Is The Great Gatsby Unfilmable?

The trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby was previewed today and initial reactions are ambivalent to say the least. Lots of “Hmmmms…” circulating the interwebs right now. Of course, this is always the case when a much-loved novel is adapted into film but is The Great Gatsby forever destined to elude the silver screen and disappoint its viewers?

When I was in India this year I went to the Jaipur Literature Festival and looked in on ‘Adaptations’ – a panel of writers and playwrights, including Tom Stoppard and Lionel Shriver, discussing the process and merits of translating words on a page into sounds and moving images. Interestingly, the subject of Gatsby came up and Stoppard was unequivocal: The Great Gatsby is “unfilmable” he declared and offered no space for disagreement. The audience burst into a spontaneous and long applause of approval so I guess there’s consensus out there. But why?

The Huffington Post listed 15 Great Books Never Coming to a Theater Near YouFinnegans Wake and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves were among them but no mention of Gatsby. Of course, Luhrmann’s film brings the novel’s adaptations to a total of seven so this is a moot point but should it be included on the list?

Surely, cinema is a perfect medium to capture the heady atmosphere and opulence of the day? The music, the glamour, the balmy summer. Tragedy, intrigue and heartache are the industry’s bread and butter; there is little in the plot or content of the novel to prevent a compelling adaptation, and its preoccupation with social climbing (networking?) and the end of the American dream would appear to be timely themes. The Great Gatsby has a lot of relevance for modern America.

But a novel is more than its plot and preoccupations, more than its themes. Writing is form and construct and Fitzgerald’s work is a masterful example of this, particularly his use of perspective and narrative structure.

It’s interesting that my main reaction to the trailer concerned the casting of Tobey Maguire in the role of Nick Carraway (quite perfect I think). For the title The Great Gatsby is a ruse. This is Nick Carraway’s novel. Every word written about the great Gatsby is circumscribed by the eyes of Mr Carraway, a limited and often unreliable narrator. “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues,” he says, “and this is mine. I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” There is an abundance of literature on the problematics of Nick as the narrator of this story and the author of Gatsby’s life and it will be interesting to see how this new film version deals with perspective.

Luhrmann loved the 1974 version starring Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. Redford was the coolest thing in the world, he’s said, but the film didn’t really tell him “who Gatsby was.” Many people feel that way but it may well be that Luhrmann’s version will be no closer to showing us who Gatsby really is either.

For there is no Gatsby. Gatsby is an illusion, a simulacrum.  He is completely obscured by conjecture and gossip and Nick’s version of him is no more authoritative than any other. Gatsby is a creation – his own and others – and that is Fitzgerald’s point. Nobody knows who Gatsby is or was and this is the brilliance of the novel. The imaginative act inherent in reading includes us in the crowd of tattlers and postulators: for every person who reads the novel, another unique aspect of Gatsby is born.

This is permissible in the novel – it is, in fact, what makes the novel so enthralling and enduring – but cinema requires that Gatsby be rendered in a single form. There are aspects of the novel that cinema can expand and bring to more sensual life but it cannot circumvent this reduction of ‘Gatsby’ into the body of an actor (a man playing a role, curiously). This is why Gatsby is unfilmable, I think. He is a million contradictory things and he is nothing at all. He doesn’t exist.