The Great Gatsby, like many novels, has been the focus of filmmakers for decades. And, like most novels, the movies pale in comparison to the sophisticated character development and lush settings of its source material.
Gatsby has been adapted into five major films in five different decades. I will be focusing on the three "major" Gatsby film adaptations, excluding the 1926 silent film (which no longer exists in any form) and the 2000 made-for-television movie (which is derivative, unnecessary, and lacks a unique focus when compared to the rest of the pack.)
1. The Great Gatsby (1949)
Alan Ladd as Jay Gatsby
Betty Field as Daisy Buchanan
Macdonald Carey as Nick Carraway
Ruth Hussey as Jordan Baker
Barry Sullivan as Tom Buchanan
Shelley Winters as Myrtle Wilson
Howard Da Silva as George Wilson
For copyright reasons, this adaptation wasn't available for many years. It's a very sad fact because, more than any of the others, it captures the spirit of the Jazz Era, with all of its moral grayness and hedonism.
It also has the most inspired acting of the bunch. Ladd is the Gatsby of one's dreams and, while she's not blonde, Field brings a unique and laid-back approach to the love of Gatsby's life. Macdonald Carey, while a bit anonymous, is the only performer to move Nick past his usual "all-knowing narrator" persona. Hussey and Sullivan add spice to the proceedings, Hussey especially shining in a role that is often the least carefully cast. Da Silva, who would go on to play Meyer Wolfsheim in the 1974 film, gives George Wilson some much-needed backbone and a very sickly, tortured persona. The true star, not surprisingly, is a (very) young Shelley Winters as Tom's mistress Myrtle, injecting the role with spunk, verve, and spitfire.
In terms of the plot of the novel, this adaptation keeps most of the novel intact, despite starting with Gatsby's rise to power and relationship with Dan Cody. The opening scene of the novel is interspersed with later conversations, in favor of the aforementioned clumsy exposition. Myrtle's death, as opposed to many adaptations, is shown on camera (though it is laughable at best) and Gatsby's bullet-riddled end is seen in glorious black and white.
Now that this version is available on DVD, I would hope that English classes will substitute this version for the one that is usually shown. And, as it turns out, that version is the one we'll discuss next!
2. The Great Gatsby (1974)
Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby
Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan
Bruce Dern as Tom Buchanan
Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway
Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson
Scott Wilson as George Wilson
Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker
This is the go-to film Gatsby for the masses, a muddy, technicolor spectacular filled with the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, but containing little in the way of "meat."
Redford is a surprisingly milquetoast Gatsby, the passion and opulent personality of the storied man sorely lacking. Farrow was pregnant at the time, and it shows in her performance which is slow and devoid of charm. Francis Ford Coppola, the director, became adept at hiding Farrow's pregnancy at the time, so we mostly see her from the waist up. Bruce Dern is the epitome of Tom, brusque, bitter, and filled with venom. Sam Waterston, of Law & Order fame, is a sadly yawn-inducing Nick, failing to boost the role past its "omniscient moral vehicle" stereotype. Wilson as Wilson (ha) is in the same vein as De Silva in the last, sweaty and tortured, while Chiles' Jordan is all glitz and no substance, not that she has much to do in this script to begin with. As with the last, the actress playing Myrtle takes home the trophy, as Karen Black's portrayal is filled with burning fire and a mischevious, almost childlike, glint in the eyes.
The novel's major scenes remain intact, despite a few small changes and juggling. Interestingly, I found an inscription in a book signed by Karen Black of an interesting tidbit she claims she added to the film:
“In this great book, when the character that I play in the movie version, Myrtle Wilson, dies*, her spirit is described by Fitzgerald as being so huge it rips her mouth when it escapes in death. I went to the director, Jack Clayton, and asked that my mouth be made-up to include the tears. He agreed. I won the Golden Globe for this film. Karen Black.” (Source)
(*Myrtle's death was not shown on screen in this version, as we only see her corpse's head beneath a sheet.)
3. The Great Gatsby (2013)
Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby
Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway
Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan
Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan
Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker
Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson
Jason Clarke as George Wilson
Frankly, the less said about this adaptation, the better. Yet, unlike the 2000 made-for-television film, this version warrants my disgust because of its gross and vulgar additions to what can only be described as a side-show-like spectacle.
The act is routinely bland, despite the copious amount of set dressings and period costumes. The only stand-outs are Edgerton as Tom, his portrayal derivative of Dern, and Fisher as Myrtle, derivative of Karen Black... (do we see a pattern here?) DiCaprio is seriously out-parted in this role and even his staunchest fans have shown their disdain for this mess.
The real egregious offender here is director Baz Luhrmann's addition of rap and techno music to the soundtrack of Gatsby's parties. This was justified as our modern equivalent to the Jazz of Gatsby's age, so we feel the same bite and shock they did. But the result is simply juvenile and clumsy, the party scenes not matching the tone of the film and, frankly, just appear schizophrenic and overburdened.
What could have been a welcome and clever adaptation of the novel turned out to be an unnecessary, multi-million dollar piece of fatty bacon wrapped in gold foil.
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