Gatsby’s Green Light, as Told through Cinema

An exploration of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and how it finally deals with The Green Light.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby with the Green Light in the distance
By  · Published on July 7th, 2017

In James Truslow Adams’ “The Epic of America” (1931), the historian described the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” This idea of equal opportunity has been explored through novels and movies, the respective mediums portraying the evolution of this dream through the changes in ways we tell stories. From John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl-era “Of Mice and Men” (1939) to The Wizard of Oz’s yellow brick road of discovery, the American Dream has found a home in both the written word and visual imagery.

While Steinbeck’s novels have received their fair share of adaptations (from directors like John Ford to Elia Kazan, no less), there remains one pervading American Dream adaptation filmmakers keep coming back to, old sport.

Everyone knows at least something about “The Great Gatsby.” Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the early 20th century, the tale of the titular character is told from the perspective of the readers’ unreliable narrator, Nick Carraway. The novel contains empty wealth, observing eyes, and a lot of “old sport”s. Most importantly, Fitzgerald creates one of the most prominent and lasting images of the American Dream: the all-important green light.

Beginning with the lost 1926 film, there are six-and-counting “Gatsby” adaptations. There’s a reason filmmakers keep returning to Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel: they haven’t figured out how to translate it onscreen. That is, until Baz Lurhmann’s 2013 consciously superficial and almost satirical version. Where 2000’s TV movie The Great Gatsby and Jack Clayton’s 1974 film of the same name attempted to mold their movies to fit the book, Lurhmann’s version adapted the source material and made it new for the big screen. And it’s because of Luhrmann’s aesthetic vision that the 2013 film remains the best depiction of Gatsby’s green light and the American Dream. Rather than trying to show Fitzgerald’s novelistic American Dream, Lurhmann re-represents it to fit cinema.

Every Gatsby film presents the green light in new ways, reflecting the artistic dreams of the film’s era. So, what does it mean when the film finally gets the green light right over ninety years after the source material?

Only the trailer for 1926’s The Great Gatsby remains. However, the few shots that fill the trailer – presumably Gatsby and Daisy embracing; a glamorous pool party; a looming, grand staircase in Gatsby’s mansion – show us that the film would have been an extravagant, dramatic party to rival Gatsby’s.

As The New Yorker’s Richard Brody writes, it’s the twelve seconds of party scenes “that give the trailer its enduring power.” When readers pick up Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” they do so because they want to find out what makes him great. Likewise, when audiences watch its filmic adaptation, it’s because they’re curious as to what Gatsby’s parties look like. “It isn’t just vulgar tumult,” Brody says of the 1926 lost version, “but also a play of iridescent, ever so slightly translucent allure.”

Whilst “bland” isn’t an adjective that would typically be attached to Fitzgerald’s novel, the lack of excitement is what fails the noir-ish 1949 film, ‘74’s underwhelming feature, and 2000’s TV movie. The films place a focus on Gatsby and Daisy’s love rather than the futile nature of the titular character’s dream. Writing for Variety, Bruce Handy says “the 1974 film’s biggest fault lies in treating Gatsby as a grand, doomed romance when the novel is really a shrewd, streamlined near satire about a group of characters who are either nasty pieces of work or foolish or both.” The American Dream in 74’s film focuses on this “doomed romance,” with Carraway used as an eye through which the narrative is told.

One notable exception is 2002’s Gatsby; however, the film departs so much from its source material that it’s more of a re-working of the text than a straight adaptation. Its attempt to follow the novel while also straying away from it takes away from the interesting story at the center. The film’s overall feeling of the film – lost potential – has been summed up by Roger Ebert: “I wish it had approached this material with a clean slate, and given us a story made from scratch.”

Both the 1974 film and 2000’s TV movie begin feeling too literary. Rather than giving a reason for Carraway’s narration, his voiceover simply appears as each film begins. In the novel form, this works, as it’s the way the story is told. In film, stories are told visually.

Luhrmann, meanwhile, tells the tale of Gatsby through visuals. By establishing that Toby Maguire’s Carraway is writing a book, viewers know the character is an unreliable narrator. Yet, the visuals also remain untrusted too. Opening the film with Gatsby’s “JG” gold-embellished gates, Maguire’s voice guides the camera as it moves closer to the green light. The very fact Gatsby’s CGI gates open up to the green light connotes Maguire’s enchantment by the illusive figure. And with the camera hauntingly moving in, a sense of enigma is created. We don’t know whose perspective we’re seeing this from; Maguire’s voice cuts the scene with “back then.” There’s a clear sense of longing for the past.

In Maguire’s present tense, the windows show us it’s snowing. Interchanging between green lights and snow, a typical metaphor for mourning, connote the somber, darker tone of the film. With Gatsby’s death comes the death of the American Dream. For all we know, most of Gatsby’s traits are a figment of Carraway’s narration, what with the character spending most of his time with Jay Gatz drunk.

Lurhmann manipulates audiences from start to end. His “pop-operatic” and extraordinarily superficial visuals emphasize each characters’ blindness in following the American Dream. With fast cuts and bright, over-saturated colors, and CGI-created backgrounds, audiences are manipulated too. Luhrmann understands that this is what Fitzgerald’s American Dream is about: superficiality, unreachable dreams, and having everything and nothing at the same time.

Luhrmann turns Gatsby’s story into a fairytale. When Carraway first meets Daisy, white bed sheets flow about the room. The scene seems to reference Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, and, in fact, Gatsby’s tale is not far from the fairytale. Stuck in his castle, Gatsby is at once the detainer and detainee, held captive by his past. Meanwhile, the Cocteau reference physically glides over Maguire’s eyes. The character is seeing this through a child’s eye, turning the story into a fantastical bedtime story.

The film’s soundtrack features contemporary artists including Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Florence and the Machine, and Lana Del Rey. The majority of these artists sing modern songs, but with a 20s jazz twist. With references to 19th-century films and a contemporary soundtrack, Luhrmann blurs the lines between time and place. Viewers are ultimately unsettled, the director leaving us to question what time we’re actually in.

In previous Gatsby films, Nick Carraway is an observer. But in Luhrmann’s feature, Carraway is finally placed in the action, the camera filming everything as Carraway sees it. Ninety years after Fitzgerald’s novel, a film was finally ready to confront the green light.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.