Adaptations Part 2: The Great Catastrophe of Adapting Gatsby

Paris in the twenties, it can offer plenty,
To a young man with a vision, so they say.
With a friend named, Fitzgerald,
I was headed for the old world,
On a merchant steamer bound for Biscay Bay.

From Mickey Newbury’s ‘Heaven Help the Child’ (1973)

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I remember first absorbing myself in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic when taking the commuter train to Dublin’s Fair City some time in the last decade. The reading experience was one that will always stay with me – in my mind I crossed from West Egg into the ‘Valley of Ashes’ sitting alongside Nick Carraway in Tom Buchanan’s car whilst simultaneously, in real life, crossing over the river Shannon on the outskirts of Carrick town and heading for the big smoke. It remains a remarkable novel for me, mainly because it set an extent to a certain place (partly made-up, partly real) and had a series of believable, flawed characters who populated it. The mystery of Gatsby and his mansion never wavered even beyond the final pages and even though you could say that it was all a bit pretentious, it does not matter much to me simply because of the enjoyable experience I had when reading it.

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Fast forward to 2012 and as I am in a waiting room at a Western Australian health centre about to offer up some of my urine to a company who will process it for potential drug traces so that I can work on a mine site, I notice a report on the TV that states Baz Luhrmann, him of Strictly Ballroom fame, will be ‘taking on Gatsby’ in his next project by using green screens from a studio in Sydney. My reaction was one of an audible rebuke, much to the surprise of the nervous stranger who was seated beside me. When I finally got around to watching Baz’s shitshow a few years later, my rebuke only deepened and I vowed never to speak of it again. However, my intense disappointment over this adaptation is important for me to convey in this post as I think it belies the increasingly nonsensical nature that pervades modern cinema i.e. this mindless and reckless tendency for irreverently rebooting something that has already been done…and done well at that.

Of course there is always a wonder at the back of peoples’ brains that, after reading a greatly affecting novel, perhaps a film adaptation could be somewhat intriguing – we all do it. In many cases, I would venture that the results usually end up in pure disappointment (Dune, Norwegian Wood) but in some cases, I have found myself expressing appreciation towards the attempted adaptation (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings). Gatsby, I am glad to say, never gave me that wonder. This is likely due to the surreal and special feel to it – a particular time in history was being conveyed by Fitzgerald but I never felt convinced that this was any time in ‘our’ history and I didn’t need it to be ruined by another person’s wild interpretation of it. To this reader, and to countless other admirers, there was and is a timeless and untouchable classic here.

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But touch-all-over is what Hollywood appears to do ad nauseam these days – classic or no classic! Indeed, The Great Gatsby has been touched several times since it was published in 1925, not just by an exuberant Australian director in 2013, but right from the get-go at the time of its release. Film rights to the novel were instantly acquired by Paramount Pictures and in 1926, a silent production of Gatsby directed by Hector Brenon was released. The release was based on the Broadway stage play, itself based on the novel and directed by George Cukor, who would go on to be a pioneering director of early Hollywood blockbusters such as The Philadelphia Story and Gaslight. By all accounts, the film was not very good and did not explore the novel’s themes, rather focusing more on Gatsby’s elaborate parties and the ‘jazzamatazz’. I have never seen the film, as I would presume not many living people have – there are no surviving prints of the entire film according to public knowledge, only this trailer!

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In 1949, Gatsby was given the talkie treatment by Paramount (still with the rights under wraps) by the producer Richard Maibaum’s forceful hand. Alan Ladd, he of later Shane fame, took the role of Jay Gatsby, while Betty Field played Daisy Buchanan. There were many changes to personnel during the pre-production, including director Eliot Nugent who replaced John Farrow. This appears to have stemmed from a pervading sense of  post-war conservatism that was deepening in Hollywood at the time. See, Gatsby was not very popular after its release and neither was Fitzgerald. The idea of a ‘Jazz Age’ was not one that sat very well with the Christian religious types (incidentally, in Ireland at the time, priests were asking the Government to ban all Jazz, or ‘negro music’ as it was referred to, from all dance halls and bars – listen here). There were many actors initially involved in the film who were less than comfortable with the content of the novel and so walked away when Maibaum laid out his vision, which he had wanted to stay true to Fitzgerald’s writing. The censors got their morality-stressing claws into the production too by insisting that a biblical quote be shown at the beginning of the film. Apparently this was the only way it could have been released. Although Maibaum claimed that the film sparked a revival of interest in Fitzgerald’s writing, it is clear that this film adaptation of the novel is poorly acted and held back by a conservative and moralistic agenda despite the best intentions of its producers.

