I understand that another version of this classic American novel is planned, which will make it the 5th attempt in 85 years, and while it’s unlikely to be any more successful than its forerunners, money aside, it poses the question as to why film makers persist in filming what is essentially an unfilmable novel. I say unfilmable because so much of what the author conveys is below the surface of what seems to be a conventional love story.
There doesn’t appear to be a print of the first film made in 1926 but the subsequent versions made in 1949, 1974 and 2000 are available and each fails for various reasons such as casting, script, acting, direction, but also for their inability to translate Fitzgerald’s intention from book to screen.
The 1949 attempt is the weakest in that it portrays Gatsby as an erstwhile gangster. The 1940s hairstyles and clothing are at odds with those of a story so obviously rooted in the 1920s and the dialogue departs wildly from that of the characters in the book.
The 1974 adaptation was not well received, a fairly typical reaction being: “It pays its creator the regrettable tribute of erecting a mausoleum over his work.”
Jack Clayton had wanted to direct Gatsby ever since he read it as a young man and it must have seemed like a dream come true when he actually got the chance to do it. It was, however, a poisoned chalice because, although the production values are good, they are too good to be true; it’s all a little too glitzy and although the details are scrupulously observed with just a few minor departures from the story, it is the 1920s too obviously seen through the prism of the 1970s.
That being said, the scenes set in Wilson’s garage in the valley of ashes and the party in the private apartment are totally convincing. There are whole chunks of the original dialogue in the script, which should have brought the film closer to the book, but a major problem is one of casting in which few of the main characters are suitably portrayed.
Scenically, the film made in 2000 is closer to the story and looks more natural than the over the top settings of the 1974 version. The problem is that the lead character is unconvincing, although Daisy Buchanan is much more realistic than the mannered performance of her given by Mia Farrow in the 1974 production.
Fitzgerald’s critique of the superficiality and unrestrained hedonism of the period that would inevitability end in the 1929 crash never gets beyond Gatsby’s personal tragedy and it is in reconciling these elements of the novel that, thus far, the cinema has failed.
It remains to be seen whether the projected remake improves on its predecessors but, on any objective assessment, it is likely to fail.