Page and Screen: Must Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby be set in the Roaring Twenties?

Some stories will always be set in certain times and places. It’s impossible to imagine most Dickensian tales grounded in a world without workhouses and industrial poverty, for example. Similarly Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes would feel out of place investigating crime anywhere other than
a London stuffed with Victorian villainy. Hang on though, wasn’t last summer’s hit Sherlock on the BBC, created by Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, set in the present day?

Of course some will say that the likes of Sherlock, transplanted from the usual setting and loved by audiences and critics alike, are the exceptions to the generally reliable rule. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. But if that is the case, then why make yet another Jane Austen or Charles Dickens costume drama? If nothing else, Sherlock proved that changes in period setting, previously unthinkable, could be just as true to the original creations and successful to boot.

Nevertheless a certain mould of classic novel would perhaps not work at all if ripped from its historical birth place. Often the events of the narrative are meaningless without the context they play out in. Many truly enduring fictions from the page last not because they are well written or engrossing but because they also say something definitive about the world in which they were hatched. Shunting a beloved story about Italian merchants into the setting of a modern stock exchange, for no other reason than to claim an original slant on the tale, is tantamount to cultural vandalism.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of those books that is no longer thought of in terms of its plot, but as the symbol of an era. It distilled the excesses and immoralities of the Roaring Twenties, which would eventually lead to the devastating Wall Street Crash of 1929, into not much over a 100 pages of exquisite writing. In no time at all Fitzgerald says so much, beautifully and ambiguously. On the surface it’s the story of the jealousies and loves of a group of wealthy socialites, detached from real life, but it’s so much more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps that’s why any attempts to adapt it for the screen fall so short of what the book was really about.

The most famous big screen version of The Great Gatsby is Jack Clayton’s 1974 picture starring Robert Redford as Gatsby. Wherever you read about this film it is described as “one of the most hyped movies of the summer of 1974”, in a way that strongly implies that the expectations far exceeded the results. On paper it had all the ingredients of an excellent adaptation but ultimately it’s a desperate pretender compared to the book’s brilliance.

Baz Luhrmann is the latest filmmaker to try his hand at The Great Gatsby. He already has a suitably titular actor lined up for the lead in Leonardo DiCaprio, along with a strong supporting cast in Carey Mulligan as Daisy and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway. Mulligan in particular could be crucial, given the misjudged caricature of a performance given by Mia Farrow as Daisy in the 1974 version. Farrow was whiny and hysterical, failing to show the audience any reason at all why a man such as Gatsby would be in love with
her. Mulligan has the talent to provide a far deeper portrayal.

In fact, despite delivering recent turkeys like Australia, there’s no reason why Luhrmann can’t dramatically improve on the letdown that was the 1974 version. Robert Redford was ok as Gatsby but DiCaprio, with some
bolder direction, can probably do a better job.  But the script will have to be top notch. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay in 1974 almost tried hard to do the novel justice, quoting large sections of dialogue and even chunks of Carraway’s narration in voiceover. In the end though trying to transform the magic from the page so straightforwardly led to a very literal film. It told us rather than showing us the feel of the book, hammering it home so that we felt unable to connect with the characters. The book was immensely symbolic and
atmospheric. The film explored almost none of Fitzgerald’s key themes and gave its characters very little depth. Bruce Dern, as Tom Buchanan, was the only actor to come close to the essence of his character.

Luhrmann’s film is likely to land up with similar disappointments for those that have read the book though. The Robert Redford film focused firmly on the look of the story and The Great Gatsby is very visually written at times, especially in terms of lighting. But it is primarily about what we cannot see or know or express, like the mysteries of Gatsby’s character, the might-have-beens of the past, private lives and telephone conversations with distant “business associates”. The 1974 production made a fetish of grand appearances. Visual details are so important that in every scene every
single character is sweating, the lights twinkling off their brows. All this
succeeds in doing is illustrating how artificial an adaptation it is, with
everyone involved literally sweating with the effort of doing the book justice.

Perhaps then a Sherlock style time shift would help get back to the true roots of the story. Seemingly The Great Gatsby is a story forever tied to the 1920s but many of its themes would translate to the modern day. Fitzgerald was fascinated by technology, from telephones to cars, from the cinema to the street lamp. Today the world is coming to terms with social networking, new methods of communication and technologies like the iPad. There are still huge inequalities in terms of wealth and opportunities. We are still fascinated by enigmatic and elusive stars. We have just emerged from an economic crisis caused by banking excess and a rampant culture of consumerism, born in Fitzgerald’s time.

Luhrmann loves his fancy productions and like Jack Clayton in 1974, may end up worshipping period details rather than the characters and the meaning of the story. Changing the setting in some way might help counteract this temptation.

Alright my argument to transport Gatsby through time is forced and there remain many reasons to leave him be in the 1920s. But my point is essentially that there is no reason for yet another remake for the sake of it. Especially in the case of The Great Gatsby, where the captivating soul of the book is probably impossible to transform to film, there is no point playing it safe to produce something mediocre. Remakes should be better than what went
before and say and do something different to shed new light on the original
story. Otherwise they do little more than fuel the fires of Hollywood money
making machines, which trample on the talents of undiscovered storytellers with new messages and ideas.

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