I first read The Great Gatsby my sophomore year of high school. It was one of the few books I enjoyed that year in American literature. When you’re 15, it’s not cool to enjoy good literature, so for the most part I didn’t.
Now, five years later, the second film adaptation of “the great American novel” has hit theaters, and you can bet I went to the midnight premier. I even wore a cool vintage dress I had bought a few weeks before.
But before I did that, I reread the book. I wanted a refresher on the plot, and I wanted to read it with a more mature mind (I was a silly 15-year-old whose favorite book was Twilight. Let’s just say I most likely did not pick up on Fitzgerald’s themes or symbolism).
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose captivated me. His writing was beautiful. I had to practice the utmost self-control while reading The Great Gatsby so I didn’t blow up Facebook or Twitter with quotes.
Reading the book this second time made me realize how much thought Fitzgerald must have put into crafting every sentence so that it not only sounded like poetry, but also conveyed the plot, the culture and attitudes of the twenties, and the bankruptcy of the American dream.
I also obsessively watched every trailer and listened to every soundtrack sneak-peak in preparation for the movie. Everything I saw impressed me.
I was so excited for this movie. The trailers made it look spectacular, the soundtrack sounded great, and the cast seemed perfect.
And I have to say, I was impressed. Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation was very good.
I was right about the cast: everyone was perfect for their role. The costumes were beautiful, and my-oh-my the soundtrack. I was captivated (Florence and The Machine’s song Over The Love is so very good).
The houses were gaudy, the parties were ridiculous, and the characters were hypocrites. It disgusted me, and I loved it. Luhrmann did a great job showing the shallowness of the characters and their destructive lives. He also stayed very true to the plot, which I appreciated. The movie even included most of my favorite quotes word-for-word.
I left the movie with a heavy feeling, and my friends and I didn’t talk for a while afterward. It was beautiful.
However, it wasn’t perfect. For a while, I couldn’t quite pin down why I wasn’t fully satisfied while everyone else I talked to was.
The most obvious plot point that bothered me was Nick Carraway’s institutionalization. Not. In. The. Book. It was also completely unnecessary. Nick could have narrated as if he were writing a book without being in an institution. He ended up writing a book anyway, so what was the need?
I also didn’t like the scene where Myrtle runs out to Gatsby’s car. The film made it seem like she was desperate to escape her abusive husband who had her locked in a room. But in the book, she thinks Tom is the one driving Gatsby’s car, and she’s angry that he won’t divorce Daisy. That’s why she runs to the car.
Those were the most glaring things wrong with the plot of movie. The others were more subtle. I realized during my second reading of The Great Gatsby that none of the characters are likable. Not even Nick or Gatsby. Tom Buchanan is an ignorant hypocrite, Daisy Buchanan is shallow and cold, Jordan Baker is arrogant, Nick helps his cousin commit adultery with another man, and Jay Gatsby is a mobster who worships a false image of Daisy who doesn’t actually exist. No one in The Great Gatsby is the victim, and no one deserves to be pitied.
However, in the movie, I didn’t hate everyone enough. Daisy seemed too much like the victim (though the last scene she’s in conveyed her cold-heartedness well), and Nick was just too likable. Tom, though, he was perfect. I loathed him.
I felt like I was being too nit-picky, though. So I kept thinking about what it was about the movie that wasn’t perfect, and I finally decided what it was:
The Great Gatsby can’t be a movie.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prose shows the underlying themes and symbols rather than explains them. Everything he wrote was carefully crafted to convey some sort of deeper meaning, and for the most part, he didn’t reveal any of that explicitly with his words. The imagery did that for him.
But that can’t happen in a movie. A scene appears on the screen for a select amount of time, and you can’t mull over what it might mean. The movie had to explain the symbols and themes because it’s a movie. Nick had to say (over and over again) that Gatsby represented this great “hope,” the significance of the green light had to burn into our corneas, “the eyes of God” had to peer into our souls for minutes at a time (though I thought Luhrmann represented the ash heap well).
That’s what I didn’t like about the movie. There was too much explaining. But there had to be–it’s a movie. Eventually I decided that The Great Gatsby does not lend itself to movie adaptations. It’s not in the nature of the book.
I found this quote on Pinterest (don’t judge me) the other day:
The Great Gatsby is a book which makes us think, and I almost felt like the movie thought for me. Not that it was a bad movie. As far as movies go, it was flippin’ fantastic. Movies in general can’t make us think as much as books can, and The Great Gatsby, though short, is a very “thinky” book.
Though I will say, Luhrmann’s movie made me feel The Great Gatsby like the book never did. I had an analytical reaction to the book, whereas I had an emotional reaction to the movie.
I think the job of a good book is to make us think (though I have very emotional responses to a lot of books), and the job of a good movie is to make us feel. Maybe that’s why movie adaptations so frequently fall short of our expectations. Even if they get the plot right (like the Gatsby film did), they can’t make us think like books can.
Because of the way The Great Gatsby is and because of how it’s written, it’s movie adaptation can never be perfect. The nature of movies and books are just too different.
Les livres font les époques et les nations, commes les époques et les nations font les livres,