June 2, 2013

Something significant, elemental, and profound: How ‘The Great Gatsby’ compares from book to film

Although I have not yet read any reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I have heard some of the talk. I have heard lamentations that the film is “too long” and “too slow”.

Were we seeing the same movie?

The Great Gatsby is anything but slow. It is a fast, frenetic, sensory overload of a film. Through 3D glasses your gaze will constantly ping-pong across the screen as you try to take in the full extent of the pace, the rhythm, and the dazzling eye-popping colour.

THIS is what Baz Luhrmann is all about. In Moulin Rouge he set the stage. In The Great Gatsby, he takes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel and catapults it into his extraordinary world of flamboyance and flair.

Luhrmann’s world is well suited to this story. When reading the book, the words seem to flow together in a flurry, as if Nick Carraway is desperate to etch down all the details of his recent history so that he can put it all to bed and get on with his life.

The book darts from one event or thought to another, as Nick explains only the people and places that are most pivotal to the plot. In this way, Fitzgerald himself lay the foundations for a film that could whizz and whirr from one day to the next – like Gatsby himself, hurtling through the Long Island streets in his yellow automobile.

As the film opens, our narrator is speaking from a sanitarium. In these scenes, he stumbles, disheveled and forlorn, around a darkened room and begins to recount the events that led to his loss of innocence.

There are many parallels with these scenes and the opening and closing of Moulin Rouge. Like Christian on the streets of Paris, Nick Carraway starts off fresh-faced and bright-eyed in New York, and eventually descends into a deep depression and comes to loath the city.

By adding these Moulin Rouge-style bookends, Luhrmann has set a much more somber scene than I was expecting. In reading the novel, my impression was that Gatsby’s story was told in a casual, matter-of-fact way. Nick’s words implied that he was vaguely sad but still slightly curious of Gatsby – so I didn’t expect Tobey Maguire’s Carraway to be so angry, bitter and disillusioned.

Perhaps this disconnect between the book and the film is only due to my interpretation? Perhaps Luhrmann noticed something that I didn’t? Could I have missed the subtle hints that indicated to Luhrmann that Gatsby had a more profound emotional impact on Nick?

In adapting this classic American novel to the big screen, Luhrmann took all of the things that Fitzgerald could only hint at and made them overt. Fitzgerald was constrained by the conservative nature of his times, and of the printed medium. Luhrmann had no such constraints.

In depicting Tom’s relationship with Myrtle, for example, Fitzgerald could only hint at what they were getting up to in the hotel room. Luhrmann, on the other hand, had Isla Fisher (as Myrtle) standing on furniture and garishly flashing her underwear and kicking her heels in the air. Nick was also shown sitting in discomfort as he was subjected to the grunts and moans coming from the bedroom.

In the novel, Tom Buchanan is described as having an aggressive appearance with a “gruff, husky” speaking voice. He is proud and domineering and has a habit of physically compelling Nick from one room to another, as though “moving a checker to another square.” Joel Edgerton plays this part well and is very convincing as the arrogant, obstinate character.

The casting of Jay Gatsby was always going to be over-analysed. The novel revolves around the mysteriousness of this central character and Nick’s occasional descriptions of Gatsby’s appearance, speech and demeanor are for a long time the only clues to who he really is.

Gatsby is described as having a rare, reassuring smile and hair that “looked as though it were trimmed every day.” He is a few years over thirty, elegant, and considered to the point of appearing artificial, with an “elaborate formality of speech [that] just missed being absurd.”

The rationale of giving Gatsby a famous face was always going to be questioned. The audience requires a level of intrigue, which may have been diminished by allocating a face as familiar as Leonardo Dicaprio’s. But one cannot question Luhrmann’s choice when you see the Hollywood stalwart in action – not when he plays charm, anger and heartbreak of Gatsby to such perfection.

I have heard it said that a major deviation from the book is in the way that Tobey Maguire’s Nick appears to idolise Gatsby. Much stock is placed in one line of the novel: “I disapproved of him from beginning to end.”

It is true that, in the book, Nick is from the outset wary and cynical of Gatsby. He claims to have heard every false note in his speech and is frequently irritated by what he sees as Gatsby’s charade. While in the beginning Nick was in awe of Gatsby, he was eventually perceived as being more average and “without any particular wonder.”

In the film, Nick does seem to have a more persistently romantic, idealistic view of Gatsby. He describes Gatsby as the “single most hopeful man I ever met” and the “one man exempt from disgust.” But I don’t see how the relationship between Nick and Gatsby has deviated too far away from the line set by Fitzgerald.

Although Nick may have “disapproved” of some of his actions, he always maintained a level of underlying affection – or at least respect for all that Gatsby had aspired to and accomplished. Nick wavered from admiring Gatsby to pitying him, but he never truly disliked him. Again, I think that the only disconnect here comes down to a personal interpretation of the text.

Daisy Buchanan’s character is given a mixed appraisal in the novel. At times, Nick is enchanted by Daisy’s beauty and grace. In detail, he describes the charm of her “low, trilling voice” and the “stirring warmth” that flows from her.

