Adapting a book like The Great Gatsby into a film is both an incredibly difficult challenge and ridiculously easy. On the one hand, the novel, written by F Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925, is one of the most beloved and well-known novels of the 20th century. People across the world have an idea in their heads of what Jay Gatsby should look like, what his house should look like, what his parties were really like. If you get it wrong, people will notice and tear the film to shreds. That said, The Great Gatsby is one of the few novels which truly lends itself to being adapted. Firstly, the novel itself is actually quite short, so a lot of what is written about in the book could – hypothetically – be left in. Nothing need be cut dramatically or altered. Secondly, the novel is unbelievably light on dialogue.
So much of what made Fitzgerald's novel so popular revolved around his exquisite prose, the innate detail in his descriptions of locations, outfits, mannerisms, people and all the little nuances of 1920s New York. It is all wealth and appearances but much of this is explained to the reader through the narrative rather than shown through dialogue and action. A young man is lured to New York to make his fortune and moves in next to the elusive Mr Gatsby, who he later learns has already been acquainted with his cousin Daisy before she married Tom Buchanan. For a story that revolves around Gatsby, it is worth noting that the man himself does not actually appear until chapter three, only adding, of course, to the intrigue behind his character.
Perhaps quite controversially, I appear to be one of the few people who actually did not enjoy the novel as much as I had hoped. It is not a bad novel, by any stretch of the imagination. However, as it is written from the perspective of the narrator, it becomes laborious quite quickly. The narrator seems far too self-involved and though there is lots of beautiful narrative, not a lot actually happens. The narrator seems to observe more than participate in so much of what takes place around him, as though he is mearly whisked up into the drama involuntarily. He placates those around him, never really getting angry or standing up to them. Even when Daisy, Tom and Gatsby are introduced into the story, it is a long while before the story moves on from gossip to action and drama.
In the film adaptation, there is so much glamour and intrigue that there is no time for boredom. The film, in true Luhrmann style, is vibrant, colourful, and oh so dramatic, with sultry looks across crowded parties, captivating eyelash flutters and soft touches between fingers. Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan are sublime as Gatsby and Daisy, exuding the inner turmoil and the outward falseness of both their characters. Mulligan is simply radiant. Joel Edgerton is suitably brutish as Tom and manages to be both terrifying and oddly alluring. The chemistry between Daisy and Gatsby and Daisy and Tom – though obviously different in style – is always apparent, even though there is immense restraint and subtlety in the execution of their performances. Sadly, it is Tobey Maguire that falls short of this impressive young group of actors, never really pulling in viewers. Though arguably, he is doing exactly what the character in the book does – observing more than participating.
The book takes a while to get going, spending far too long setting the scene, and it isn't until the final third that it really goes all out with the action and drama. The film, on the other hand, builds with a steady pace, examining the complacency of the characters' wealth and indulgence. It sets the scene, just as the novel does, but remains captivating throughout thanks to the incredible screen presence of its young stars. There are a few surreal moments, thanks largely to the immersive nature of the 3D (which adds little to the film itself), where audiences may find themselves having Titanic flashbacks but other than that, the film is an intoxicating tale from start to finish.
As adaptations go, this may well be one of the most faithful book to film conversions ever made, with some of it incredibly literal. If lines are already in your head from the novel, you are likely to recognise many of them in the film. Luhrmann's vision of The Great Gatsby has all the grandeur and opulence of the book and, thanks to his fantastical style, it becomes almost as dreamlike and surreal as the New York experienced by the narrator in the novel, capturing the vacuous and superficial nature of the source text.
Overall, this is a stunning and suitably audacious adaptation with all the glamour and drama of the novel but all the relevance of a modern drama – and a cool, young, soundtrack to boot thanks to Jay-Z's collaboration.
Book – 7/10
Film – 8/10