Six failures in one century: ‘Gatsby’ films not so great
Imagine being the writer of a novel that was recreated into a film five times over a span of 88 years. Sounds pretty impressive, right? Now imagine that each of these adaptations were a complete failure. Would you, the author, condone a sixth Hollywood remake of your award-winning novel?
If F. Scott Fitzgerald were still alive, it’s likely that the answer to this question would have been publicly vocalized. Unfortunately, we will never know. Fitzgerald only watched one cinematic remake of “The Great Gatsby.” All succeeding cinematic versions were created after his untimely death at age 44.
According to an article published by the Huffington Post, when Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda saw the novel’s first theatrical attempt in 1926, their reactions were strong. The article quotes a letter that Zelda Fitzgerald had written to their daughter, Scottie, after having walked out of the theater before the film had even reached a close.
“We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies,” Zelda wrote. “It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”
Zelda herself chose to use capital letters when writing the word “rotten.” Needless to say, the first attempt was not a successful one. Fortunately for the Fitzgeralds, all that is left of the 1926-version is a silent movie trailer depicting a minute of scattered, outdated scenes. You can view the trailer here.
Their reactions are not surprising considering the fact that Fitzgerald did not like the way his book was received even by those who loved it. Letters of praise were instantly dismissed, as Fitzgerald took them to be “completely missing the point: ‘All the reviews, even the most enthusiastic, not one had the slightest idea what the book was about,’ (Mizener).”
How can a remake live up to to a man’s standards when words of praise on the original piece do not bring him satisfaction?
In 1949, just five years after the author’s death, a remake of the film was released. If pain could follow a man through the grave, Fitzgerald would still be ailing. The new adaptation was a complete flop. Rotten Tomatoes later gave the film a rating of 29 percent. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said that the film “achieved a dutiful plotting of the novel without the substance of life that made it stick.” He also said that the film inadequately portrayed the lifestyle of the 1920’s and the setting of a bustling prohibitionist lifestyle.
Following this embarrassment, there was a 25-year period where Fitzgerald’s only daughter, Scottie, had banned any remakes of the film. An entire quarter-century passed before Scottie allowed another Hollywood version of Gatsby to be created. In 1974, Robert Redford and Mia Farrow starred in a third attempt to create a well done Gatsby. This attempt was followed by a fourth in 2000, which starred Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino.
Both of these attempts failed. The 1974-remake was given a rating of 37 percent by Rotten Tomatoes. Jack Cocks from TIME Magazine said that it is “faithful to the letter of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel but entirely misses its spirit.”
Stanley Kauffmann, a critic from The New Republic, said that the “picture is a total failure of every requisite sensibility. A long, slow, sickening bore.” The 2000-version has yet to be given a rating.
Two years later, a loose hip-hop adaptation, G, premiered. Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 24 percent, and Entertainment Weekly critic Gregory Kirschling said that it was just “another strikeout, further destroying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s film batting average.”
I wouldn’t say it was fate that Scottie Fitzgerald died before she could put another ban on Gatsby remakes. Maybe Hollywood producers felt they owed it to the world to create another almost quality version of one of America’s most renowned classics. It’s also possible that producers thought they had learned a thing or two about creating films that aren’t a complete train wreck since 2002. Regardless, sixth time is a charm, right?
In 2013, Baz Luhrmann, the producer of Moulin Rouge, created the latest and most well-received attempt of The Great Gatsby to date. Simply titled Gatsby, this version is unquestionably more visually appealing than any of its predecessors. Similar to the experience given in the book, each party scene resembles a drug-induced stupor of colors, sounds and movement.
It was as if each of the viewer’s senses were stuffed into a blender and liquefied, creating a sense of fluidity, awe and terror that can only be obtained by those who have watched a tornado make landfall: it sort of makes sense, and the shock of what you’re seeing is almost outweighed by the beauty. Almost.
While beautiful language, complex relationships and intense visual detail all seem like they would be the perfect recipe for a movie, the way Fitzgerald wrote the book was not intended for the screen. Luhrmann was able to capture the scenes poetically but he wasn’t able to fully capture the hearts of each character.
The novel’s huge readership base fell in love with the dynamics between Daisy and Gatsby. Unfortunately, the majority of the interaction between them entailed no dialogue and yet the viewers are supposed to receive some understanding of their relationship on screen. While the newest film creation found ways around this obstacle by adding in romantic scenes and creating dialogue that matched the tone of Fitzgerald’s writing, the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby still fell short.
The idea to show written quotes on the screen through the clacking of Nick’s typewriter was ingenious. Many of the most important scenes from the book had no dialogue. The psychological connection between the events and characters are not always able to be visually displayed, but they cannot be ignored. By having excerpts from the novel physically typed out in front of the viewer, Luhrmann managed to kill two birds with one stone. He was able to portray facts without creating scenes, and he also whet the taste of hardcore literature enthusiasts by directly quoting popular lines. Unfortunately, this attempt was just not enough.
As critic Jon Reiner once said, literature is the enemy of film. While there were many redeeming qualities in this particular remake of the famous novel, there were enough downfalls to counteract them. Visual appeal and the occasional verbatim quotes are just not enough to create a strong movie. There are many aspects of the film that were not relatable to a viewer in the same way that they were to the reader.
The book is a measly 154 pages long. This hardly gives enough content to create a play, let alone a full movie script. With exquisite detail included in each line, there still is not enough meat to cook an entire motion picture. The story in print satiates the needs of readers. However, movie-goers are not given enough sustenance to get their fill. We are immediately thrown into scenes that give a basic idea of the writer’s intent, but there are many things that don’t make sense without previous knowledge from the book.
Viewers find themselves asking why Myrtle is so important. She doesn’t have many lines or influences throughout the movie, and yet her part is pivotal to the plot because her death means the demise of Gatsby. And Daisy’s friend Jordan, who also becomes Nick’s lover throughout most of the novel, is only given one scene. While she helps the viewer and Nick to get a basis of Gatsby’s ambiguous and intriguing nature, there is no sense of who she is or why she suddenly becomes important. Just as she becomes interesting, she is no longer shown in any more scenes throughout the movie.
Gatsby himself is also practically impossible to portray on-screen. His unstable and secretive personality is so well developed that it is practically destructive. His character is impossible to emotionally connect with, which causes a void in the viewer’s emotions. In the end, he just seems like a psychotic liar, making it hard to sympathize with his death. Isn’t that the main point, to have finally connected with the main character? This was a great disappointment.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a rating of 49 percent. While this is not a great score, it is the highest that any of the film adaptations have received. While top critic Richard Roeper described the film as “The best attempt yet to capture the essence of the novel,” it still did not capture the novel completely. Brilliant moments were quickly overshadowed by sensory-overload and beautiful scenes were broken own by underdeveloped connections.
While the movie was indeed far better than its predecessors and each scene an accurate account, critic Eric Snyder says it best. It was “almost 100 percent faithful to the novel in terms of plot, and almost zero percent faithful in terms of theme, character, and impact.” Luckily for Hollywood, the century isn’t over. I suppose there is still time for a seventh adaptation.