I would love to review this film as an independent entity, however with my world having been so oversaturated with The Great Gatsby I can only present to you a comparison. Clayton’s film is a more austere rendering of the roaring twenties than Luhrman’s full out glitz and glamour. While Clayton’s film, and it’s narrator, openly scorn the hedonism of society, Luhrmann’s merely presents us with the terrifying waste and allows the audience to experience the horror of 1920’s New York for themselves. Both techniques are effective and resonate with the era of the films’ production.
However there is a problem in adapting a book such as Gatsby. This “intricately patterned” novel allows itself to be interpreted differently by any reader. As DiCaprio himself pointed out, “In a way it’s a recipe for disaster because so many people are going to say ‘that’s not how I felt Daisy should be or how Gatsby should be.’”. Any film necessarily cements the characters into one interpretation and so will alienate a large proportion of those who loved Gatsby the book. The inherent charm of Gatsby is in its ambiguity. This ambiguity is why it is still interesting to discuss nearly 100 years later, why indeed there is still more to say.
For my part, while I thoroughly enjoyed Clayton’s film, its dead-pan almost documentary style sharply contrasting with the ghastly opulence of Gatsby’s mansion, I found myself hung up on a single basic flaw. Mia Farrow’s Daisy is too far removed from the vulnerable, sophisticated and intelligent woman I read about and saw in Baz Luhrmann’s film. This is the Daisy that critics hurled hatred at. The “vicious emptiness” of Farrow’s performance undermines the plot of Gatsby as a whole. Not even Redford’s Gatsby could fall in love with someone so vapid and shallow. The interpretation goes no further than the popular opinions held by cynical critics and English teachers alike. Nick is a prig, Gatsby a dreamer and Daisy an intolerably empty doll. Given that, in certain scenes, the script for both films is identical to the dialogue in the book, it is phenomenal how different the characters in both films seem to be; how utterly repulsive and vacuous Daisy can be made to be.
Redford’s Gatsby is quietly sad throughout the film, tentative and fearful, his dreams never come to fruitition and the audience gains the impression that he never fully expected them to, unlike DiCaprio’s Gatsby. The Gatsby who never doubted that anything was possible if you had enough money. However, Redford’s performance shines when he is confronted with the more difficult situations. The scene between Gatsby, Daisy and her daughter is gut-wrenching as Redford expresses the whole spectrum of emotional pain in one moment at the mere sight of this child. Unfortunately the unrelenting sadness lends a kind of pointlessness to the whole film, the denouement is no longer tragic but inevitable, a consequence of daring to dream. If there is any one thing that Fitzgerald’s novel advocates it is to dream, to dream beyond hope or reason.
What Clayton’s film does very well is include the more minor characters, including the welcome return of the Nick and Jordan dynamic. This allows the rich variety of the novel to shine through, the film is less obsessedly focused on Gatsby and Daisy and allows Nick to function as a character with relationships and feelings apart from his admiration of Gatsby. The character of George Wilson is also more fleshed out in the eye of Clayton’s camera. His motivations and emotions are more clear, more human and so much more than the dowdy stock villain he is made into by Luhrmann’s film. Similarly the relationship between Tom and Myrtle seems genuinely based on some underlying emotion, even if it is their mutual unhappiness. In one stroke of genius Clayton juxtaposes the reunited Gatsby and Daisy with one of Tom and Myrtle’s meetings. You cannot help but wonder at these counterparts, these two extramarital relationships that are ostensibly equally immoral. Yet one is lauded as a great romance, the other condemned as a seedy affair.
Yet after all is said and done I truly think that Clayton’s film is a thorough and appropriate adaptation of The Great Gatsby. As is Luhrmann’s film. However we do not yet have the film that Fitzgerald’s novel truly merits, the pure translation of Gatsby’s beauty into cinematic language is either still to come or can essentially never exist.
“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”