A Tale of Two Gatsbies

The Great Gatsby

Directed by Baz Luhrmann (US/Australia, 2013) & Directed by Jack Clayton (US, 1974)

By D.G. McCabe

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

– F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925 (from The Great Gatsby)

If there is a single work of literature that demonstrates the decadence and ultimate emptiness of Jazz Age America, it is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”  Who was the Great Gatsby?  He was a liar and a hypocrite, but at the same time a man filled with enough simple hope and optimism to convince us to ignore these faults.

Fitzgerald’s novel has been the subject of numerous adaptations over the years.  In film, the 1974 adaptation with Robert Redford in the tile role and this summer’s film led by Leonardo DiCaprio are the versions most people have seen.

The 1974 version is considered a classic in some circles. It is thoughtful and filled with rich performances. Robert Redford is phenomenal of course, as this was the point in his career where he could do no wrong on screen.

Still the 1974 version is by no means perfect.  The production design and the tone of the film leave something to be desired when comparing it to the source material.  At its low points, Clayton’s production is a workaday Hollywood romance of the era. You don’t get much of the feel of Jazz Age decadence that Fitzgerald was going for in his novel.

Luhrmann’s adaptation is on the other end of the spectrum.  Highly stylized and decadent, he does a much better job of capturing the booze fueled madness that Fitzgerald describes in his novel.  Still, especially in the first half of the film, Luhrmann makes some creative decisions that I could have done without – the biggest being his substitution of the jazz music of the era with modern hip-hop.

Generally speaking, this is a striking weakness in Luhrmann’s catalog – he has a unique style but he is far too often at the mercy of it.  When he drops the anachronisms and music-video style edits (after the point where Gatsby and Daisy reunite), the film noticeably improves.

It is clearly hard to find balance in adapting a work like “The Great Gatsby.”  Clayton was clearly trying to aim for the intellectual aspects of the novel, as gleamed from the character Nick Carraway’s narration. Luhrmann was clearly trying to aim to capture the feeling of madness in the novel’s plot.  Both produced yeoman’s efforts, but it is safe to say that the perfect adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” has yet to be made.

But can it be?  Or is it a pursuit as ultimately empty as Gatsby’s own quest?

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe