Sometimes, novels that are American classics have been transformed into motion pictures that are American classics. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and FIELD OF DREAMS (based on Ray Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe) are a few that come to mind. Some-- ALL THE KING’S MEN, for example-- have been the source for films that deserve all the acclaim they earn and remakes that are, in a word, execrable.
But one novel, which arguably is the greatest American novel of the 20th century, has confounded filmmakers over and over. That novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY, which to date has been filmed multiple times. The latest version, in fact, has just come to theaters. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, it has been receiving some very mixed reviews.
To be sure, this GREAT GATSBY is great-looking. Its opulence reflects the visual style of its director, Baz Luhrmann, but content-wise it lacks the depth and spirit of its source material. In this regard, it matches up with the three previous “Gatsby” screen versions, which date from 1927, 1949, and 1974, and the made-for-television version that appeared in 2000. None of these films were well-reviewed. None were lauded by audiences. None earned accolades of any kind. The 1974 “Gatsby” in particular, which starred Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, was much-anticipated in its day. Prior to its release, it was hyped to the nines and this was unfortunate, given its all-too-obvious flaws, which only begin with an overall blandness that made the film instantly forgettable.
So the question of the moment is: Why is THE GREAT GATSBY apparently so uncinematic? I read the book a number of years ago and refreshed my memory of it with a quick look through, and my sense is that the problem-- if you want to call it a problem-- lies in the source material. THE GREAT GATSBY is, simply put, a story that is more about thought than action. The novel is cerebral. It works so well because of its shading, and the manner in which Fitzgerald uses words to make his characters come alive for the reader.
Indeed, Fitzgerald does not need an overabundance of words to get across his points, to create a picture in the readers’ mind of what is happening, what his characters are like and how they fit into their era and their environment. This allows the reader to employ his or her imagination to conjure up the various characters and their relationships. This, in my view, is an essential of great writing and a key to what makes THE GREAT GATSBY not only a great novel but a representation of 1920s America, the era in which it is set.
What this all comes down to is that THE GREAT GATSBY is not a novel that can be effectively visualized. Filmmakers from Herbert Brenon in 1927, Elliott Nugent in 1948, Jack Clayton in 1974, and Baz Luhrmann in 2013 have tried-- and failed-- to make a film which measures up to its source material. And I sense that it will take another quarter-century or so for another filmmaker to attempt to tackle F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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