The Great Gatsby (1974)

What makes Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby a classic novel is its utterly gorgeous prose. It is also this quality which arguably makes Gatsby the epitome of the ‘unfilmable’ book. Of course this hasn’t stopped anyone from trying; four incarnations of Gatsby have graced the big screen in the past 90 years. In this time we have seen a silent 1926 version now lost (which, if we are to believe Zelda Fitzgerald, is better off that way); a mystifying noir flick which saw Nick and Jordan ending up together; and most recently there was Baz’s venture — a perfect reason why CGI may well be the blight of 21st century cinema.

Sandwiched in the middle of this motley crew is The Great Gatsby of 1974, no more and no less confounding than its counterparts. To my knowledge, it is this version that most easily captures the heart of the English teacher (and perhaps raises the eyebrow of many an English student). It is easy to see why: all the main characters of the original novel are still recognisable, the sets are reasonably reminiscent of the 1920s — even the very words spouted come largely from the pen F. Scott Fitzgerald. On the surface, no other adaptation seems more faithful to the original novel.

Rich in symbolism and vivid imagery, the film is also a feast for the analytical viewer who enjoys pouring over every scene and reading into every little nook and cranny with an almost religious zeal. Take the fleeting moment during the opening credits of The Great Gatsby. We observe a quick cut from the music room drenched in regal gold to an empty hall shrouded in blues and greys. Without a word,  the transience and futility of worldly wealth is conveyed. Throughout the rest of the film, there are similar flashes of brilliance: the simple but very striking sequence where the vacant eyes of T. J. Eckleberg — an advertisement board — dissolve into the bloodied headlights of Gatsby’s car, for example, is undoubtedly a wonderful visual representation of how materialism can lead to death and destruction.

The Great Gatsby is a polished and beautiful film, and while watching it, one definitely feels that a great amount of care had gone into its production. All this is certainly very well, but when it really comes down to it, (and I do feel almost bad for saying this) The Great Gatsby is not a good adaptation. One of the most pressing problems is the presentation of the titular hero. For me, Jay Gatsby remains one of the most interesting characters of 20th century literature . Generally speaking, there are four facets to his character: the dignified but mysterious millionaire; the shady racketeer in with the wrong crowd; the young lieutenant still madly in love; and Jimmy Gatz, the little boy from the midwest with an extraordinary gift for hope. To master all four is somewhat difficult, but an actor can generally hit one up particularly well; Alan Ladd, for instance, succeeded in bringing to life the tough bootlegger; Leonardo DiCaprio arguably the young romantic. Robert Redford is indeed rather charming and does an admirable job in trying to capture the complicated character. However, there are great flaws in the film’s interpretation of Gatsby; these, I believe, are largely due to the baffling and, at times, inappropriate, cinematic choices on the part of Jack Clayton.

The first time we meet Mr. Gatsby is a testament to this. Gatsby stands alone on the balcony of his glittering mansion. Clayton presents the this scene with a low angle shot, and underscores it with an almost menacing strain. An onlooker unfamiliar with the tale would get an utterly contradictory understanding of the character. Instead of the quiet and modest dreamer, the viewer comes to the conclusion that Gatsby is a some kind of a Citizen Kane  — a ruthless, towering giant of a man.

The cinematography too possesses this same contradictory quality. It rarely bothers me when a film looks a little “dated” — give anything a few years and it’ll begin to show its age. However, I do find myself less forgiving when the movie in question drips of that cheesy soft-focus style of the 1970s, but in reality is supposed to take us back to the summer of 1922. The light, washed out colours, combined with the hazy cinematography, somewhat negate the very time and place the film tries to recall — the vibrant, literally the “roaring”, 1920s. Moreover, the style has little to do with the narrative being related; Jay Gatsby, and his remarkable but overpowering dream, are anything but subtle.

I have written many times that all one should really ask of an adaptation is that it captures the heart — the spirit of the source work. It can fall at every other hurdle, but if the film succeeds in this, it can count itself a success to some extent. If, on the other hand, it fails in this task, the work can take its pick as either terribly irreverent or essentially inane. Despite its talented cast and crew, The Great Gatsby is frankly the latter. Everything of the novel is in place, but the real themes, like the colours, are subdued. It is Gatsby’s colossal capacity for hope and his pitiful obsession with reclaiming the past that drive the novel. Clayton’s film however reduces the narrative to a rather trivial little love story. There is such tragedy in the story of one man and the decadent world which ultimately consumes him. And it is indeed tragic that the harder he works to regain his lost love, and the closer he believes himself to be getting, the further away she slips from his reach. The Great Gatsby (1974), while superficially beautiful, never feels genuine.  It just seems to miss the point.

