explain more ambiguous moments, like the scene where Daisy cries over Gatsby’s shirts. But it fits well within the film & isn’t ever a distraction.
If pressed, I’d say the 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby is the best, but the truth is that none of them are really that great. Which begs the question why. Why is it so hard to make a satisfying film adaptation of The Great Gatsby?
Part of it is the impossibility of Daisy’s character. Part of it is the amount of the book that takes place in Nick’s head. And part of it is that the prose in the novel is just not dialogue-friendly. For example, both the 1974 version & the 2000 version start with narration straight from the book’s opening words:
In my younger & more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages you’ve had.”
Whatever else you might think of those lines, you have to admit they’re a mouthful. Even knowing the words, I found myself going, “Wait, what’d he say?”
So then what’s the problem? I’m sure these films won’t be the last time Hollywood has a go at this pillar of the Great American Novel. Will we eventually get a compelling movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby or should everyone stick to the book from here on out? Or could it be that the novel…I hesitate to even say it…is over-rated (gasp!)?
What do you think?
*All movie stills intended for editorial use only.
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