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Why Can’t Hollywood Get ‘The Great Gatsby’ Right?

Hollywood took its first stab at adapting The Great Gatsby for the screen only a year after its publication, and has been trying intermittently ever since — and, for the most part, failing. What is it about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic that makes it so impossible, so utterly untraslatable? It’s certainly not that the film industry hasn’t been trying hard enough: Baz Luhrmann’s new film is the fifth official adaptation. In the course of a week, I watched all of them that can be seen (and another, looser adaptation besides), and came up with a few theories.

But first, the proper introductions. The 1926 Gatsby has, like so many other silent films, been lost to time; all that remains of it is a one-minute trailer (above), and it’s awfully hard to extract much from that. But this much can be said: the Jazz Age party scenes have a wonderful documentary authenticity, feeling captured rather than staged, and thus free of the dress-up vibe in subsequent adaptations. That aside, reviews at the time were not kind, and the Fitzgeralds themselves reportedly hated the film, walking out of their screening.

The 1949 version, directed by Elliot Nugent, is a puzzle. The setting is inexplicably changed from 1922 to 1928, the story recalled from Gatsby’s Bible-verse-decorated gravestone (!) by Nick and Jordan, who are married (!!). Stylistically, the film is an uneasy mash-up of Fitzgerald, gangster movie, and film noir, with Gatsby (well played by Alan Ladd) explicitly realized as a Prohibition bootlegger. Jordan is given much more to do here than in other adaptations — or in the book, for that matter, since she’s here present for Gatsby and Daisy’s first tea, and her romance with Nick is given an inordinate amount of screen time. The noir overtones take over heartily in the final reel, with stinger music, Daisy reimagined as some kind of femme fatale (this one makes the biggest muddle of her character, and that’s saying something), and Gatsby transformed into the fatalistic noir dope. “I’ve beat a lot of raps in my time, but I’ll take this one,” he tells Nick, just before he’s shot. “I’ll take it… for a kid named Jimmy Gatz!”

The ’49 version is noticeably bereft of Nick’s voice-over, which all of the subsequent direct adaptations use as a method for capturing Fitzgerald’s distinctive and iconic prose. By the time of Jack Clayton’s 1974 film, the book had been firmly established as a Classic of Modern Literature (that placement wasn’t quite complete in ’49), and as such, the Clayton version is far more faithful to the text. Fidelity isn’t the trouble this time around — listlessness is. Clayton is so obsessed with respecting the story that he turns it into a museum piece; the pace is overwhelmingly sluggish, the scenes full of dead air, and there’s no spontaneity in, say, the tossing of the shirts scene. You see the actors going through the paces of dramatizing a classic, rather than finding the heartbeat underneath. Redford seems a good choice for the leading role, and his enigmatic early scenes work (there’s a wonderful way, in his first scene with Sam Waterston’s Nick, that you see him choose to smile, and then do so). But he’s done no favors by the script’s addition of private romantic scenes between Gatsby and Daisy — the writing is so poor that all the seams show, and Mia Farrow never captures the free spirit that lurks inside Daisy. (The role also allows her too many occasions to indulge in her predilection towards vocal whininess.)

That same mistake is made in Robert Markowitz’s 2000 made-for-TV adaptation, which even goes so far as to provide flashback dialogue scenes of Jay and Daisy’s first meeting and initial courtship. That’s one of several TV-movie touches that hamper this version, but it does have its moments. Most are provided by Paul Rudd, who nicely captures Nick’s wide-eyed naïveté; Martin Donovan (The Opposite of Sex) is also well cast as Tom Buchanan. The trouble this time around is with Gatsby, played by an actor named Toby Stephens who seems, based on the evidence here, to be entirely free of charisma, magnetism, or any of the qualities that make the title character so compelling.

And the less said about G, the 2002 “hip-hop Gatsby” from director Christopher Scott Cherot, the better. It’s not that the idea is a bad one: envisioning Gatsby as a Diddy-style hip-hop mogul, throwing a constant party on his Hamptons estate and dreaming of a reunion with the one who got a way, is sort of ingenious, and the broad strokes are surprisingly adaptable. And Cherot finds some interesting ways to throw race into the already heady stew of sex and class. But he only adapts the basic set-up and then untethers the narrative, and the further he gets from Fitzgerald, the more it falls apart, all the way to a soapy and wildly divergent conclusion that’s laughably misguided.

