The Adaptation Effect: The Great Gatsby

A still of the cast from Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby

I cannot remember where I was or whom I was with when I found out that Australian film director Baz Luhrmann was releasing a modern interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but I certainly remember how I felt. I was excited of course, but I couldn’t ignore that creeping feeling of nervousness. My mind was instantly drawn back to an English lesson in which my class watched the novel’s most recognised film adaptation, a 1974 production starring Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan and Robert Redford as the title man himself. I was eager to see my visions of the glittering, roaring twenties come to life, and curious to see actors take on a set of characters that, after months of studying, seemed strangely like old friends to me.

Needless to say, I was disappointed. The supposedly intimidating Tom Buchanan held no command with his slim frame and silly moustache, and his mistress Myrtle wasn’t provocative or smouldering—in fact, I found her a little creepy. Nothing was quite right, and it is remembering this now, months later, that stirs my anxiety. I have no pre-existing doubts in Luhrmann’s capability as a director (he’s already been brave enough to tackle Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in 1996), and I am excited by the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and the sweet-faced Carey Mulligan as his life-long pursuit, Daisy; however, I am simply worried that once again, the filmmaker’s interpretation will turn out to be a world away from mine. Although the film’s release has now been delayed till next summer, the rest of 2012 is set to be full of other adaptation offerings, including the classics Anna Karenina and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations; as such, I’d like to consider if it’s ever possible to be truly content when a film attempts to portray your favourite novel.

As with any good book, long after I had turned the last page of Gatsby, I found myself still reflecting on it’s message. I pondered the moral ambiguities of everyone from the Buchanans to the lowly mechanic Wilson, contemplating their actions, motives and whether or not—and how much—they were driven by their haunting pasts. It then becomes questionable as to how a cinema-goer who hasn’t read the text could grasp a sufficient understanding of a character in 90 minutes when I, who have read it numerous times, still couldn’t over a suspended period of my life. The author Lionel Shriver, whose novel We Need To Talk About Kevin was adapted into a film last year, noticed the slight loss of complexity in her characters on screen. She’s explained the subsequent need for directors to “telescope” literary movies as the standard two hours isn’t enough to depict various intricacies. That’s the thing about reading, it gives you time—unlimited hours and days—to observe and reflect on any fictional figure and setting that’s thrown at you.

In wanting a author’s work to truly be done justice, many of us hope that a director will recognise the importance of a novel’s words and language, which is what essentially makes it so special to us as readers. Sitting through film adaptations we spend most of our time listening out for those well loved quotes and memorable passages, the parts that get you turning back to the book time after time. It deeply unsettles me to even think of a Gatsby adaptation that doesn’t mention the “foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams”. Yet, as it is unrealistic to expect that a book’s dialogue will be scripted exactly in its adaptation, there will undeniably be debate in what parts are “unworthy” enough to be eliminated. The chapters which you may find the most enchanting or gripping may to a director not translate as well on screen; and when the words that make up the movie may be manipulated, where do the changes stop? New scenes, plot threads and even completely different endings can be written into film adaptations of books to draw in a larger audience. More sex, more violence and more tragedy can up the numbers at the box office, and it’s hard to resent this success. Possibly, thousands of people who previously couldn’t face turning the pages of a book can now access it in a quick and easy way. No matter how it occurs, the thought of more people appreciating and being inspired by Fitzgerald cheers me to no end.

“Wedding cake ceilings”, “silver pepper stars” and the other romantic images Fitzgerald conjured up were what I immediately found charming about his writing, and the medium of film opens up a number of possibilities as to how to portray them. High definition and 3D can bring a vibrancy and realism to the visuals of your favourite story that had previously only existed in the hazy parts of your imagination. Even an effective musical score and soundtrack can bring atmosphere to the most uneventful scenes and make the meaningful ones even more poignant. Undeniably, there’s a slight chance that seeing your favourite book on the big screen will be more engaging and exciting than reading it alone in bed in the dead of night.

Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway in the 1974 production

While film may add to the visual experience of our favourite stories, however, some wonderful, intangible elements of literature just cant be physically portrayed. When Walter Salle’s adaption of On the Road screened at Cannes earlier this year, some critics commented that they felt the film was missing Kerouac’s spirited voice, a key element in making the adventure story so influential. Similarly for me, Nick Carraway’s narrative tone is a huge part of what makes Gatsby so great. No matter how unreliable his memories are deemed to be, my ideas of each character and event are inevitably shaped by his; we see Gatsby’s world through his eyes. But when we sit in a cinema as spectators, we are forced to observe everything from the outside; without seeing things through Carraway’s perspective, could my existing interpretations change? Of course, it can be uncomfortable seeing characters you thought you knew so well in a new light, but it’s definitely not a bad thing. A director’s take on an author’s creation could open you up to a whole new side of a character, a side that you may not have considered even after numerous readings or studies of the novel.

Inevitably, whether we are satisfied with the outcomes of adaptations or not, they encourage discussion, which is what literature has always aimed to do. I actually think that when it comes to seeing our most beloved books turn to film, we’re all in many ways a little like Jay Gatsby: searching for the ideal and desperately wishing that when we find it, it will be everything we always hoped it would be.

Natasha Levy

About N/A N/A

Natasha Levy is a 19-year-old student currently studying at Brunel University for a degree in English literature. She has recently interned for other magazines including Notion and ShortList, and hopes one day to become an arts and culture writer. She loves Italy, obsessing over a great book, and a good milky cup of tea.

Natasha Levy is a 19-year-old student currently studying at Brunel University for a degree in English literature. She has recently interned for other magazines including Notion and ShortList, and hopes one day to become an arts and culture writer. She loves Italy, obsessing over a great book, and a good milky cup of tea.

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