But Daisy is a contradiction. She is sweet and careless in equal measure. She is both selfish and ashamed, excited and unfulfilled, deprived and cherished. She is at times held up on a pedestal, and at others dragged through the dirt.

In casting for this role, Luhrmann would have been looking for an actress who could convincingly embody all of these qualities. She needed to be beautiful enough to make an indelible impression of all the men that she encountered, while at the same time appearing as innocent as her character in the novel, whose “attention leaps from one thought to another” and is completely out of touch with the ordinary world.

Carey Mulligan was an ingenious choice and is an absolute vision as Daisy.

For me, the appeal of Fitzgerald’s story is its underlying love story. Gatsby has a love for Daisy that surpasses every other motivation and feeling. Deep down, every girl dreams of being loved that way – but the tragedy comes when we understand that a love with such intensity could never be sustained.

Gatsby had built Daisy up into a lofty dream that she could never live up to. This truth is both sad and beautiful. When I watched Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, I experienced that flutter that only comes with an epic romance. Thank you Baz!

Of course, Luhrmann did give the “green light” to some other very distinct and deliberate changes:

  • The Nick of the book is much more resilient. He doesn’t seem to require the professional help that Toby Maguire’s Nick finds in the film.
  • In the book, Nick seems to be writing of his own accord, and the fact that he is doing so seems to be no great feat. In the film, he is convinced to write as a form of therapy, and it quickly becomes an obsession that returns Nick to his true profession.
  • In the book, Nick is not told that Jordan is a “very famous golfer,” as he is told in the film. He recognises her face from some past controversy and only confirms her identity later on.
  • The Dan Coady rescue scene is different. In the book, Jay did not row out and commandeer a stricken vessel that was already perilously close to the rocks. He was casually walking along the beach when he decided to warn of the dangers of the coming wind to an already anchored ship.
  • Daisy’s debut at Gatsby’s party was also less dramatic in the book. There was no fistfight, only a phone call that diverted Gatsby’s attention for a portion of the evening. In the book, Daisy tried to convince herself that she was enjoying the party, but it was clear that she was from a different world – in the film, the difference between old money and new was unavoidable.
  • In the book, the “I know your wife” statement occurred one afternoon at Gatsby’s house, when Tom appeared unexpectedly as part of a small riding party. Gatsby becomes intrigued by Tom, and wants to join the party, but is snubbed and left behind when the riders depart. No such snub occurs during the film.
  • Daisy introduces her daughter to Gatsby in the book, whereas in the film the young girl is only seen briefly when Daisy and Tom are packing to leave their mansion.
  • In the book, Gatsby never lost his temper at Tom. There was just a glimmer of the rage in his face. That was all – but it was enough for Daisy.
  • Tom was so confident that Gatsby had lost Daisy in the book that he smugly insisted that they drive back to Long Island together. In the film, Daisy runs away from the hotel room in distress and Gatsby runs after her.
  • In the film, Tom offered Gatsby’s name to Wilson at his garage. In the book, Wilson had to walk for hours before eventually finding Tom and learning Gatsby’s name.
  • In the book, Myrtle’s sister Catherine helps to correct the rumors about Gatsby before they can rage out of control. In the film, Luhrmann allows the rumors to rage and rage and rage.
  • In the book, when Nick telephoned Gatsby that final afternoon, the line was busy. In the film, the phone was answered and Nick could overhear what was happening in the background.
  • In the book, Gatsby floated on an inflatable mattress in the pool. In the film, he dove in and swam the length of the pool before stepping up the ladder and looking one last time out toward the green light. In this way, Luhrmann created a Gatsby that appeared to have everlasting hope.
  • Gatsby’s father makes an appearance at the end of the book, and speaks of a son that was always concerned with his family’s wellbeing. In the film, Gatsby never felt connected to his family. When he walked away he never looked back.
The verdict:

How does the film rate? 5/5

How does the film rate as an adaptation? 5/5

Total score: 10/10

Book or Big Screen? Book (No matter how good the film adaptation is, a classic is a classic.)

P.S. I forgot to add this to the post originally, but couldn't leave it off for long. In the reviewing process I endeavored to count all the mentions of "old sport" and compare from book to film. For anyone who is interested, the infamous Gatsby-ism is mentioned 45 times in the book and 47 in the film!


  1. Great post, Danielle! I loved the movie so much...& only read the book afterwards!! I loved what Baz has done with it. Nothing jarred in my opinion...I hope & believe that maybe Scott Fitzgerald would agree!!

    1. Hi Rachel. Yes, I would like to think that he would approve.
      Great to hear that your read the book - I love to hear when film adaptations generate some interest in the original. It makes me believe in an idealistic world where films and literature can work together in harmony :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by Rachel! In case you are interested, I also counted the number of 'old sport' mentions from book to film. In my rush I forgot to include it! By my calculations, 'old sport' was spoken 45 times in the book and 47 in the film!

  3. WOW! This gets a 5/5 from you!? That's great. Going to rent it when it comes out just for the costuming and the opulence of the settings. Thanks, Danielle. :)

    1. What can I say Rissi - I may be controversial, and some may not agree, but I rated from the heart. I just loved it!