Does the 1974 film adaptation of ‘The Great Gatsby’ do justice to Fitzgerald’s novel?
I’m typing as I watch, because I’m fast coming to the conclusion that it’s a book that literally, you can translate from page to screen, but imaginatively it is difficult to capture. Nothing is what it seemed in my opinion, it all just seems a bit too arty and not real enough for a novel rooted in the tragic realities behind dreams and ambitions.
Daisy (Mia Farrow) and Jordan (Lois Chiles) are fairly apt for their roles – they are airy with a hint of purpose and drive behind them, although Daisy’s artificiality is sometimes a little too cheesy to bear. Myrtle (Karen Black) is my main female problem. I imagined this complete contrast to Daisy – feminine yes, but in a maternal rather than a fashionable way, attempting to reach fashion but falling short and ending up in the realms before that. Instead, Daisy’s would-be usurper is presented as over-enthusiastic maybe, but her presentation of her new dog to her guests fails to show her as maternal, and links to Daisy’s treatment of her own child. Similarly, Daisy’s near-tears episode when explaining she expects her daughter to be a ‘beautiful little fool’ makes her a little less uncaring than perhaps she should be – her focus is not supposed to be domestic, but social.
I have to say, Nick is fairly apt – Sam Waterston’s slightly nervy and charismatic narrator seems ideal to sit and observe on the fringes of fashionable society, never really involved and never really absent so as to maintain his credibility, but then he’s removed entirely during the additional scenes which loses that perspective and makes his role rather redundant.
Gatsby himself seems a bit too cocky and not at all unsure of himself, yet he’s supposed to be seeking something that is just beyond his reach – Robert Redford’s Gatsby doesn’t seem unsure of himself in a way that would prohibit him crossing the bay and just taking Daisy. His ownership reduces upon the renunion which suits him more: he becomes a nervous potential lover, as opposed to a man who has it all, but there’s just something lacking in the sincerity of this which makes it hard to see him as needing anything. Daisy even says, ‘You were never sentimental Jay’ – then why is this man pining after a dream and a green light?! Why wait eight years for a married woman when clearly you are rich enough to attract many hangers on and wannabe-Mrs-Gatsby’s? Something just doesn’t ring true.
Likewise, Tom (Bruce Dern) doesn’t reflect that word ‘hulking’ at all. He’s too polite, too well kept, and too damn quiet to be capable of breaking someone’s nose in public. ‘Hulking’ becomes mere sulking, pouting because he’s placed between two women he appears to care for – gone is the man who is possibly torn between his desires and his position.
Settings wise, it’s fairly accurate: Gatsby’s house is resplendent, and Nick’s house looks so petite and demure in the face of it that it’s clear why one man survives and another is ruined by equating each to a sense of humility. Daisy’s home shows how comfortable and secure her life has become, justifying her decision to maintain it. The Valley of Ashes is perhaps a bit more built up than I’d imagined and not quite as desolate, but then I might be being a bit silly with that one: it’s a garage that is surviving, if only barely, there has to be more than Tom making demands of it.
Then there’s the additional scenes: Daisy tells the story of the eve of her marriage, ruining her cool composed demeanour and turning her into the emotional woman that barely comes through in the book. She spells out a lot of things which ruin subtlety of the novel: ‘rich girls don’t marry poor boys Jay Gatsby’. Well thanks, it’s not as if that was the whole point of your marriage to Tom and your subsequent decision to keep him Miss Daisy. But then I think part of the problem here is my own perspective; having read the book, I know what’s to come, whereas director’s all over the world have to work on the assumption not everyone has read what their work is based on – you only have to look at the backtracking in the final ‘Harry Potter’ to see that. So maybe some things, like the affairs, need pointing out, otherwise they would be lost: it’s a fine line to tread. I’m not sure it would be entirely obvious that Gatsby lives a dubious existence without Tom pointing out he might be in the bootlegging business, so maybe these additions are necessary and I’m just nitpicking.
Thinking of the additions, the scene with Daisy and Gatsby dancing, recreating their courtship, is perhaps my favourite added section. It prepares us for the heartbreak behind those haunting words, ‘you can’t repeat the past’, and how the world they are existing in is only made of memories and the ‘foul dust’ floating in the wake of Gatsby’s dreams.
What strikes me as the most accurate thing in this film is George Wilson (Scott Wilson) – the pale blue watery eyes that seem ghostly, his desperation to continue life in the pursuit of happiness and love, his devastation and subsequent decline after Myrtle’s tragic fate…They all combine to show a man affected by the age he lives in: an age that values the exterior over the interior, where his wife can’t love his simplicity of heart because she thinks the world has so much more to offer. Their argument before the accident is well-placed to show his mental destruction. I think he’s the only character I feel for, which perhaps works to the credit of the whole film: he’s the only character who allows himself to feel naturally, instead of controlling his life by social appearances.
…After watching this film, I’m interested to see how the latest adaptation, courtesy of Baz Luhrman, will turn out: is ‘Gatsby’ something that can be made into a satisfying film, or will something always be lost in translation? It’s difficult to say, but I wait with baited breath to see whether dreams become reality or if they’re shattered once more.