14 Comments

  • seanledden says:

    I completely agree with your complaint about the “cheesy, soft-focus style of the 1970’s.” I think part of the problem might have been a case of the “It was a simpler time” disease that afflicts most filmmakers. Only a few seem to realize that the past was as dynamic and confused as the present, and so most movies replace energy with nostalgia. (Thanks for the great review.)

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Thank you Sean. Your observation about many filmmakers believing the past to be a simpler time is spot-on. And if anything, the 1920s were probably one of the most fascinating and vibrant periods of recent history.

  • I think you are spot on with the interpretations, none of which have ever satisfied me. I agree that this great American novel is sheer genius in prose and characterization. It is beautifully ironic in that the two most “alive” characters who desperately seek their happiness in unattainable people are Myrtle and Gatsby, both of whom die . The cardboard characters continue to live their useless lives. The ending is the American Dream brilliantly lamented. Gatsby, the last of the Chivalric Lovers, who follows that list completely, is a hard character to portray, and I don’t think any of the actors, so far, have been able to fill the bill, even though they are accomplished in other roles. The only actor, for me, that would come closest to Gatsby is Bruce Boxleitner in his earlier days because of his wonderful smile and his ability to look “as if he killed a man.” Your reviews are a delight to read. Thank you.

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Beautifully expressed Patricia. Some stories are just so suited to their original media, and Gatsby is certainly one of them. The inherent realism of cinema just seems to dilute the magic, mystery and sheer lyricism of the novel. But I do agree with you about Boxleitner — come to think of it, he would’ve made a wonderful Gatsby!

  • beetleypete says:

    Although hard to bring to film, I think that Redford did it best. Also, the production is sumptuous, and reeks of the 1930s. I would always have a problem with Mia Farrow, perhaps the most overrated actress of all time, or at least of my time. However, my memories of seeing this film (aged 22 at the time) are always good ones. As for the recent effort starring DiCaprio, not even on the same page of any version of the film script of the book that I might recognise. EPAL uses the phrase’ ‘continue to live their useless lives’. This is surely what Fitzgerald intended, and in that respect, this film succeeds. In short, if not this version, then no version, is my conclusion.
    Best wishes to you Rachel. Pete.

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Yes, I too think the actors of this production did well. Although I am not a particular fan of Farrow either, I did actually enjoy watching her in this film. Personally, I thought she was very successful in portraying the shallow and highly artificial Daisy. As for the 2013 version, I do remember walking out feeling rather horrified, but frankly little else. (A testament to its mediocrity perhaps.)
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Pete.

  • Great post! Spot on. Beautiful website too…

  • The Lady Eve says:

    This is an excellent assessment of the failings of the ’74 adaptation. It has impressed me, a lover of Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby,” as not much more than a glossy surface of minimal depth, “a rather trivial little love story” (the fate of so many great works of literature that are brought to the screen). While Waterston, Chiles, and Dern deliver fine performances, I think, Redford and Farrow – who have zero chemistry with each other – seem badly miscast. A huge disappointment of a film. Well, not quite as huge as the 2013 attempt.

    • Rachel Tsang says:

      Yes, you are quite right about the lack of chemistry between Redford and Farrow. I think I read somewhere of Mia Farrow complaining about how Robert Redford was utterly absorbed with the unfolding Watergate scandal — every spare moment of his he spent locked up in his trailer glued to the television. While it was no doubt excellent preparation for his role in All the President’s Men, this fascination did rather detract from his immediate performance in Gatsby.

  • dullwood68 says:

    Hi Rachel –
    Great review as always. I particularly liked your assessment of Gatsby’s introduction – it’s always seemed to me to be a very “Hollywood” way of introducing someone, but more as a way of revealing the actor rather than the character. I’m not so sure that the novel is unfilmable, though I think it will always be a difficult project (and it certainly needs a better director than Jack Clayton). Maybe the fifth time will be the charm!
    Nigel
    P.S. Love the site, and congrats on the self-hosting.

  • Felicia says:

    Very beautiful website and review!

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