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November 26, 2011 / jlmicek

The Five Faces Of “The Great Gatsby:” The Trouble With Getting A Great Book Right On Film.

The stars of The Great Gatsby (l-r) Carey Mulligan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire

With the release this week of new set photos of the Baz Luhrman-directed “The Great Gatsby” hitting the Web, I got to thinking about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale of The Jazz Age and why, despite the best efforts of some very talented filmmakers, it has seemingly defied adaptation to the big screen.

First, a bit of full disclosure: Of all the books in American literature, “Gatsby” is my most-beloved. I’ve re-read it every summer since I was 18 years old (2011 marked my 23rd consecutive re-reading, for those of you interested in statistics). And I never fail to take away something new from it.

I have friends who will tell you that they more closely associate me with the works of Ernest Hemingway — due, in no small part, to the shelves full of Hemingwayana and novels and short stories that fill my basement office. If they’re in a particularly generous mood, they may even tell you that my fiction and journalism resembles Hemingway’s as well. Or perhaps I’d like to think they’d be that generous in their descriptions.

But I don’t return to Hemingway’s work the way I do to “Gatsby.” I re-read “The Sun Also Rises” for the first time in years a couple of summers back. And while it was a great way to pass a couple of days on the beach, it did not resonate with me the way that the adventures of the damaged Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the dry and decent Nick Carraway and the ineffable Jay Gatsby still does.

I think that may be because, at its heart, “Gatsby” is a story about lost love and lost youth and all of us, somewhere inside us, still nurse that wound and maybe even hope, as Gatsby goes, that if we replicate the circumstances just right, that we can recapture that part of us we think we’ve lost and maybe even win back that lost love — or the way we used to feel when we were around that person.

And I think it’s because the novel looms so large on the psychic landscape for so many people that any filmed version of it is inevitably going to fall far short of expectations. No movie, in this case, hardcore fans will tell you, can ever be as good as the book.

This trouble has existed since the beginning. A year after “Gatsby” was released in 1926, an all-but-forgotten silent version of the book was adapted for the big screen. It was rediscovered over the summer among a trove of films that were in such disrepair that they were in danger of vanishing altogether.

Here’s the only known footage from the film:

The 1926 film was further highlighted in a piece by Salon film critic Andrew O’Hehir, but and you can read more about the silent version in this Wikipedia entry.

In doing the research for this piece, I also found a 1949 version of the book starring Alan Ladd, Betty Field, Macdonald Carey and Ruth Hussey among others. It was directed by Elliott Nugent, who also directed several Bob Hope films including “My Favorite Brunette” (1947.)

This brief snatch of footage may tell you why the movie has eluded notice:

It was to take another quarter-century before someone tried adapting “Gatsby” for the cinema again. And the 1974 version, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby; Mia Farrow as Daisy and Sam Waterston as Nick, is the version that most people think of when they think of the book on the big screen.

I saw this movie for the first time as an undergraduate in the late 1980s. I was working in my college library and pulling shifts in the music-media room, a vast space where music and film students would occasionally come to check-out scores and movies that their professors had put on reserve for class. It was in the basement of the library and I was rarely disturbed. So with that much free-time at my disposal, I spent much of my sophomore year giving myself a crash course in the best of American and European cinema.

The 1974 version of “Gatsby” was among the films on permanent reserve and being an English major with a burgeoning (and still alive and well) obsession with The Lost Generation, I felt like it was something that I had to see. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the movie ever since.

Waterston’s portrayal of the dry and disengaged Nick is note-perfect and though I didn’t like him originally, I’ve come to like Redford as Gatsby, he brings an affability to a character who sometimes defied likeability (though he is always sympathetic). But I could not then — and still cannot now — abide Farrow’s performance as Daisy, which still strikes me as fatuous and overplayed.

And every time I hear Farrow trill, “I’m positively overcome by happiness,” upon seeing Nick at dinner in the film’s opening act, I must repress the urge to throw something at the screen.

For reasons that confound but please me, the YouTube gods have not purged parts of the film from their servers. So here’s part of that opening section:

It would take another quarter-century still for someone to take another crack at trying to bring “Gatsby” to life on the big screen. And maybe the folks at A&E and the BBC should have left well-enough alone. The 2000 version starred Mira Sorvino as Daisy; Paul Rudd as Nick and Toby Stephens (Who? Exactly.) as Gatsby.

Rudd, who’s gone on to justified acclaim as a comic actor, brings nothing to Nick. I can’t even tell you one thing I remember about Stephens as Gatsby. And the only thing I can say about Sorvino’s performance as Daisy is that she channels a watered-down version of Farrow in much the same way that Brandon Routh unsuccessfully tried to step into Christopher Reeve’s tights in the forgettable “Superman Returns.”

For reasons that elude me, embedding has been disabled for this film, but you can watch it all on YouTube.

So that brings us all the way around to the 2011 version. I’m looking forward to seeing Mulligan as Daisy. Her performance in last year’s “Never Let Me Go” was positively mesmerizing. I’m nervous about DiCaprio as Gatsby. I know he’s grown as an actor, but I have never been totally sold on his skills. Maguire may well bring the requisite wide-eyedness as Nick. But I fear that, with the 1974 film looming so large, that the leads may try to ape the performances of their elders.

The tropical climes of Australia are being asked to stand-in for Long Island, which could be problematic if the stray palm finds its way into the shot. And no one has explained why Luhrman felt obligated to shoot the movie in 3D — unless he’s hoping for a particularly evocative green light at the end of Daisy’s dock or intends to make the disembodied eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg especially phantasmagoric.

The problem with Gatsby-On-Screen, as I see it, is that no director or camera can really do justice or bring to life Fitzgerald’s vivid prose. The language and vocabulary that he created for the book is so carefully wrought and intricate that the mental picture it creates can’t be topped by the camera.

For instance, why get DiCaprio when you have this?

“Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning -

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. “

Honestly, that’s good enough for me. But I wish Lurhman luck. He’s going to need it.

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