Adapting a book into a movie is one of the hardest things a filmmaker can do. The Lord of the Rings and a few of the Harry Potter movies are the exception rather than the rule in that they are acclaimed by fans. The majority of novel adaptations are subject to both vitriolic hate and blind love by fans of the book. Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is no exception. I’ve read a handful of reviews since I watched the movie and I can’t tell if people loved the movie or hated it. Much of the praise and hate centered around the creative liberties Luhrmann took with the source material. I think most of the differences can be chalked up to modernization and how hard it is to translate novels to the cinematic medium.
The easiest place to begin is how the characters are portrayed. And the easiest difference to spot in character portrayal is Nick Carraway himself. Right off the bat it’s revealed that Nick is telling this story as he’s writing it in the present. He’s seeing a counselor to attempt a recovery from his hard partying and alcoholic tendencies. This is not unlike the beginning of Moulin Rouge where the main character is narrating the story as he’s writing it. Nick’s doctor recommends that he write about the experience in order to process it properly. He is immediately taken by this idea and gets to work with pen and paper. In the book there is no mention of Nick being a broken alcoholic. Fitzgerald as no need to make Nick anything more than he is– a simple window(albeit tinted) into the story unfolding around him. But I can understand Luhrmann’s decision to tweak Nick’s character in this way. Not only does it make it easier for an audience who might be unfamiliar with the story to understand why he’s narrating the story, it also makes him slightly more interesting cinematically. If the movie opened on Nick as he is the book it wouldn’t be as captivating because it’s hard to get across through the visual medium why we should care about this character. Audience attention is a fickle thing and it’s hard to make people care about characters in the first fifteen minutes of film.
Another aspect of Nick’s summer that is altered is his romance with the golfer Jordan Baker. Fitzgerald introduces Jordan in order to give Nick a reason to invest more of himself in the events of the story. If she didn’t exist, it would seem that Nick is sort of a third wheel object that is conveniently placed to allow the story to unfold. Including Jordan in the movie is a wise choice, but I can understand why they romance is subverted. In a two hour movie it’s you simply don’t have time to go into depth with every character’s romances. Jordan and Nick’s relationship is less central to the story beats. The plot is already packed with romantic pairs that interweave (Gatsby->Daisy, Daisy->Tom, Tom->Myrtle, etc.). And making her a tall brunette rather than the blond she was described as is to make her visually different than Daisy so the audience can easily remember who she is. Jordan’s role in the movie is assist the plot moving forward as well as to highlight some of the more mysterious qualities of Gatsby.
This streamlining of couples in the movie may also explain the omission of the odd scene in the elevator after Nick parties with Tom and Daisy. In the book he drunkenly takes an elevator with the other man in the party and wakes up in that guy’s apartment in his underwear. Certainly there is some subtext to read into here but it is inessential to the story and so it hits the cutting room floor.
Daisy is markedly different in the movie than in the novel but I also believe these differences can be attributed to translating word to celluloid. The trouble with portraying believable romance on screen and attempting to make your audience invest themselves in it is that your characters can’t be despicable. Of course it’s easy to make villains fall in love but Gatsby and Daisy are the heroes of sorts and the couple the audience is supposed to invest themselves. In the book, Fitzgerald had a whole different set of tools as well as time to explain why Gatsby was so in love with Daisy even though she was an intelligently shallow gold digger. Cinematically, Luhrmann had to make Daisy somewhat likable and their romance a little more substantive, otherwise the audience (especially those who hadn’t seen the film) wouldn’t have invested themselves in the 15 minutes their past romance is explained. This can be best seen in the shirt flinging scene. Novel Daisy is sad because she’s never seen so many shirts and perhaps for lost time with a richer and more extravagant man. Whereas movie Daisy is simply sad due to lost time with a man she never stopped loving. So Daisy is altered to be a little more the victim than purpetrator. I can understand why people would be bothered by this because Daisy’s personality explains a lot about her motivations in the novel and makes Gatsby more of a warning story.
And speaking of Gatsby, I couldn’t find much to complain about in his portrayal. I thought Luhrmann did a wonderful job at capturing the extravagant spirit of the man. However, a perhaps not insignificant difference is in the manner of his death. Movie Gatsby never gives up hope that Daisy will call him. A ringing phone that he anticipates is Daisy even coaxes him out of his pool to be shot. He dies thinking that Daisy was calling to tell him she’d left Tom and chosen Gatsby. However, the audience learns it was Nick calling, but this is all done in an effort to make Gatsby as hopeful a man as possible. He died how he lived– hopeful. Otherwise, I thought Luhrmann did a great job with Gatsby as he should seeing as he is the title character.
There are many other differences and similarities in the other minor characters but I don’t have the space for it. Instead I want to look at perhaps the best way the story was able to modernize and capture the spirit of the novel at the same time. This was in the substitution of Jazz for Hip-Hop music. When Fitzgerald wrote the novel, Jazz was African-American street music that was counterculture and the essence of the era the story takes place in. To bring in Jay Z to assist with the soundtrack was a brilliant idea. Hip-Hop is modern-day African-American street music and its inclusion gives the story a vibrancy and appeal it would’ve struggled to attain with only classic Jazz. The most intriguing part is the almost hybridization of Hip-Hop with Jazz in the movie so that it doesn’t feel out of place– almost as if it belonged. I think it is so cool that Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue feels just as much at home in a movie where not twenty minutes later Jay Z is rapping about ‘hunid dolla bills’. Truly a master stroke and I don’t even like Hip-Hop.
There is lots more to talk about but I think my point has been made. Baz Luhrmann did a great job at adapting the great american novel. But it must be remembered, it is an adaptation and not a straight across translation. It is as impossible to translate a book perfectly into film as it is to translate any language into any other language. Most of the difference people care about in the movie all can be traced back to this difficulty and the reality that some things have to be cut from a story or else we’d be watching a 5 hour version of The Great Gatsby. Not that I don’t think that it’s a great idea, because I do, but mass audiences don’t want that. In the end, I really enjoyed both versions of the story and can forgive a movie for being different.