F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” has had a long, never entirely satisfying history of film adaptations since the book was published in 1925.
In fact, Australian director Baz Luhrmann’s latest, which opens Friday, is the sixth attempt to bring this story of the Roaring Twenties, doomed romance, class warfare, underworld crime and decadence to widely praised cinematic life.
Some have theorized that the road to film has been bumpy because so much of the book’s power comes from Fitzgerald’s writing.
Luhrmann has said the character of Gatsby is just as elusive as trying to turn prose into film. And the story, all about capturing the essence of the jazz age in American history, is also a tall order to condense into movie length. Luhrmann’s version was initially announced to open last year, in time for Oscar season, but was delayed.
The story is told through the eyes of Nick Carroway, a WWI veteran from the Midwest who moves to Long Island, N.Y., in summer 1922 to become a bond salesman. His second cousin, Daisy, who lives nearby, is married to someone he went to college with at Yale, Tom Buchanan. Tom comes from an old-moneyed traditional family.
Nick lives in a cottage next door to Jay Gatsby, a secretive man who comes from new money, rumored to be shady bootlegger money. Gatsby throws huge, notorious parties at his mansion. Eventually you learn he came from a penniless Midwest family but dated Daisy before being sent off to war. He wants to win her back.
Gatsby is a symbol of the corruption of the American dream. But then, so is Tom, who is having an affair with a poor garage mechanic’s wife named Myrtle Wilson.
Jealousy, substance abuse and hedonism prove a potent mix as all these characters’ inner lives get sorted out.
The first movie of “The Great Gatsby,” a 1926 silent version directed by Herbert Brenon and based on Owen Davis’ broadway play version, no longer survives. Only the trailer is around today.
Alan Ladd and Betty Field starred as Jay Gatsby and Daisy in a 1949 version, with Barry Sullivan as Tom Buchanan and Macdonald Carey as Nick. It’s a gangster film at its heart.
Jack Brayton directed a 1974 script by Francis Ford Coppola that got decidedly mixed reviews. It starred Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Sam Waterston as Nick and Bruce Dern as Tom.
A low-budget television version in 2000, starring Paul Rudd and Mira Sorvino, didn’t fare well either.
Luhrmann has said his favorite version is “Gatz,” adapted by a theater company using the novel’s entire text. But it runs seven hours.
What makes Lurhmann an interesting director for the latest experiment is that he has shown a fondness for stories bursting with bigger-than-life romantic emotion: “Moulin Rouge,” “Australia,” “Romeo + Juliet,” “Strictly Ballroom.”
He’s also shown a flair for visually bold movies, spurred on by his wife and production designer, Catherine Martin.
His cast of A-listers includes Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) as Daisy, Tobey Maguire as Nick and Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty”) as Tom.
DiCaprio, nominated three times for an Academy Award, has never won one. Comments I hear from readers and acquaintances make me think he is a polarizing figure. People tend either to love him or hate him as an actor.
A bigger furor has been swirling around Luhrmann’s decision to feature a soundtrack that veers from jazz-age music to include hip-hop. Songs by Fergie, Beyoncé and Jack White are part of Luhrmann’s collaboration with Jay-Z in compiling the soundtrack.
Luhrmann justified the choice by telling the New York Times that jazz in the 1920s held the visceral, immediate excitement that hip-hop does for today’s audiences. Jazz, he said, is now revered but older music.
How he justifies shooting the picture in 3-D would no doubt have more to do with box office returns than anything to do with an aesthetic of the 1920s flapper era. It does, after all, have to compete with “Iron Man 3” this weekend. Most prognosticators expect the Marvel comic hero to prevail over Jay Gatsby.
But while literary purists may have problems with trends like hip-hop tunes and 3-D, it would be good to remember how Fitzgerald himself has come into favor. It’s said he wrote “The Great Gatsby” as a direct attempt at literary fame that would establish him as an important writer.
While the novel got mostly positive reviews, it didn’t sell as well as two previous Fitzgerald novels, “This Side of Paradise” and “The Beautiful and the Damned.” In its first year, “The Great Gatsby” sold about 20,000 copies.
When Fitzgerald died penniless in 1940, the New York Times obituary talked of his unrealized potential. But after 150,000 copies of “Gatsby” were distributed by the Armed Services in 1945, and after “Gatsby” began to be part of high school reading lists in the 1950s, Fitzgerald’s star rose again.
Maybe Luhrmann can do the same for a movie version.