NEW YORK: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is short, almost novella size. It features larger-than-life characters, glamorous extravagance and dramatic demises. On its surface, it’s the most Hollywood-friendly of the great American novels.
But “Gatsby” remains elusive, its poetry largely locked on the page despite a century of attempted adaptations. Since it was published (to an initially cold response) in 1925, it has spawned four previous films (including a 1926 silent movie that’s since been lost) and numerous stage productions. The folly of transferring the novel to other media was even parodied in an 8-bit Nintendo-style video game where Nick Carraway must evade cocktail-dispensing butlers and Charleston-dancing flappers.
On Friday, Baz Luhrmann tosses his garish hat into the “Gatsby” ring. His is a 3-D blockbuster spectacle with a star-studded cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan) and a contemporary soundtrack (Jay-Z, Jack White) that hopes to finally crack the cinematic code of Fitzgerald’s novel.
“Whether we made the right choices or the wrong choices, we didn’t make any flippant choices,” says Luhrmann, the director of “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
All great novels have their own impossibilities of being captured on the big screen, but “Gatsby” poses particular challenges because of its amorphous beauty. The character of Jay Gatsby is deliberately vague (even Fitzgerald later wondered to his editor Max Perkins if he should have fleshed him out more). Daisy, too, is idealized all out of proportion. The book isn’t a chronicle of happenings, but the lyrical, written-down reflections of Carraway, the narrator: It’s in the telling, not the tale.
The adaptations of “Gatsby” have left, if not quite a “foul dust” in their wake, then certainly a legacy of disappointment.
All that’s left of the first film, starring Warner Baxter and directed by Herbert Brenon for Paramount Pictures, is the trailer, which can be found on YouTube. In her letters, Zelda Fitzgerald reportedly pronounced the film, based on an early Broadway production, “rotten.”
The 1949 “Gatsby,” starring Alan Ladd, may be the most lamentable version. It opened with Carraway and Daisy visiting Gatsby’s grave and concluded with Gatsby, shortly before his end, exuberantly promising rehabilitation in dated lingo: “I’m going to pay up, Nick. I’m going to square myself.”
The 1974 film, produced by Robert Evans and starring Robert Redford, is almost universally described as lifeless. The 2000 made-for-TV “Gatsby” starring Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino, is perhaps best left unmentioned.
Jackson Bryer, president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society and editor of the Library of Congress collection of Fitzgerald, says making a movie of “Gatsby” is like “adapting a poem.”
“Part of the beauty of the novel is that he doesn’t tell you much about anybody,” says Bryer, professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland. “Once you particularize it by making it Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio, you’re limiting it.”
In need of more specificity than Fitzgerald’s book could provide, Luhrmann and his frequent screenwriter, Craig Pearce, went looking elsewhere to fill in details.
Luhrmann even had help from Francis Ford Coppola, who (after Truman Capote’s draft was tossed out) penned the 1974 film, which also starred Sam Watterson as Carraway and Mia Farrow as Daisy. Coppola has said he was shocked to find almost no dialogue between Daisy and Gatsby in the book, so he delved into Fitzgerald’s short stories to find the language for a six-page scene of the two talking through the night.
Coppola shared unused scenes with Luhrmann and encouraged him to dig into Fitzgerald’s other writings.
“He was the one who said to me: Go to other Fitzgerald texts and look for clues,” says Luhrmann. “Because Francis encouraged me to do that, we came upon the idea of the sanatorium.”
To solve the problem of narration and avoid beginning the film with that classic overturning of pages in a book, Luhrmann and Pearce placed Carraway in a sanatorium where a psychiatrist is helping him work through his alcoholism by writing. The filmmakers drew this from both Fitzgerald’s own booze-soaked life and his unfinished novel about Hollywood, “The Last Tycoon,” for which he had planned a sanatorium scene.
“We spent a lot of time working out: What’s the device that we’re going to use to make that voice-over active?” says Pearce. “That kept us up a lot at night.”
They also drew from Fitzgerald’s earlier draft of the novel, “Trimalchio,” which DiCaprio was especially devoted to.
“Everyone who reads this book has their own interpretations of these characters,” says DiCaprio. “Part of what made Fitzgerald’s writing so great is it’s very voyeuristic. You feel like you’re privy to conversations that you shouldn’t be privy to. When you translate that to film, you have to be much more specific.”
Of course, what most distinguishes Luhrmann’s “Gatsby” from others is its razzle dazzle: Its effects-heavy assault of outlandish style and loud music. As the director says, “I carry a brand which has a whole lot of noise around it.”
Though many critics have already taken issue with Luhrmann’s stylistic flourishes in “The Great Gatsby,” it’s clear he’s wrestled with finding a way to be faithful to the book and to Fitzgerald’s prose. During the narration, some of the famous phrases drift across the screen. Unlike the Redford version, no one will say Luhrmanns film lacks energy, but rather that it has too much of it. DiCaprio, too, is far better suited to the part than Ladd, (as are the other leads: Mulligan, Maguire and Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan).
But no matter how one attempts to tackle “Gatsby,” it remains powerfully mysterious, resistant to intrusion. In setting out to adapt the book, John Collins, artistic director of the theater group Elevator Repair Service, hit upon a novel idea: Don’t. The troupe’s acclaimed nearly seven-hour production, “Gatz,” focused on a man reading every word of the book.
“I felt like the novel was just a kind of perfect crystal and I got frustrated trying to figure out what parts to cut and what parts to leave in,” says Collins. “The accomplishment was that Fitzgerald had written a novel where every word really seemed necessary. The writing, itself, dared you to keep every word of it because it was so well constructed.”
Though Collins can understand why the spectacle of the story would appeal to filmmakers, he says: “The book, to me, is not about those things. It’s about how thin they are.”
“It’s hard to describe what I love so much about (“The Great Gatsby”),” says Collins. “It’s easy to see all the ways in which it can be misunderstood. And some people think it’s not a very good novel. Of course, I disagree.”