great gatsby

This is the seventh article in my 1920s Week series.

The Great Gatsby, the iconic 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is arguably the greatest literary testament of the 1920s. If you went to public high school in the United States at any time in the past 40 years you probably had to read it. It’s a very interesting book, thin on plot but heavy on atmosphere and hidden meaning. It tapped a vein of understanding, criticism and nostalgia–gestalt might be the best word for it–about the Jazz Age, which is extraordinary considering the era was not yet over when it was written. The book is the preeminent cultural depiction of upper-class American life in the 1920s.

Naturally, The Great Gatsby was an attractive property for a movie adaptation. In fact it was first made into a movie before the 1920s were even over, a silent adaptation, but we have no idea what that movie was like; all copies of it have been lost. Gatsby has been filmed five times, but the two most prominent makes of the film were the one in 1974, directed by Jack Clayton, and the recent 2013 version, directed by Baz Luhrmann, which I saw recently. In this article I’ll compare the two versions.

The 1974 version was a huge event in Hollywood when it was being made. Paramount got Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off his smashing success with the Godfather films, to write the script. Robert Redford, then Hollywood’s most bankable male star, was cast as Jay Gatsby. Could there be a more perfect example of casting? Gatsby, as written by Fitzgerald, is an airy playboy with few real convictions, an intellectual lightweight but yet who draws people around him with the gravity of his charm–and his money. His only real passion is his unrequited love for Daisy Buchanan, played in the 1970s version by Mia Farrow, then still in the pre-Woody Allen phase of her career. Ali McGraw was originally going to play Daisy but she left the project after she started dating Hollywood’s other bankable male star, Steve McQueen.

Despite the great casting, the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby is utterly painful. I mean, it’s almost unwatchable. It certainly adapts the plot pretty faithfully, and the main characters say what they need to say, attend the right parties and go through their spiel as you would expect. But plot is the least necessary element of The Great Gatsby, which as a novel was intended as a portrait of a time, place and culture, not really a story. The 1974 film plods along at the pace of a Wagnerian opera. Robert Redford is completely wasted as Gatsby. He has no charisma, no charm, and just comes off as a boring schmuck. Why would the rich residents of West Egg flock around this guy? As shown in the movie, even his parties are boring. Part of the problem with the movie was that they didn’t use Coppola’s screenplay (or so I read). I don’t know if it would have been much better, because I think the real problem with this film was a lack of understanding–or caring–of the gestalt of the 1920s on the part of director Jack Clayton. What a missed opportunity.

I was very reluctant to see the 2013 version. Baz Lurhmann committed one of the worst atrocities in recent cinema history, the horrifyingly bad wartime “epic” Australia. My husband had to talk me into watching the new Gatsby and I dreaded how Lurhmann’s over-the-top visual style, perfected in musicals, would desecrate Fitzgerald’s book. I was pleasantly shocked. Lurhmann’s vision of The Great Gatsby was, I think, exactly the sort of thing Fitzgerald was aiming for. The plot is there, but it’s secondary. Lurhmann wanted to show you the gestalt of class structure in the 1920s, how vapid and empty it was beneath its incredible glitz and flash. He did it perfectly.

He was certainly helped by an awesome cast. If any modern male star could be more suited for Gatsby than Robert Redford, it’s certainly Leonardo DiCaprio. He succeeds where Redford fails at being magnetic, charismatic and vacuous at the same time. There’s chemistry between him and Tobey Maguire, who plays Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story. At the center of the 2013 film, though, are the parties, the music, the liquor, the whole package of 1920s upper class decadence that was Fitzgerald’s real subject. Only a director ready to go totally over the top, as Lurhmann often does, could treat this material appropriately. Your eyes just pop out of their sockets at some of the visuals. The music score is awesome, incorporating 1920s classics with more modern songs, some redone in 1920s jazz style. It’s really a wonderful movie.

In researching this article I learned that the family of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died in 1940 thinking The Great Gatsby was a career mistake, loved and praised the 2013 film. If you want to see the 1920s on film–not a literal depiction, but a highly accurate evocation of what was going on in that doomed decade–see Luhrmann’s version. It’s terrific.

The cover of the original 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby is copyrighted by Charles Scribner’s Sons. It was painted by Francis Cugat. I believe my inclusion of it here falls within fair use under copyright laws.