Gatsby Not So Great — The Dangers of Adapting a Book to the Screen (Review of The Great Gatsby)
by Brad Windhauser
I watch a little TV, and mostly I end up watching singing competitions like The Voice and The X Factor. Like most people, I get sad pleasure out of watching contestant hopefuls butcher a song they think they can sing well. Sometimes you don’t know how bad a person will sound until he or she opens his or her mouth; other times, you know as soon as they mention that they’ll be doing a Whitney Houston song. The people who fail miserably at covering Houston’s songs do so for multiple reasons: they try to sing it too close to the original (and end up sounding nothing like her) or they demonstrate that they have no ear for melody or pitch. Sometimes both.
Their problem demonstrates what happens when you try to represent something beloved and don’t do a good job: if you can’t completely reimagine it (make it your own) or do a pitch-perfect job, you will fall flat.
The same applies to other genres, particularly when novels get adapted into movies, and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a perfect example of why you have to be careful doing so. Sadly, his film falls flat, in part because he makes the mistake several other filmmakers have made when handling Fitzgerald’s classic novel: by focusing on Fitzgerald’s plot (and even tweaking parts of it), he overlooked the most crucial element in making this story successful: the author’s language.
The film does get some elements right. The party scenes are fun. The costumes are great. The music is used well. Daisy and Tim are well cast. Some scenes are strong (the tense Plaza scene, the crash scene). But the problem is really the script.
If you want to know why the script fails, look no further than the crazy omission of one of the book’s most crucial lines: Daisy’s voice being “full of money.”
Huh? Left out? Seriously?
What were the screenwriters thinking here? This line sums up character AND it explains why Gatsby was in love (or in awe, depending on how you read the book) with Daisy. Maybe the writers skipped it because they didn’t think it necessary, that they had enough to depict this love story. And here’s the other problem: the story’s focus becomes a love story, thereby shifting focus and attention away from what the book really is about: the chasing of the American dream, of which Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy is a part. But if you don’t delve into this part of the book, that might explain why you cut Gatsby’s father attending the funeral and the sharing of Gatsby’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy, on whose back cover Gatsby wrote out a schedule by which he would better his life.
Are there different ways to read the book? Sure. And this is perhaps what hampers any adaptation: you have to figure out how to adapt a book with multiple interpretations, and when you go with one, you have to avoid others, thereby alienating people who feel the important part has been skipped. Books create room (usually) to allow for multiple interpretations. When you adapt a book, you limit this, in part because you have to figure out how to frame certain plot points and character actions. In doing so, you interpret the book, and this cuts out other interpretations.
But what Luhrmann also didn’t (and couldn’t) replicate is the language that carries this book. Some books are plot driven. This explains why (in part) an excellent book like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was a successful adaptation: the language doesn’t carry that book. But in the case of Gatsby, all the fast and inventive camera shots in the world can’t create the same atmosphere that Fitzgerald mined through his use of language.
Ultimately, if people see something worthwhile in Luhrmann’s Gatsby, they may understand that they’re only getting a sense of the book, so they may pick up the novel. The shame would be if people leave the theater and, having never read the book, don’t understand why people love the Fitzgerald’s classic so much. Some pieces of art—be they songs, movies, books—should be left alone. Unless you’re going to reinvent a work or tell it in a fresh way that ADDS to the original, why bother?