The Great Gatsby: a history of adaptations

The Great Gatsby seems to be everywhere at the moment. There are posters at bus stops, adverts on the television and articles in every publication I pick up. In recent weeks it has been impossible to escape the publicity. Baz Luhrmann’s new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic American novel is one of the most hyped cinema releases of the year so far.

For Luhrmann, this is an important film. Following the astonishing success of Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996) and the dizzying Moulin Rouge! (2001), the director made his first significant misstep with Australia in 2008. This historical epic about Luhrmann’s homeland still did well at the box office, but was largely received with indifference by critics. The shine, it seemed, had started to come off the director’s frenetic visual style.

Gatsby is in many ways a rather sensible choice for Lurhmann’s comeback. In an age of rising concern about wealth, excess and societal cohesion, Gatsby‘s themes are as relevant as they were on the novel’s publication in 1925. Gatsby offers Lurhmann the opportunity to both question the morality and substance of America in the Jazz Age (and now) and to exercise his talent for screening opulence and glamour by exploiting its 1920s setting.

However, is there a note of caution to be sounded in reference to earlier adaptations of the book? After all, Gatsby films have often been criticised for ignoring the central ideas the novel tries to communicate in favour if showcasing superficial details of the period setting.

The first time Fitzgerald’s novel was brought to the screen was in 1926, just one year after the novel was initially published. This silent film version was directed by Herbert Brenon for Paramount Pictures. Sadly, no surviving copies of the film are now known to exist. Despite the efforts of film historians, notably Wheeler Winston Dixon who has attempted to track the film down, it remains lost. What have survived are a brief trailer and a reputation for depicting the frivolousness and opulence of the book’s famous parties without necessarily embracing the questions that Fitzgerald raises about this way of life. Though now it is not necessarily possible to be certain, it has been reported that this early Gatsby was less interested in social commentary than in having a good time.

The book’s second adaptation was released in 1949, again by Paramount Pictures who still owned the rights to the story. The production suffered from several delays, at least one of which was reportedly the result of a difference of opinion about how beautiful the actress playing Daisy Buchanan ought to be. Although the film itself ultimately received little praise from the critics, it is clear that beauty, glamour and style were key considerations in its production. Unfortunately, Paramount once again went too far in this direction, with the result that, as the New York Times noted, the film ‘achieved a dutiful plotting of the novel without the substance of life that made it stick’. Variety has agreed, claiming that ‘Elliot Nugent’s direction skips along the surface of the era depicted. The script doesn’t give him much substance to work with’. Once again, the glamour of the period seems to have outweighed the novel’s other achievements.

Paramount’s third attempt at Fitzgerald’s book came in 1974 with what has perhaps become the most famous of its adaptations to date. Both behind and in front of the camera, this Gatsby was graced by a wealth of familiar names. The screenplay was written by Francis Ford Coppola (though he would eventually distance himself from the finished product), it was directed by Jack Clayton and the leading roles were played by Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The sets were glorious, both in terms of scale and detail, while the costumes glittered with all the wonder of the era. This was a lavish production which is still beautiful to watch. However, as was the case with the previous Gatsby adaptations, this obsession with beauty and the look of the film ensured that other important aspects were overshadowed. The New York Times was once again dissatisfied, with its review arguing that stunning design work is not enough to save a film that ‘is as lifeless as a body that’s been too long at the bottom of a swimming pool’. This review concluded that the film was ‘frivolous without being much fun’. Although perhaps the shallowness of many of the characters is central Gatsby‘s success, the film itself lacked substance and got lost in its desire for visual perfection.

As is clear, previous Great Gatsby adaptations have displayed a tendency to hollow out the novel to various extents, reducing it to a certain look or visual style. This is particularly worrying in light of Baz Luhrmann’s already acutely developed interest in the aesthetics of glamour and opulence. Moulin Rouge! in particular suffered from his predilection for style over substance. In this sense, perhaps Gatsby is both obvious and dangerous source material for a director who needs this film to be a triumph.

Dr Matthew Jones

Dr Matthew Jones is a film historian and Research Associate on UCL’s ‘Cultural Memory and British Cinema-Going of the 1960s’ project. You can find out more about the project here:


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