By Eloise Carey
I was first introduced to The Great Gatsby amidst a chorus of groans in an English class – it was to be our GCSE set text. I quickly fell in love with the novel and Fitzgerald’s writing; from the enigmatic Jay Gatsby to stuffy Nick and Daisy, with her ‘voice like money’. How can you portray a voice like that on screen? Even Carey Mulligan would butcher the tones that the novel paints in a reader’s mind. The Great Gatsby should never have been made into a film, or at least not under the same name. It came out the day before the final exam and I’m sure the examiners were dismayed to find detailed descriptions of Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy depiction, which was brazen enough to cut and paste quotes from the novel, and even went so far as to attribute them to different scenes and different characters.
Admittedly, film is an effective medium through which to widen the scope of a novel. No matter how many people will read the book, more will watch its film adaptation. Cinema, after all, is arguably the 21st century’s most dominant art form. However, it is telling that The Great Gatsby has not one cinematic version, but five – perhaps indicating the impossibility of transforming a novel almost entirely based within the characters’ own heads?
The first film adaptation is all but lost. It was a silent movie directed by Herbert Brenon and released in 1926. Alan Ladd’s admirable 1949 portrayal came next, directed by Elliot Nugent, depicting Gatsby as a detached, mild-mannered aristocrat, with the occasional glimpse of the confident gangster hidden beneath the surface. The most well-known adaptation is Robert Redford’s 1974 portrayal, directed by Jack Clayton, a film which ‘could send even the most blindly optimistic among us scrambling for the stop button’ (Matt Sadler). In 2000, a quieter adaptation was directed by Robert Markowitz, a collaborative effort between A&E in the US and Granada Productions. This lesser-known version has been applauded for its depth and quality. In contrast, the most recent and gregarious of them all, Luhrmann’s 2013 banger, featured a host of stars not only on screen but also within the soundtrack. It was available in 3D and Matt Sadler described how it left ‘no aesthetic stone unturned.’ This particular version of the film made me despair for the haunting sadness of the book; almost all the nuance was lost in an obnoxious wave of sound and colour. It depicted the gaudy chaos of the American Dream perfectly, but denied a glimpse of the lost ones underneath it, which the novel is concerned with. An absolute spectacle, yet would Fitzgerald have recognised his own work?
It is an insult to the depth and complexity of Fitzgerald’s writing to constrain it on a screen. The pictures the author paints are all the more vivid for being internal; no amount of upping the contrast in editing could make a movie reach that level of imaginative intoxication. However, in an age where reading is going out of fashion, it is important to communicate the stories of great authors through any medium. I applaud those five brave directors for trying.
Photograph: Alan Trotter via Flickr