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.
Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?
The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?
Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.
On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.
Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.
Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.
This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.
The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.
Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.
On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:
“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”
Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.
Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.
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