Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why Gatsby makes a lousy movie

by Sandra Parshall

Filmmakers seem to think they can make a good movie out of anything, and they aren’t deterred by past unsuccessful efforts with the the same book.

The Great Gatsby is the latest example of this triumph of ego over material. It was made into a movie in 1926, the year after the book was published, and was filmed again in 1949 and 1974, then turned into a TV movie in 2001. Did those lackluster adaptations deter Baz Luhrmann, the Australian master of gaudy spectacle? Did he study them to determine the reason why the book simply will not come to full-bodied life on the screen? Apparently not, because he went right ahead and made all the same mistakes, only more so.

Everyone is seduced by the beauty of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrative prose. Six passages from the novel, including the unforgettable final line, appear in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. But the dialogue, transferred to screenplays word for word, is virtually impossible for actors to speak convincingly. The performances in Luhrmann’s film are almost embarrassing to watch. I have never seen so much wooden acting outside of a high school drama production. Surely the director is partly to blame for the falseness of it all, the stiff delivery, but honestly, what can any actor do with Fitzgerald’s dialogue? People simply don’t talk that way.

The only time a genuine performance threatens to break free of the script’s constraints is when Leonardo DiCaprio, as Gatsby, explodes in the hotel room scene and grabs Daisy’s husband Tom, ready to kill him. Red-faced and snorting like a bull, DiCaprio is, for at least thirty seconds, mesmerizing. Alas, it doesn’t last, it can’t last, because the script must remain faithful to the book. The accident scene that follows is unaffecting because the characters haven’t become real on the screen.

Add Luhrmann’s taste for excess to the book’s inherent flaws, and you’ve got a sparkling, dazzling mess.

The novel is revered – perhaps more than it should be – not only for Fitzgerald’s lyrical narrative style but also because it captures the amoral, culturally hollow lives of a certain social set in the years before the stock market crash brought on the Great Depression. Gatsby, born poor, has done what a lot of Americans have: reinvented himself in the process of amassing a fortune. But Gatsby is not admirable. The driving force behind his ambition is his desire to reclaim a woman who is not in any way worthy of love. Daisy is selfish and shallow, willing to sacrifice anyone to preserve her own easy life, and Gatsby is a pathetic fool for loving her. That is perhaps the novel’s greatest weakness, and the reason it doesn’t translate well to film: the characters are despicable. The story is a dark tale of destruction, with no hero and no heroine. 

A gifted writer can keep readers engaged with such characters in a novel. Put those characters on screen, in the form of real, breathing human beings, make them speak dialogue that is awkward at best, and it’s hard to persuade the viewer care about them. (I couldn’t help hoping Daisy and her husband would end up penniless when the stock market crashed.)

Compare Gatsby to Mystic River, a great novel that was made into a great film. Dennis Lehane’s characters are so real that we recognize bits of ourselves in them. They may be flawed, sometimes profoundly, but they are always struggling to be better than they are, and even when they do the wrong thing we can understand and sympathize. It doesn’t hurt that Lehane writes pitch-perfect dialogue and it moves to the screen without a glitch.

Mystic River has what The Great Gatsby lacks: genuine emotion, so deep that it haunts you long after the story ends. 
Note: When Fitzgerald saw The Great Gatsby's original cover art, shown above, he liked it so much that he added the optometrist's billboard, showing a pair of eyes, to the story. The novel received mixed reviews and sold poorly. It is now a staple of American literature courses. Recently it passed out of copyright and is now in the public domain.


Sheila Connolly said...

I read The Great Gatsby in college, I think (for pleasure, not for a course), and I remember it as subtle and sad, or at least, that's what I took away. The previews I've seen for the movie are far from either. I have no plans to see a flashy spectacular, just because Luhrmann can make one with a big-name star. Sometimes less really is more.

Shari Randall said...

Now I really don't know if I want to see the new film version of The Great Gatsby! I did not love the story when I read it in high school, so I am not too wedded to any good memories of it. I'll go for the spectacle.
I agree with your assessment of Mystic River - truly a great film (and book) - it moved seamlessly to the screen.

Sandy Cody said...

I've seen the previews of the movie and don't plan to see the full. I loved the book (read it many years ago, might feel differently now). I think the film versions fail because they concentrate on the external lives of the characters rather than examining what makes them they way they are. Exposing the core of a character is what makes him/her real - and what makes readers care.

Sandra Parshall said...

Gatsby is a sad book. Fitzgerald intended it to be a story of wasted lives, not a glorification of selfishness and excess. There is absolutely nothing subtle about the Luhrman film. This one is for people who love noise and spectacle and don't mind skimping on humanity. It's all overdone to the point of being laughable. Some people love it, though.

Be warned that the Luhrman film adds a framing device: Nick is an alcoholic in a sanitarium,drying out, and while he's there he's writing a book about Gatsby and Daisy, which is dramatized in flashbacks. I hated this. Unnecessary and intrusive.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
As I commented in Facebook, Gatsby for me suffers the same fate as Moby Dick--they're both supposed to be the great American novel, but I disliked the books and the movies. This redoing of Gatsby suffers from some of the things I mentioned in a recent blog post--film and books are very different media. It's too hard to get inside the heads of characters in a film. Moreover, watching a film is all too often a passive experience, while a good author leaves enough to the reader to let him jump in and enjoy the creative process of imagining what a character or setting is like.
I guess I'm being unfair. I didn't see the film, but I'm not attracted to it because of the promos. And what you said about Leonardo is my overall opinion of him--he can't act. (Sorry, all those Leonardo lovers out there. I put him in the same category as Tom Cruise, Kenau Reeve, and Ben Affleck. Wow! Blasphemy?)
Mystic River (novel) and Shawshank Redemption (short story) and other movies do show that sometimes the translation to silver screen works, so it can be done in the right circumstances--maybe the right combo of screenwriter, director, and actors?
All the best,

Katreader said...

I read The Great Gatsby in high school and loved it. However, high school was so long ago, I couldn't tell you why i loved it. As I watch the movie trailers, I can't help but thinking it doesn't remind me of the book at all. Add the fact that I can't stand DiCaprio and I certainly won't waste any time with this film.