High school reading staple “The Great Gatsby” has been adapted to film before, but the most recent version is a very different take on the classic tale of the American Dream gone wrong. Previous iterations, such as the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and the 2000 A&E TV movie starring Toby Stevens, have tried to tell F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story in a straight-forward manner, capturing the aesthetic and look of the 1920s. The version in theaters now makes a lot of stylistic changes, and director Baz Luhrmann chooses to melt the Roaring ’20s with the present day, an idea that general audiences and fans of the book have been awaiting with great curiosity.
Did the modernization enhance the story? Critics disagree on that front, though they (for the most part) agree on two things: The visuals are stunning, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby is terrific. The 3D-made visuals, the hefty use of CGI and the hip-hop-heavy soundtrack have some purists crying foul, as does the film’s unique framing of the story, which is totally different from the book. Largely, though, the movie’s story is true to the source, and the 21st-century tone helps the tale hit home to those who might be taking in the story for the first time.
From the get-go, audiences familiar with the book will realize a huge difference: The movie opens with narrator Nick Carraway, played by Tobey Maguire, in a sanitarium as he tries to recover from a drinking problem he went through after the events of the book. His narrations serve as a means of therapy as he looks back on his experiences with Gatsby, the self-made millionaire who did whatever it took to gain the wealth and influence that was necessary to try to win over the girl of his dreams. This helps to provide a smooth way to get Fitzgerald’s prose into the film, but it does get overused at points, contributing to an overall feeling that the symbolism can’t just be shown, but has to be thoroughly explained to be understood.
There are moments when the narration chimes in at times when the power of the dialogue and the scene itself should have been sufficient, and those instances can be irritating. However, this framing does help bring more depth to Nick’s character. In the book, Nick is basically a voyeur in a world in which he doesn’t belong, and so he doesn’t really take part in the important points in the plot. Readers can connect with him because the framing makes it feel they don’t belong in the world of big money and extravagance, either, but the movie helps make him more of an actual character without taking this tool away from the overall story.
This is where the modernized style helps enhance the story. Luhrmann makes exquisite choices in just how to blend the ’20s with the culture from nearly 100 years later, showing that glitzy parties, flagrant showcases of wealth and carefree living are not just an invention of this generation. There’s a good mix of the jazz of the time and the music of today purveying the film, but the look, talk and actions of the characters and the settings hold true to the era of the original story. The modern effects also make the green light across the bay, one of the main symbols in the story, feel more unearthly than any other adaptation thus far, making it stand out more than the bright lights and glam of the rest of the film.
By no means is this a perfect adaptation. I wasn’t comfortable with Nick constantly calling Gatsby by his first name. Hearing “Jay” so much takes away the impact of that glorious invention the character had made: the name Gatsby. Nick was more friendly than most toward Gatsby in the book, but never so much that the formalities of the time would let Nick call him anything other than “Mr. Gatsby.” Also, Jordan Baker, the sort of/maybe love interest for Nick, just about disappears from the plot after she reveals Gatsby and Daisy’s past relationship to Nick about halfway through the movie. It’s especially a shame considering she had been an interesting character up to that point.
Ultimately, the movie is a successful adaptation, though it might not be for everyone. If you’re a true fan of the ’20s and want to be transported directly back into the decade, the 1974 film will likely be your preferred adaptation. If, however, you don’t mind a little modern flavor that encapsulates the spirit of the era, then this version will suit you wonderfully.