F Scott Fitzgerald wrote the Great Gatsby and there has been a vast amount written about it ever since. There have been essays on its allusion to the economic climate of the day and the morals or otherwise of the characters in the plot. I realise that I am not about to add anything new but I can safely say that I have now read the book. I read the book precisely because I had been to see the film. At this point I had no idea whether the film bore any resemblance to its source text and I decided I needed to know. I’m also very aware that for some, the adaptation of their favourite book can amount to a form of sacrilege. I’m happy to say that, for me, a book is always a book and a film is a film, but that does not stop a little compare and contrast along the way.
Some have said that it is a real “spoiler” that the key event in the film is included in the trailer, whilst others have argued that the particular event is so well known and the text so embedded in our popular culture, that there is nothing which could constitute a “spoiler”. I disagree. I had not read the book or knew anything about the film, so came to the film “cold”. If I had seen the significant event in the trailer, I wouldn’t have known what it meant in any case.
I’m going to assume some knowledge of the book in any case, and as this is for my benefit, I have knowledge of the book!
Baz Luhrman has taken certain elements of the book and given them a heightened prominence in his film and it is fair to say that he has created a representation of the themes of the text rather than a faithful rendition of the story as told by F Scott Fitzgerald. Luhrman adds a framing story for Nick Carraway and for me, this works well. We get a sense of why this story is being told in a narrated style. Carraway is an observer to the events of that summer and they leave him so affected that he suffers as a by product of the trail of damage left in the wake of Gatsby, Tom and Daisy. Having him recount his tale whilst recovering in a sanitorium plays well to this and does not jar with the events of the plot.
I can agree with some reviewers that the film does seem a bit over-excited but I think that this marries nicely with the excesses being referred to by the book. I think it works well to show just how great those excesses are in order that the crash back to earth might seem all that bit more dramatic and so it does.
The assertion by Nick that Daisy and Tom were “careless people” has a wholehearted ring of truth and you can feel that carelessness in the way they deal with others. This fits nicely with the feeling that this film works just as well for our time as it would have done in the period of excess just prior to the great depression in the USA. Using modern music helps to draw those two periods of time closer and if you cast aside that this film is to be a faithful working of the text, then using modern music with careful theming and costumes gives an exhilarating, breathtaking, heady and hedonistic expression to the party scenes.
The character of Jordan Baker is much more woven into the plot of the book but the film relegates her to a very much secondary part. I left the film wondering what her position in the plot was and would count this as my only real negative. Having read the book I’m satisfied that she is essential to giving a more rounded view of the world in which the characters inhabit. She represents a more vibrant, dynamic, striving and earnest view of the new America but carrying a deception that threatens our view of her character. She is more complex than the position she occupies in the film, but I can see that she had to be left for the story to at least feel that it had not drifted in a catastrophic way from the book. I began to view the book from her perspective and this helped me reconcile her back into the picture. I guess it would have been too tricky to work her into the kind of film that Baz wanted us to see.