The Trouble with Getting Gatsby: Adapting the Unadaptable

By  · Published on November 28th, 2016

What is it about Fitzgerald’s novel that filmmakers can’t get quite right?

There are many books considered “unfilmable.” Some are too long or too dense to conform to cinematic constraints of time. Some eschew the three-act plot structure for something more fluid, more esoteric, or blatantly anti-traditional. Some deal with content that’s too taboo, and some are attempted – over and over in cases – but their essence simply can’t be captured to the same level of satisfaction as the source material. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one such book, as is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, and even Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which has been committed to celluloid a handful of times, but never to universal acclaim.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby – considered by many the quintessential American novel – would seem to be another such title, because although it has been translated into a visual medium five times over the course of the last century, not one of these versions has gotten it exactly right when it comes to mimicking the essence of the novel. They focus on plot, or character, or the era, the costumes and music and opulence, but they fail to combine these facets in a way that conveys the same themes, motifs and meaning as Fitzgerald did. They seize upon the story as a tale of the American Dream thwarted, when the reality is, the American Dream never exists in Gatsby, it is an illusion, a fabrication, and therein lies the tragedy of the novel.

In yet another astoundingly insightful video from Jack’s Movie Reviews, the issue of why Gatsby is so hard to get right is the focus as the essayist talks us through both the book and the film, one version in particular: Baz Luhrmann’s over-the-top 2013 attempt.

I myself have never been a massive Luhrmann fan – he’s a little to ostentatious for my blood – and while I felt he was a perfect match for the visual aesthetic of Gatsby (all that flash, all that glam, all that pomp) and cast the not only the perfect Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) but the perfect Daisy (Carey Mulligan), as well, I also felt his version accomplished the least of what the novel did, it seemed to focus more on the accessories of the era than it did the moral undercurrent. Jack feels the same, only he explains why in much more fascinating detail. This isn’t just for fans or students of this particular film, but for anyone interested in why some adaptations work and some don’t, no matter how many times people try.

Related Topics:

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist