Adaptation Review: The Great Gatsby (1974)

About this time last year I wrote Filming Fiction: Gatsby, Catcher, and the Novelistic Novel wherein I discussed my thoughts on certain novels and their inability to translate well to film – and wherein I generally discussed The Great Gatsby and my lingering avoidance of its film adaptations. Finally, just after its newest incarnation has hit the screens, I went back in time to 1974 and experienced Gatsby’s world through the eyes of Sam Waterston, Mia Farrow, and (of course) Robert Redford. This is only my second viewing of a Gatsby adaptation, and I was perhaps predictably reluctant at times. Whether you loved or hated Fitzgerald’s classic novel, I think one thing most readers could possibly agree on is the otherworldly sense that it has. Much like the fictional West Egg and East Egg are nestled into the very non-fictional Long Island, so is the bizarre magic of Gatsby’s story set inside some very real-world themes. As an observation on character flaws it’s stellar – Daisy and Tom are all too familiar depictions of “careless people” in a fast-moving social sphere – but Gatsby himself is set apart, in my opinion, from the familiarity. In that way, venturing into any Gatsby adaptation should have a hint of venturing into another world. I definitely thought Jack Clayton’s film achieved the vibe I've always wanted The Great Gatsby to have on the screen.
The Great Gatsby, Sam Waterston, Lois Chiles Likewise, Francis Ford Coppola’s script plays so well off of the novel, bringing Nick Carraway’s narrative onto the screen in something a little more than just a voice-over. Sam Waterston offered, as Carraway, a great vessel for what I think contributes very strongly to the novel’s appeal – the unattached, slightly reluctant witness to this world of fabulous excess who is thrown in long enough to acquire a sizeable distaste for the flash of its glamour before drifting away in a quiet, contemplative bemusement. Jordan Baker is one of my favorite characters of the novel, and I really enjoyed Lois Chiles in the role; she’s so effortlessly cool, just as I imagined Jordan. Bruce Dern is boorish and slightly annoying - appropriately Tom Buchanan; Karen Black as Myrtle Wilson is just as luxuriously obsessed and erratically passionate as I imagined; and I was surprisingly moved by Scott Wilson as her husband George. Of course, the two pillars of the cast are Mia Farrow and Robert Redford.

The Great Gatsby, Robert Redford, Mia Farrow I have to admit that Daisy is really one of my least favorite characters in literature; I just don’t find myself sympathetic toward her, but to some degree I suppose that’s typical. (How I’m able to be deeply sympathetic to Gatsby and still strongly dislike Daisy has always mystified me a bit, but I guess I’m very like Nick Carraway by the end of things.) Mia Farrow, though, really reached out in her performance and made me significantly more interested in Daisy as a character, and the painful flippancy that she seems to have very little control over in her life. She really helped me to better understand Daisy’s misfortune, and I’d be curious to re-read the novel now with that performance in mind. Robert Redford I just loved: I’m not sure what else there is to say about him. Few people, I think, can pull of the quiet quirks of Gatsby; as small as it is, it can be cringe-worthy to hear the old sports spoken aloud – it’s just a little off. But not here, and those little things, along with Redford’s depth of ability make it such a wonderful performance. His reaction at seeing Daisy again for the first time struck me as such a powerful moment; it’s the things like that, the slightly hidden intricacies of his character, that I think make Gatsby so unique and intriguing.

In all, I think the film struck me as being quite like what a Gatsby adaptation should be. There will always be some strangeness of the novel that I think will make adapting it for the screen a tricky business, but this was a golden attempt and a memorable, beautiful alternative vision that captures much of the novel’s allure.

Title: The Great Gatsby Based on: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925) Genre: period drama, romance Distributor: Paramount Pictures Format: DVD Release date: March 29, 1974 (theatrical) Provided by: Netflix Buy the DVD: Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Photos © Paramount Pictures, found via Pinterest