Not-so-Great Gatsby: is F Scott Fitzgerald's novel unfilmable?

May 15, 2013
Nigel Horne

Nigel Horne on the parallels between Baz Luhrmann's reviews and the reception for Jack Clayton's 1974 film

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THE REVIEWS for Baz Luhrmann's remake of The Great Gatsby are not so bad that the crowds won't show up for tonight's gala premiere at Cannes - but they don't make for happy reading.

American critics have by and large savaged it as "overblown flash and dazzle" and their London counterparts are not being any kinder. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw calls the new film a "fantastically unthinking and heavy-handed adaptation" and describes Australian director Baz Luhrmann as "a man who can't see a nuance without calling security for it to be thrown off his set".

We should not be surprised: for every person who loved Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, there's another who loathed it. But is there more to the film's miserable reception than that? Is The Great Gatsby unfilmable?

The last big Hollywood version, released in 1974, starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and marked Sam Waterston's breakthrough role as the narrator Nick Carraway. It was made by the respected English director Jack Clayton from a script by Francis Ford Coppola.

It did well for Paramount at the box office and for years it has been a popular DVD rental. Redford, then one of the biggest stars in the world after making Butch Cassidy and The Way We Were, played the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby; Farrow, long before she became known as the wife of Woody Allen and a kooky mother-of-15, was surely the embodiment of Gatsby's long-lost love, Daisy Buchanan.

Yet on its release the reviews were almost as tough as Luhrmann's. The late Roger Ebert called Clayton's film "a superficially beautiful hunk of a movie" that had nothing in common with the spirit of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel.

"I wonder what Fitzgerald, whose prose was so graceful, so elegantly controlled, would have made of it: of the willingness to spend so much time and energy on exterior effect while never penetrating to the souls of the characters," wrote Ebert. "It would take about the same time to read Fitzgerald's novel as to view this movie - and that's what I'd recommend."

Vincent Canby of the New York Times said the novel was "a good deal more than an ill-fated love story about the cruelties of the idle rich.... The movie can't see this through all its giant close-ups of pretty knees and dancing feet. It's frivolous without being much fun."

Clayton, known for his sensitive adaptation of novels to the big screen, was deeply hurt by the reviews and it is possible he came to regret his decision to cast Robert Redford over Jack Nicholson, who everyone in Hollywood knew wanted to play Gatsby. According to Clayton's friends, the director saw the romantic side of Gatsby as more important to the picture than his sinister hidden side and chose Redford for that reason. In retrospect, Nicholson might have been the safer choice.

But were there other factors at play?

One theory is that Americans feel proprietorial about a book that's long been considered an American classic. Why was Clayton, an Englishman, given the job of directing it, never mind that he was one of our hottest directors after Room at the Top, The Innocents and The Pumpkin Eater?

As the BFI website says in a fascinating new post based on Clayton's archives, the director was "undeterred" by the initial anti-English scepticism and began "a meticulous unpicking of the original text".

Another theory is that Clayton had little chance to meet industry expectations after the pre-release ballyhoo. Paramount spent a year promoting the film and its stars before releasing it in March 1974. It was one of the biggest exercises in hype Hollywood had ever seen. (Deja-vu, Baz?)

A third theory is that Clayton made a faux-pas – SPOILER ALERT! - in showing Robert Redford being shot dead in his pool: American cinema-goers didn't expect to see a romantic hero - and such a big star - meet a shockingly bloody end (see video below).

Or is the book just too subtle for a mass-market film treatment? The BFI posting concludes: "There was praise for Clayton's direction, for his actors and for the film's exquisite ‘look', but it was widely felt there was just something missing. Could it be that for Fitzgerald purists The Great Gatsby is simply an impossible novel to film?"

David Denby concluded his New Yorker review of the new film with a similar refrain: "Luhrmann may have miscalculated. The millions of kids who have read the book may not be eager for a flimsy phantasmagoria. They may even think, like many of their elders, that The Great Gatsby should be left in peace. The book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies."

But let's finish with a happy ending. Clayton, who made two well-received films, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Memento Mori before he died in 1995, was able to take some comfort from one man's view of his Gatsby.

Tennessee Williams wrote in his 1975 memoirs: "It seems to me that quite a few of my stories, as well as my one acts, would provide interesting and profitable material for the contemporary cinema, if committed to ... such cinematic masters of direction as Jack Clayton, who made of The Great Gatsby a film that even surpassed, I think, the novel by Scott Fitzgerald."

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Baz Luhrmann film always should be seen three times. Remember how much better was Moulin Rouge at third viewing.

The most unfilmable novel has to be Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. In 2007 even Lloyd-Webber gave up on it.

Would dearly like to see Baz Luhrmann take on that astonishing technicolor tale as a new project.

After seeing Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby I was quite sure that this new one with Di Caprio would be a great let down. No interest in seeing it at all. Not at all surprised at the negative reviews.