Baz Luhrmann’s Adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
Like most directors who try to adapt a book into a feature film, Luhrmann did a less than commendable job converting this literary masterpiece into a motion picture.
The movie is therefore a complete shadow of the book. It can be argued that making a movie out of a book is tough, because the whole book has to be condensed into a brief script in order to create a normal length film. While this may be true, his decision to make several changes in the script dealt the movie a big blow.
Although the movie was a box office hit, grossing more than $300 million and had an A-class actor in Leonardo DiCaprio, it has left a sour taste to book lovers who had the privilege of reading the book and watching the film. Here are the major differences between the book and the movie.
The first difference occurs at the beginning of the movie. Nick Carraway, the narrator, is made out to be mentally unstable due to alcoholism. He is in a room in The Perkins Sanitarium, where he starts narrating to a psychiatrist about Gatsby. When the psychiatric open’s Nick’s file, we get a glimpse of his diagnosis- morbidly alcoholic, fits of anger, insomniac and anxiety. Contrary to the assumptions of the movie, Nick is far from being alcoholic. We learn later at Tom’s apartment that Nick has only been drunk twice in his life.
Also, the inclusion of the psychiatrist is an addition that is not available in the original text. In the book, Nick is the narrator and the reader is the listener. He does not talk to anyone at this point, but just recounting how he met Gatsby. Also, the fact that Nick writes a book about Gatsby is not made that obvious in the book, as it is in the film. In the book, Nick claims that Gatsby is “the man who gives his name to this book”, suggesting that he is writing a book. In the film however, we see Nick jotting down on paper, typing and subsequently compiling the manuscript.
Another factor that is completely ignored in the movie is the relationship between Nick and Jordan Baker. In the book, these two are actual lovebirds, although their relationship is not very strong, which sees them breakup at the end of the book. In the movie also their relationship comes to an unexpected end, after Jordan becomes engaged to another man.
However, unlike in the book, Luhrmann completely ignores this relationship. Nick’s assertion that he found Jordan frightening when he first met her is an addition that does not exist in the book. Their relationship does not grow past the few instances of flirting between them. We are left wondering why Luhrmann and his scriptwriter, Craig Pearce decided to abandon the idea of the two hooking up, when in the book they become an intimate couple.
There is also some discrepancy in the Manhattan apartment, where Tom and Myrtle usually meet. The sexually charged undertones in the movie are completely inexistent in the book.
When Nick accompanies Tom and Myrtle to the apartment, the two disappear to obviously have coitus, but Fitzgerald is not blatant enough to reveal to us that- we just know it. Luhrmann however goes overboard by including loud sex that becomes audible even to Nick himself. Also, during the party, Catherine- Myrtle’s sister forces Nick to take a pill by sliding it through his mouth via a kiss. This is not in the novel.
At the same party again, we see Nick and Catherine getting very cozy and making out. He eventually wakes up at the front porch of his cottage, unsure how he got there, as Gatsby stares at him from his window above. This is according to the movie. In the book, Nick leaves with the feminine Mr. McKee and ends up in his bedroom with his underwear. He then takes a train back to Long Island at 4 a.m. It is not clear why Luhrmann decided to ignore one of the most controversial parts of the book that has spurred many a debates about what really transpired between Nick and Mr. McKee.
By choosing to alter this scene, Luhrmann made a grave error of trying to redefine Nick’s probable sexual preferences. It is not a surprise that Nick in the book is very affectionate towards Gatsby, despite his shortcomings as a socially awkward individual. Fitzgerald does not go into the tidbit details of what transpired between Nick and Mr. McKee. However, he gives us a glimpse of the potentially gay nature of Nick that affected his perception of Gatsby.
Luhrmann further makes a big deal out of the first encounter between Nick and Gatsby with a brilliance showoff of fireworks behind him when he announces who he is to Nick. Gatsby approaches Nick in the party and asks him if he is enjoying the party. Nick, not yet familiar who the stranger is, indulges him with rumors about Gatsby. It is at this point that Gatsby reveals himself. The book however does share the same enthusiasm about Gatsby as the movie. Nick and Jordan bump into him seated outside his house- a teetotaler and a complete loner, who avoids his own parties.
There is also a slight difference of the venue Nick and Gatsby meet Meyer Wolfsheim. While in the book they go to a “well-fanned 42nd street cellar”, in the movie they go to a speakeasy, which they access through a hidden entrance in a barber shop. Wolfsheim, who is described as a Jewish gangster in the book, is actually played by an Indian actor Amitabh Bachchan in the movie. This is probably the only instance in the movie, where we appreciate the changes.
The obvious anti-Semitic rhetoric adopted by Fitzgerald in his description of Wolfsheim is both distasteful and uncalled for. He describes him as “A small, flat-nosed Jew raised his large head and regarded me with two fine growths of hairs which luxuriated in either nostrils.”
We further applaud his decision to censure all the racist remarks in the movie. Instances where there is blatant racism in the book include Tom’s assertions that the white race is the dominant race, Nick’s surprise of rich Black Americans being driven by a white chauffeur and Tom’s attack on racial intermarriages between blacks and whites.
Two characters were also completely cutoff from the movie because of their insignificance in the novel. The first is Nick’s maid. Although Nick is not financially well off like his neighbors in West Egg, he has a Finnish maid who makes his bed, cooks breakfast and “muttered Finnish wisdom to herself over the electric stove.”
Then, there is Ella Kaye. In the original text, she manages to steal Dan Cody’s inheritance from Gatsby. Cody was the rich yachtsman, who had adopted young Gatsby and mentored him into a lifestyle of riches. When he dies, he leaves all his wealth to Gatsby, but Ella Kaye successfully snatches everything away from Gatsby.
In the movie however, Cody’s wealth is inherited by his family and Ella Kaye’s character is neglected entirely. Furthermore, there is some alteration in the buildup to Gatsby’s murder when Tom and Wilson meet to discuss who killed his wife, Myrtle. In the book, Tom only mentions that the person responsible for the hit and run drove a yellow vehicle and Wilson independently looks for Gatsby. But in the movie, Tom goes much into detail claiming that it belongs to Gatsby, which eventually seals Gatsby’s fate.
Another major difference occurs at the final moments of Gatsby’s life. While in both cases Gatsby waits for Daisy’s call, Luhrmann uses the more showy and action infused approach, as Fitzgerald is more contented with a suspenseful ending. In the book, Gatsby grabs a pneumatic mattress and goes to the pool.
Then, his chauffeur hears gun shots symbolizing the death of Gatsby. In the movie, Gatsby does not have a pneumatic mattress. He instead takes a dive into the water and then comes out when the phone rings. He is then shot by Wilson. Gatsby does not get any phone call in the book, but in the movie he is called by Nick.
Lastly, Luhrmann fails to show respect to the dead Gatsby by failing to include his father, Henry C. Gatz in the funeral. It is probably the most emotional point of the book and should therefore have been included in the movie, considering the fact that Gatsby is a lonely man who only has his father. Another person made obsolete in the funeral is the man with the owl eyes, whom Nick first encounters at Gatsby’s study.
Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was a bit hard to swallow and kind of left a sour taste on our mouths. His choice to include modern day rap music (sorry Jay Z) into the film dealt a big blow to the 1920s setting of the film. However, we have to commend him for his censure of racial remarks in the original text.
At the end of the day, Fitzgerald’s version is a bit mysterious with a lot of loose ends. Everyone has his own interpretation of the book and Luhrmann has his own version, which he decided to immortalize on film. At least, he was too candid enough to keep us abreast with his own version.