Which brings us to Luhrmann. Let’s be clear: the first act or so of his new 3D Gatsby will pretty much confirm the fears of everyone terrified by the notion of the ADD-addled filmmaker tackling this assignment. It’s a headache-inducing mishmash of waving curtains, hyperactive fades, aggressive zooms, and Baz basically just throwing shit at the lens (confetti, champagne, fabric, Tobey Maguire). He gives us the framing device of Nick in a sanitarium, trying to get off the sauce and free himself of his post-Gatsby guilt. This is not only narratively unnecessary, but a total fumble stylistically, since there’s no change in Nick’s “voice” between his early therapy sessions and his later, doctor-prescribed writing of a book, which turns out to be, aha, The Great Gatsby. (Note to Luhrmann: we don’t need a fake origin story for the book itself, even if it does give you the opportunity to accompany voice-over from said book with overlays of fancy fonts.) Every drive to New York is done as some kind of high-speed, Fast and Furious car chase, not because it makes any kind of sense, but because Luhrmann seemingly can’t stomach the idea of just shooting two people in a car, having a conversation. And the afternoon at Myrtle’s is overplayed by a factor of ten, all zipping camera and visual slapstick, reminding us of the director’s unfortunate tendency to mistake chaos for comedy.

In fact, that scene recalls some of the early, terrible scenes in Romeo + Juliet, which makes this film’s structural resemblance to that one all the more obvious. Because just when you’ve written the whole thing off as another Moulin Rouge-style shitshow, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby makes his first, spectacular appearance (accompanied by a fireworks-and-“Rhapsody in Blue” moment that’s so well executed, you forgive the filmmaker for so flagrantly lifting it from Manhattan). That reveal, coupled with Carey Mulligan’s movie star entrance — the smile and purr of her “Your life is adorable” is sheer perfection — seems to remind Luhrmann that the film is about those characters and not about him. And, improbably enough, once he has their romance to ground and center his manic inclinations, the movie starts to work.

Much of this is casting. Though one can tug at the loose threads of DiCaprio’s work (he’s burdened with too many “old sport”s, and certain lines reveal that he hadn’t quite shook his Calvin Candie accent), it’s a deeply felt and quite successful realization of a notoriously difficult character — he reveals the character’s confidence, and then unveils how thin that veneer is, bundling up all that lovesickness and nervous energy in the afternoon tea sequence. In that scene, the two actors convey the thrill of a mere stolen touch; Mulligan is so good, she even sells the falling shirts scene, which is no mean feat. A new actor named Elizabeth Debicki is marvelous as Jordan (and that’s a role that’s never more than a cipher in previous films); Joel Edgerton’s Tom couldn’t be better. About the only dud in the cast (aside from Isla Fisher, who’s good but totally miscast as Myrtle) is Maguire, and he’s not so much bad as he is dull, playing the same gee-whiz innocent he’s been doing for about a half-decade too long now.

Although the picture chokes a bit in the clutch (you don’t wanna know what Luhrmann does with 3D in that auto accident scene), truth be told, this may well be the best Gatsby adaptation we’ve yet had. But that’s rather a low bar, and the fact that a film with this many problems is still at the top of the heap speaks volumes about the trouble with making a good Gatsby movie.

Why is this so? It certainly shouldn’t be a matter of difficulty; the slender volume doesn’t require giant deletions in translation (though these films inexplicably do so; the ’49, for example, removes the afternoon at Myrtle’s, but provides a sequence of Gatsby buying his estate, as well as a lengthy flashback to his time on Cody’s boat, and his flirtation with Cody’s wife). Some suggest that Gatsby himself is such an enigma that no mere mortal can do him justice, but the strength of the DiCaprio performance puts that notion to bed. And it’s not a matter of dramatic difficulty — in fact, Fitzgerald’s text is so animated, so descriptive, so cinematic that a screenplay adaptation seems less a matter of revision that reformatting.

But it’s the cinematic quality of the book that is exactly why we can’t come up with a totally satisfactory Gatsby movie, a great film to match the great book. Because the fact of the matter is, Fitzgerald’s words paint the pictures and play the scenes so vividly that most readers have already seen the movie, in their heads. Thanks to the skill of the prose, we’ve already brought the story of Gatsby and Daisy to life, perfectly designed and impeccably cast and splendidly performed. And any movie version, hamstrung by unforgivable exclusions or peculiar additions or miscast actors or stylistic overindulgence, can only disappoint.

With Baz Luhrmann’s splashy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel contender hitting theaters Friday, Flavorwire is devoting this week to all things Great Gatsby. Click here to follow our coverage.