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In 1974, Gatsby was adapted again by Paramount – Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Jack Clayton as director and Francis Ford Coppola as screenwriter. This was a successful and fairly well-received release but I cannot say it should have been all that. Even though this was the heady days of US film-making and many of the influential emblems from the American New Wave were involved, such as Coppola, Redford, producer Bob Evans and actors Bruce Dern, Karen Black and Sam Waterston (Truman Capote was the original screenwriter and Jack Nicholson was indirectly involved in the casting process too), there was a distinctive stale, made-for-TV style to the end product. As many critics pointed out, there is a severe lack of life to the film and it just did not capture anything that was special about the novel. It appropriated as much as it could from the setting but the performances and dialogue were unnatural and forced. Coppola claims that the nuances of his screenplay were ignored by the director, but he would say that. After watching it, I had assumed that clear evidence had now been accomplished by Hollywood indicating that an appropriate film interpretation of Gatsby was just not achievable. But did Luhrmann listen to me?

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No, he did not, the ignorant fool!

In fairness to Baz Luhrmann, he has achieved great success in his work and I shan’t deny him that. But you watch his adaptation of The Great Gatsby and then you read about how critics loved it, it’s Oscar triumphs and it’s astounding financial windfalls (it has currently earned US$350 million!), I can only but despair. This thing they called a ‘film’, I would actually call an abomination. It is an absolute butchering of a timeless classic. It is offensive, trashy, gregarious, brash, completely over the top, in your face and dumb. I know that some of Fitzgerald’s estate praised the film upon its release but this means nothing to me. Firstly, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald is dead and has no existing opinion about it and secondly, I myself have zero praise for it so let’s put a full stop there….well, maybe after a few more paragraphs, if you will permit?

The issue really stems from the fact that Luhrmann never had any caution to throw to the wind to begin with. He is clearly a confident and flair-driven director , evidenced in his modern re-telling of Romeo + Juliet (1996), his rampant musical Moulin Rouge! (2001) and his farcical ‘historical’ drama Australia (2008). His raison d’etre appears to be taking other stories and ripping them up for good or worse.  You can admire him for that, sure. It’s bloody different, is it not? But for me it steps over a line when it involves one of my favourite pieces of literature.

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Let’s start with the casting of Tobey Maguire – the most mundane actor ever to have a lucrative career in Hollywood. Like an unfortunate, wide-eyed rabbit caught in the headlights, the poor fellow seems to be completely out of his depth at every corner (for the record, the character of Nick Carraway never came across like this in the novel so I don’t think you can blame this on a result of method acting). The narration he provides is awful – lifeless and spoken without any sense of authenticity. The acting of Carey Mulligan as Daisy is passable, while Di Caprio is not exactly memorable in the role of Gatsby. Everyone else is just filler as far as I could see. The extras and backgrounds are all part of a hardcore visual manufacturing, which completely overwhelms the film content at the expense of any truly good acting performances. The roles basically become redundant.

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I think it is a stretch that people would label Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby as an ‘adaptation’, when it is clearly a ‘re-imagining’. Luhrmann’s made-up world is one that has a complete non-reality at its heart. It is a world of his own warped imagination – think Terry Gilliam without the edge or grotesque. The flamboyance of sexuality that oozes in the background of every relentless scene, party after party, becomes pretty tasteless after a while – I am not meaning to be homophobic here, I just do not like that level of ostentation sprayed in my face space all the time (‘Gay! A Gay Musical‘ anyone?). Anyway, I did not pick up on any of this liberal flair in Fitzgerald’s writing in the first place so I can only imagine where Luhrmann got it from!

At the end of it all, the magic of The Great Gatsby is never captured here nor in any other  previous Hollywood attempt. Several other critics have expressed the same…but alas, US$350 million suggests that criticisms do not matter. Appropriate adaptations be damned.

One thought on “Adaptations Part 2: The Great Catastrophe of Adapting Gatsby

  1. Robin Stevens says:

    JJ,
    is ‘shitshow’ a technical term used by film critics? If not, it should be.

    I really wanted to like Luhrmann’s version, but I was bored. It was like having roast beef and Yorkshire pudding; without the pudding … or the beef. It was a veg and gravy slop, and the veg was over-cooked. High expectation; bitter disappointment.
    Robin

    Liked by 1 person

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