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Nick Carraway, a young Midwesterner now living on Long Island, finds himself fascinated by the mysterious past and lavish lifestyle of his neighbor, the nouveau riche Jay Gatsby. He is drawn into Gatsby's circle, becoming a witness to obsession and tragedy. Written by
The high-profile, big budget American adaptation The Great Gatsby of the same-titled novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald bombed when it was released in 1974. Jack Clayton directs a star-packed cast and uses a script by Francis Ford Coppola written a few years earlier. Coppola disowned his The Great Gatsby screenplay when he saw the movie, because he felt the movie adaptation ruined his work.
We follow a group of morally decadent upper-class flappers in Long Island in the 1920s, seen through the eyes of our narrator, Nick Carraway (Sam Waterson). Central to all of them, and arguably the main character, is Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford) who is living the American dream; he is extremely rich, throws lavish parties and fights for the woman he loves, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow). Gatsby is a working class hero who started with nothing, only he lies and puts on a charade to get ahead in life. The movie follows the novel almost religiously, scene-by-scene, paying great attention to details like colors and scenery. It is a faithful, but lackluster adaptation that lacks any depth. It tries, but it never succeeds to do the Great American Novel justice and instead it drags on for two and a half hours without making a point or addressing any of Fitzgerald's themes.
Director Jack Clayton was a born and bred British citizen and perhaps this is why he fails in recreating the great American novel. What is curious to note is that Clayton seems to fully grasp the complexity of Fitzgerald's characters, the significance of the American dream and the importance of the setting. Yet, he only succeeds in translating one of these onto the screen, namely the setting.
The Great Gatsby is visually astonishing, much like the novel, but scratch the surface and you find nothing. The visual realization is the one redeeming achievement in the movie. The great attention paid to details such as hair-cuts, period suits and sophisticated design and setting impressively captures the essence of the roaring twenties. The lavish parties thrown by Gatsby at his beautiful house are the most noteworthy as they capture the spirit of the times and stay true to the novel. This visual authenticity was rewarded in the form of two Oscar grabs for best musical score and best costume at the 1975 Academy Awards.
Similarly, all characters look the parts well enough, the exceptions perhaps being the all-too-pleasant-looking Bruce Dern as the brutish Tom Buchanan and his mistress, the-too-gaunt-looking Karen Black as the curvy Myrtle Wilson. Robert Redford is perfectly debonair as the mysterious Jay Gatsby; even his clear blue eyes embody the idealism of the character. That takes care of the visual. It ends there, however, as Redford struggles to add depth to the character of Great Gatsby, leaving us with a 'mediocre' Gatsby who is too self-assured and not dreaming enough. I found the beautiful Lois Chiles to be the light of this film. She is perfect for the part of Jordon Baker, a jaded, tomboyish flapper who cheats on the golf-course and surrounds herself with entertaining people so as to not snooze off.
My biggest problem with this book-to-film adaptation is lack of depth around Gatsby's and Daisy's relationship. It appears to have been transformed into a lustful love-story (bordering on triangle with Nick present and heavily breathing by Gatsby's side) and strayed away from important themes and motives, such as why the characters feel the way they feel or do the things they do. Rather than make Daisy out as the characterization of the American Dream and the unattainable and add some depth to her complex character, she is made out as a lackluster soap opera queen with an occasionally hysterically high-pitched voice. This is the voice that F. Scott Fitzgerald described as being "full of money" in the novel, which suggests more subtlety and sophistication than what Mia Farrow achieves.
I appreciate the difficulty in translating The Great Gatsby onto screen as the strength of the novel is its richness of language, symbolism and imagery. To include all of these aspects in a film would make it visually overblown and perhaps detract from important details (like the bright flowing dresses that Daisy and Jordan wear symbolizing carelessness and coldness). In this sense, Clayton succeeds as he gets us to notice the little things. The symbolism of the novel is mostly lost, however; the color green which is so important in The Great Gatsby is present, but neglected. In the novel, it represented the American Dream and, indeed, the first time we see Gatsby his mysterious silhouette takes this color. It fades as the movie plays on, instead of integrating it into Gatsby's character and dream. The lack of green grass visible during Gatsby's vivacious parties was a low point as the grass holds great symbolism for Gatsby's yearning to renew his life and start over again with a fresh start, new friends and a new outlook on life. A subtle background use of the color green might also have helped this movie in addressing the American Dream.
The Great Gatsby is a fantastic portrayal of an erathe 1920sbut does not do F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel justice in the least. Perhaps this is why, being a fan of the source material, that Coppola disowned his screenplay.
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