All good book readers that I know feel a certain degree of dread, if not a sense of righteous indignation when they discover a book they have read and adored is being made into a movie. Yes, there may be a spark of excitement followed by a small glimmer of hope that somehow it will remain true to the source material, but in my experience that is usually followed shortly thereafter by frustration and disappointment when the film falls short. Which is why when I discovered that The Great Gatsby was making it to the big screen, I was simultaneously intrigued and annoyed. That intrigue swiftly disappeared when I saw the preview, which to me greatly resembled some of the 21st century bars I had come across in Buffalo.
I disavowed my claim to never watch it (even though Leonardo Decaprio was cast in the role of Jay) one night in a bout of insomnia and begrudgingly pressed play, planning to scrutinize every detail. The book is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve read it pushing a dozen times, so I set my expectations low.
The short of it? I was impressed. Very, very impressed. Here’s why:
There wasn’t a single actor (spare Elizabeth Dibicki as Jordan Baker) who somehow tarnished how I had imagined these characters in the books. They may have even heightened my sense of them to some degree, namely Carey Mulligan and Leonardo DiCaprio as Daisy and Jay, respectively.
Mulligan, in my opinion, perfectly captured my interpretation of Daisy — a selfish, yet strangely sympathetic woman who is willfully ignorant yet simultaneously and oddly aware of how pathetic her situation truly is. (“The best thing a girl can be in this world is a beautiful fool.”) The most important person to Daisy is, ultimately, Daisy, yet as both readers and viewers, we can’t help but pity her as we hate her. I always struggle with whether Daisy is purposefully manipulative, childishly naive, or just a weak, sorry product of her environment, and my conclusion is always the same: she is somehow all three. She was so on the screen as well. Even though I was painfully aware of the story’s turnout, I found myself rooting for her romance with Jay, sympathizing her situation as a rather helpless woman in a suppressive society and emotionally abusive marriage, but in the end finding her to be as selfish and self-serving as I had in my first reading of Fitzgerald’s work. It would have been easy to make Daisy a flippant, one dimensional character in the film, but she was anything but.
Likewise, with Leo’s performance. I had no doubt that DiCaprio would be able to portray Gatsby’s charm, class, and mystery on the screen. Even more than that, however, he flawlessly exhibited Jay’s weaknesses — characteristics that Fitzgerald subtly allows for his readers to gather for themselves (and most do). My interpretation of Jay is not that he is a fraud or a cheat, but that he is a man who is incapable of living in anything of the past. And because of this, not only is he unable to abandon the idea of Daisy, but he is entirely powerless to the demons that are his former inadequacies. His past rejection by Daisy wasn’t merely a rejection of love, but a rejection of belonging in general and more specifically, to that societal circle. He is unable to dismiss the boy who didn’t measure up, because in his mind he is still that boy. Nothing demonstrates this more than the climactic confrontation scene where Daisy and Jay’s affair is finally addressed and Gatsby’s unraveling is gravely palpable. It is one of my all-time favorite literary scenes and I have to say that it was jarring to see on film. DiCaprio’s display of Gatsby’s demise perfectly portrayed what many reader’s have imagined for themselves in the book: Jay’s inability to maintain his composure when he has so much at stake, not only results in him losing Daisy (both her respect and affection), but reduces him to what he has dedicated his life aiming to redefine. The book is, after all, both a love story and a social commentary and it thrilled and impressed me that the screenwriters allowed it to be both for viewers.
“He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third. After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an over-wound clock.”
“The truth was that Jay Gatsby, of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God—a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that—and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen year old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end.”
As for the other characters, I was less impressed, but satisfied nonetheless. While I personally don’t care for Tobey McGuire as an actor, I found he fit the role of Nick Carroway well — Nick is, afterall, passive, a spectator, and only truly dynamic in his reflection on events of the past. Joel Egerton allowed himself to be as distasteful and vile as I have always considered Tom to be in the source material, yet still was able to evoke slight sympathy from me at the death of Myrtle. Overall, I felt as though the cast was carefully considered and it certainly paid off in my mind.
The script/loyalty to source material
The other main reason why I so thoroughly enjoyed and respected the film adaptation was the care it took with Fitzgerald’s original work. I am almost certain that many who watched the movie did so because of the hype surrounding it’s release (and the cast) or because they had read it once or twice in high school. I am just as certain that many of those who watched the movie did so because they were as much of an enthusiast of the book as I am. Anyone’s reason for going is fine, of course, but I repeatedly caught the subtle nods that seemed to be aimed directly to those who treasured The Great Gatsby and needed the glory of the literature to somehow be maintained on screen. From the dusty drive between East and West egg, to Jay’s impromptu mowing of Nick’s yard, to poor Myrtle’s left breast becoming entirely detached as she is struck by Jay’s car, and finally to that ever blinking green light — it was all there. And it was there in a way so understated that it would only be truly perceived by those who had read the book more than once. The film makers even left us the gift of having its cover staring at us from billboards.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Likewise, the script was scattered with a tremendous amount of lines taken verbatim from book. (Just to be sure, I watched it a second time the next morning with my book in hand.) It would have been easy enough to throw plenty of “old sports” and assume that a majority would recognize it as Gatsby’s most frequently used turn of phrase, but the filmmakers, I felt, respected the classic and treated it as such. And thus, they did not stray far from either the original plot line or embellish much with the script. Much of the dialogue was taken straight from the book, right down to Daisy’s observation of all the “beautiful shirts”. All of my favorite scenes were there and done beautifully — both from a cinematic and a writing standpoint.
I would be remiss in my review if I didn’t mention that it wasn’t perfect. There were two ways the film did diverge from Fitzgerald’s work. Firstly, Nick tells his story to his psychiatrist after he has been institutionalized for alcoholism, from what I gathered. At first this severely bothered me and I still don’t love the approach, but I can understand and justify its need due to the fact that the Fitzgerald has Nick reflect back on his time Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, and the rest at a distance of years. It also isn’t much of a stress to believe that Nick may have at some point sought counsel for the drinking habit he acquired during the months he spent with his friends.
The second thing that slightly bothered me was the extravagance of Gatbsy’s home. It wasn’t the extravagance itself that was the issue, for it was clear that extravagance was Gatsby’s way, but how it was portrayed. I don’t remember reading of disco balls and confetti and I could of done without it. Those details seemed inappropriate for the time. However, I imagine that it was the film makers’ attempt to leave the viewers as in awe as Gatsby always left his guests. And for that reason, considering how successful I found the film to be other wise, I can forgive it.
Overall, I think this may be one of my favorite book-to-film adaptations to date. I know, however, that my feeling is not shared by all. (Co-worker and friend, Chris Fanning, had little good to say about it.) Maybe it was my low expectations, maybe it the fact that I adore any and all things from the Roaring 20s (specifically the literature), or maybe it was just that I couldn’t sleep and this filled my time one particular late-night. Whatever the case may be, I give a big “Cheers” to the entire thing.