6:00 pm EDT, June 22, 2013

In defense of: ‘The Great Gatsby’ – Why it was a great book-to-film adaptation

By MHutch

When I was in year 11, my literature class studied The Great Gatsby. It wasn’t until I read it for the second time and had to analyse it for class discussions that I truly appreciated it as the genius it is. To this day, I’m thankful for that class, for being exposed to texts I would never have chosen myself, and thereby influencing what I read in the future.

A former classmate had told me that she “loved the movie, and it was just like the book.” I went to the movie with a friend who had also been in my literature class. Before watching the movie, I re-read the book, so as to be fully prepared to compare it to the movie. And I was profoundly impressed with what I saw.

And yet, most reviews that I have seen before and after watching the movie have been negative. Why? They seem to centre around criticisms of The Great Gatsby’s opulence, soundtrack and narration in particular. In regards to the criticisms that the movie is too “over-the-top,” as any Baz Lurhmann movie inevitably is, these are the easiest judgements to reject. Anyone who has read The Great Gatsby, particularly for an English class, undoubtedly recognises that this is one of the most prevalent themes in the novel.

Yes, the parties are ostentatious, à la Lurhmann, but this is exactly what we see within the novel. Gatsby’s parties simply symbolise the excessive materialistic attitudes of the majority of the characters, and Gatsby himself tries to “win back” Daisy with a show of his wealth and new-found status. Thereby, I and everyone I have spoken to who has read and/or studied The Great Gatsby acknowledges that this is a ridiculous argument.

Many reviewers complained about the use of modern music, particularly rap, in the film. I personally found it to be a perfect mix of modern and jazz. I understand why it was used, as it provides a more modern feel. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the conflict between illusion and reality, and the music of the time reflected his thoughts. Jazz represented all that was new and modern, but more importantly, it represented a society obsessed with wealth and status.

Fitzgerald created a perfect showcase of the materialism of the ’20s, and consequently, the American Dream. Yet, it is impossible to create this image using solely the music of the ’20s. To the audience, the music must be bold and daring, just as jazz was. And thus we have the use of rap and the modern stylings of Lana Del Ray, Florence and the Machine, etc. This soundtrack, whilst highly unusual, and definitely controversial, is simply a re-imagining of the context of the novel. It allows a modern audience to understand all that Fitzgerald encompasses within the novel itself.

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Great Gatsby'

Another major criticism of the film is the narration. People questioned whether the use of voice-over could be the best way to handle Nick as the narrator.

I felt that Nick was well used as the narrator. He is the main character. In the film, he describes himself as both ‘within and without,’ and it is this ability, to be both observer and involved in the action, that calls for a voice-over. He is removed enough to be as unbiased a narrator as we could get, and yet it is his relationship and dealings with the other characters that give us a clear picture of the action.

Unlike many a protagonist who are the narrators in novels, Nick Carraway cannot simply show us what happened. His musings are more important than anything he observes. He uses his observations as evidence to support the conclusions he makes later in the novel. ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy-they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness.’

Therefore, you cannot fully comprehend the themes within the novel, without allowing Nick to present his views, and voice-over is the best way to achieve this. We get to hear, and even at times see, Nick’s thoughts, which are clearly significant, as a means of understanding the novel as a whole. The movie shows and tells. It is this combination that makes for a truly brilliant method of narration.

This type of narration emphasises the detached reality of those in the East who value wealth and status over friendship. Importantly, the film depicts Nick’s compassion towards Gatsby, the one who “represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn.” Gatsby is the only one who he truly feels sorry for: “Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams.”

The “friendship” between Gatsby and Nick is cleverly portrayed by both Leonardo Di Caprio and Tobey Maguire, respectively. It is the most real relationship within the novel, and I think that this is demonstrated in Hypable’s own BattleShips, in which Nick and Gatsby won The Great Gatsby ship nomination. We are left at the end of the novel, with no respect or even compassion for Tom and Daisy and Jordan, or anyone else but Nick and Gatsby. The real tragedy is that Gatsby believed that his display of materialism would bring his love back to him.

I loved the movie. It was a successful book-to-film adaptation. It followed the novel so closely, not only in action and plot, but in themes. This is particularly reminiscent in the repeated showcasing of the green light and the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. Not only Di Caprio and Maguire, but the other actors like Joel Edgerton as Tom, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan and Isla Fisher as Myrtle, were fantastic at bringing their characters to life. The soundtrack provided the perfect mood, and the narration allowed the messages found in the novel to flourish.

Simply put, I’ll probably see it again and again. And maybe I’ll just go and buy that soundtrack too.

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