The film The Great Gatsby, released in 2013, is the most recent movie adaptation of F. Scott's Fitzgerald's eponymous classic novel The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and with such stars as Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan) and Joel Edgerton (Tom Buchanan), overall the movie succeeds in bringing the book to life with great accuracy but with little subtelty.
Though Baz Luhrmann's work does not entirely live up to the book, the movie does succeed in sticking to the plot and themes in a way that grants the movie profoundity if and only if the viewer is open to this profoundity. This process is greatly eased if the viewer has read the novel, as in the viewer's mind the significance of Fitzgerald's work can be layered under the movie's narrative, enhancing both the book and the film. Consequently, if one has read the book before watching The Great Gatsby (as I had) it becomes much harder to parse the two, as novel makes up for the movie's shortcomings. The movie itself yearns to be seen as closely as possible to the novel, making repeated use, especially near the end, of Fitzgerald's exact lines, which are even reproduced in type on the screen. Nevertheless, the two must be parsed so as to analyse the true value of the film, and this process relies heavily on characterisation.
The first character the viewer is introduced to is Nick Carraway, who for the purpose of the movie is in a sanitorium after Gatsby's death recounting the events of the past few months to his doctor. The doctor suggests that Nick write his account, which he does, in effect filling Fitzgerald's shoes by eventually completing a work called The Great Gatsby. Movie Carraway is much the same as novel Carraway. As a working man amidst the fabulously wealthy, born outside their world but for the moment in the tangle of their lives, he remains a passive narrator: events toss him around and he recounts those events in a mostly unbiased manner. Perhaps the only major change is that for the purpose of the movie Nick's homosexuality is not made apparent nor even implied. Though Tobey Maguire doesn't do a fabulous job as Nick, a fabulous job isn't needed since Carraway essentially lacks depth and is imbued with passivity.
The next character the viewer is introduced to is Tom Buchanan. Tom is probably the most successfully rendered character due both to his simplicity and to Joel Edgerton's performance. Tom Buchanan is uncaring old money, born incredibly rich, the polar opposite of Gatsby. He ardently believes, and is in effect right, that the world is his and that he can do anything he desires. To that end Tom manipulates and abuses the people around him for his own sexual pleasure and later so that he can protect his position. His principal victims include Daisy, the wife he cheats on; Myrtle, his mistress; and Wilson, his mistresses' husband. He is also in large part responsible for Gatsby's murder by a vengeful Wilson. Tom's brash, domineering personality is further accentuated by racism and ignorance. Joel Edgerton captures Tom Buchanan's personality perfectly and brings his confrontation with Gatsby to life vividly.
Tom Buchanan's wife, Daisy, is the next character the viewer meets. Daisy's character is badly represented by the movie. Throughout she is personified as the perfect girl, a personification which glosses over the true nature and tragedy of Daisy. In reality she is not perfect, she is empty, a simple representation of status and money, an extension of Tom's wealth. Gatsby's obsession with her built her up into a flawless being, but in the novel when he meets her again after five years he almost immediately realises that the real Daisy falls short of what he imagined her to be. This disillusionment, though briefly touched on in the movie, is not granted the importance it deserves as one of the central representations of the theme of imperfection in the American Dream. However, the movie compensates in parts by elaborating on Daisy's incapacity to choose Gatsby over Tom because, love being equal (and her original love with Gatsby five years ago being irreproducible), Tom is simply a higher being that Gatsby. Carey Mulligan's performance is just good enough to capture the gist of Daisy but the failure to show her as just another representation of money breaks from the book and is, in my opinion, one of the movie's primary failings.
The last main character that the viewer is introduced to is the enigmatic Jay Gatsby. Once again the movie sticks closely to the novel. Born to a dirt poor family, Gatsby left them at age 16 to pursue the vision of his life that he had created. Having saved the yacht of the millionaire Dan Cody from a shipwreck, he and Cody sailed the world together, during which time Gatsby (then named James Gatz) learnt how to dress and act like a member of the upper class. However upon Cody's death he was cheated of any inheritance and joined the army. At an officer's party he met Daisy and they fell in love, she believing that he was an well born man. Gatsby then went off to fight in the first world war and then didn't return afterwards since, having admitted to Daisy by letter that he was broke, he decided that he needed to build up a fortune. For five years while building up his fortune as a bootlegger he obsessed over Daisy, who in the meantime had married Tom. At last he can buy a mansion across the sound from Tom's, within sight of the green light at the end of Daisy's dock, and throws extravagant parties, hoping to lure in the woman he has obsessed over for five years.
Overall the crucial element of characterisation is evidently fairly well done in the movie and can definitely not be considered a failing. The popular criticism that the movie was too glitzy isn't a valid criticism at all. If anything the empty, meaningless nature of the oppulence of the roaring twenties is the primary message of the novel; the American Dream is pure at heart (Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy) but otherwise corrupted (the parties and the characters' lack of depth). This message is simple but not immediately obvious and is in fact the novel's only source of deeper meaning (an attacks on Tom's heartlessness doesn't really constitue a literary message). Those who complain that the movie did not get into the deeper issues presented in the novel are both showing their ignorance of how the movie indeed addressed the commentary on the American Dream and of the limited scope of the novel's commentary. In addition, this criticism avoids the fact that on the whole the movie strips away many of the subtelties of Fitzgerald's writing so as to make the message more easily accessible to the audience. The movie is no masterpeice, but it does a much better job of presenting the Great Gatsby than its detractors admit.
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