NRH’s Weekly Analysis: “Gatsby? What Gatsby?”, Part 1


The Great Gatsby is undoubtedly one of the finest works of literature. To really sell it short: it’s probably the most ‘honest’ tragedy of human hubris, love and dreams. It’s filled to the brim with too much deliciousness and truth to ever truly get to its core and above any other book, including my personal favorite A Tale of Two Cities, it’s ‘the’ book that everyone needs to read in their lifetime. No film, no series, no comic book, no kind of storytelling can truly do Fitzgerald’s words justice other than his own novel.

With that in mind let’s have a look at the Gatsby films. The films I’ll cover will be the Robert Redford (1974) and Dicaprio (2013) versions. Obviously no film can do the novel justice, I will stand by that, but I do believe that each film shows a vastly different interpretation of what occurs in the novel. Today I’ll be focused completely on the Redford version with a few remarks of the Dicaprio version, with Wednesday devoted entirely to Dicaprio’s face.

The Great Gatsby isn’t the most innocent of tales in the world. It involves sex, alcohol, tragedy, decay, the dead notion of the American dream and giant wastes of ashes lying in-between the ‘Eggs’ of New York. The Redford version, however, seems to find some kind of innocence in all of it all. It might be the charming cinematography or the ‘feel’ of that kind of old-fashioned filmmaking, it’s heavily archaic for its time, but it manages to do something that no other Gatsby does. It tells the story without the darker truths.

That isn’t to say there aren’t a few nods to the existentialist dread, the romantic tragedy and genuinely darker streaks of the novel. Redford’s Gatsby is, however, more conscious of its time. It’s from the early seventies in which, for the most part, America was facing towards its reputation being increasingly marginalized. Google ‘American malaise’ and you’ll see what Gatsby might’ve been foreshadowing. The film is still, for the most part, upbeat in its pacing. Redford’s Gatsby seems removed of any of the contextual coloring that makes Dicaprio’s that much more fierce and, in some respects, more liberal.

It’s a pretty easy comment to make but, well, it’s true. Redford’s is removed of most of the superficial fancy that makes the Dicaprio version so distinct. There’s a much more punctually realistic texture to Redford’s film that some might say gives it more of a bite and an edge over the flimsy-two-dimensional CGI spectacle of Dicaprio’s. We’ll come to that on Wednesday though. Redford’s, for the most part, is arguably the most ‘faithful’ to the film’s plot whereas Dicaprio’s may be more ‘faithful’ to its themes.

Structural points aside, Redford’s also has the pleasure of some quite fine actors. Mia Farrow is practically Daisy Buchanan anyways and Redford manages to capture a true sense of soul with Gatsby, placing on some kind of romantic weight and self-consciousness that Dicaprio’s twinged-tragic melodrama could never capture. All the performances of both respective films manage to reinforce the cores of each. With Redford it’s the more flowery fancy, more innocent in its purpose. With Dicaprio it’s of a more sinister flavor hidden under a thin veil of spectacle.

The general set dressing of each film is quite appropriate to its times. Bret Easton Ellis says that each generation “gets the Gatsby it deserves“. With the Redford version there is, and this is a safe thing to say I think, a greater sense of filmic ‘purpose’. It is a very long film and it prides itself in its ability to draw out some of the greater conversations and pieces within the novel. What Redford’s version achieves unlike any other version is its ability to ask the audience to sink into this world. That’s probably why it’s such a dividing film to begin with, it asks a lot more of its audience than any other adaptation.

It’d be kind of a drag to discuss film and psychology and perhaps that’s best left for another time, or another column, or another book entirely. Redford’s version is worth a visit now and then I think. It might need achieve what the Leo version sets out to do but they’re both vying for different things. They’re chasing different reflections of Fitzgerald’s great green light.