Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Classics: Who is the Greater Gatsby? By Lauren Ennis

F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby is considered the top contender for the title of 'the great American novel'. Although the novel was only a minor success upon its initial release in 1925, it began to gain in stature following Fitzgerald's 1940 death and has been considered a literary classic ever since. The novel went on to inspire six film adaptations, an opera, and two stage plays; making it a true cultural phenomenon. Today it seems that each generation is given its own version of Gatsby, which often reflects the time in which it is released more than Fitzgerald's roaring twenties.This review will feature two Gatsby adaptations from the new millenium; both are enjoyable, but which truly is the greater Gatsby?
Sexy yes, subtle...not so much
1. ALL THAT JAZZ: Both the 2000 and 2013 adaptations attempt to transport viewers back to the hard partying and fast living lifestyle that the 1920's are notorious for. In the 2013 version, the film immediatley appeals to the viewer with its use of 3D filming and myriad of camera tricks. After a somber start as Nick reflects on his summer with Gatsby from a sanitarium, the visuals steadily become more daunting until they eventually resemble a full-on Las Vegas show. This adaptation emphasizes the parallels between the frivolousness of the 1920's high life with the vapidness of today's culture  by incorporating modern music and modern influenced costumes. While the comparison makes for an interesting point of discussion, the modern elements distract from the plot and constantly remove the audience from the story's historical setting. This in turn makes it more difficult to look away from the spectacle long enough to focus upon the emotional core of the plot. As a result, the razzle dazzle of the 2013 version would likely appeal to high school and college aged viewers unfamiliar with the time period, but might be grating for older audiences.

In the 2000 version, the director seemed to have been more concerned with historical accuracy than showmanship. In this film, the visuals are lavish without becoming distracting. For instance, Gatsby's estate is still luxurious, but not to the point of bordering on a fairy tale castle. Similarly, the characters' excursion to the 'valley of ashes' of the New York slums actually resembles the inner city, and successfully highlights the disparity between the wealthy elite like Tom and Daisy and their working class counterparts such as Tom's mistress, Myrtle, and her husband. By maintaining a clear sense of time and place, this version enables viewers to become fully immersed in the characters' lives and have a greater appreciation for their personal struggles. Through its combination of historical accuracy and subtlety, the 2000 adaptation would be likely to win over history fans and those familiar with Fitzgerald's work, but might be too subdued to draw in younger viewers.
A Gatsby you could take home to Mom

2. GETTING TO KNOW YOU: Although both films tell the same story, each takes a different approach to character development. In the 2013 version, there is less emphasis upon supporting characters such as Myrtle, Jordan, and Meyer Wolfsheim. As a result, the characters outside of the direct orbit of the Daisy-Tom-Gatsby love triangle are given too little screen time to establish a clear presence, and are restricted to becoming caricatures. Despite this lack of development in the supporting characters, however, Daisy is given surprisingly more depth than her original incarnation in Fitzgerald's novel. Due in large part to Carey Mulligan's performance, this Daisy appears more as a woman trapped in a cage of her own making than the "beautiful little fool" Fitzgerald presented her as. This portrayal of Daisy gives more credibility to the central love triangle, as it allows the audience to understand how and why Gatsby would remain obsessed with her after a five year separation. Through this more optimistic approach to character development, the film infuses the tale of 1920's corruption and heartbreak with a more forgiving, modern, sensibility.

The 2000 adaptation remains more true to Fitzgerald's original text and places greater emphasis upon the cast as an ensemble. Daisy's friend/Nick's girlfriend, Jordan Baker, has a much more significant role in this film and serves as the link between Daisy and Gatsby as well as between Nick's middle class life and the opulent world of New York's elite. Through their blatant disregard for others, both Jordan and Daisy exemplify the harsher side of the carefree flapper attitude. While in the 2013 version both women are presented as innocents corrupted by the influence of 1920's culture, this film portrays them as completely aware of what they are doing, even if they fail to acknowledge the consequences. In both the novel and the 2013 film, Gatsby is a mysterious, larger than life figure who defines Jazz Age glamour. In this film, however, Gatsby is humanized through a series of flashbacks to his first awkward meeting with Daisy, and more companionable interactions with Nick. By showing Gatsby as a fish out of water instead of a mystifying enigma, the film allows the audience to sympathize with him in his quest for acceptance. By focusing on the good, bad, and careless aspects of the characters, the 2000 adaptation remains more closely aligned with Fitzgerald's work and allows viewers to make their own conclusions regarding the plot's moral ambiguity.

3. HEARTBREAKERS: As in any art form, the true measure of a film is its ability to make its viewers think and feel. Fitzgerald's tale of love, corruption, and betrayal packs an emotional punch in any medium, but some adaptations have more emotional resonance than others. The emotional effect of any film largely depends upon its ability to draw audience's into the lives and struggles of its characters. Although the 2013 version of Gatsby initially lures its viewers in with eye catching sets and dazzling visuals, these effects often prove overwhelming and leave the viewer feeling detached from the story. The more sympathetic portrayal of Daisy, however, enables the audience to empathize with her limited position as a woman in the 1920's. That heartfelt portrayal is offset by the glamorized depiction of Gatsby, which makes him seem more like an object of worship than a flesh and blood man. Similarly, the exaggerated presentation of the supporting characters makes them seem more like walking stereotypes than people, which in turn makes them more difficult to identify with. The combination of excellent visuals and average characterizations makes the 2013 version of Gatsby in many ways feel like 'Gatsby Lite', and fails to conjure the full range of emotions present in Fitzgerald's novel.

While the 2000 adaptation does not possess the modern flair of the 2013 film, its subtle approach allows Fitzgerald's plot to stand on its own. While Daisy and Jordan are much less sympathetic in this film, they are also more complex and multi-faceted, which in turn makes them more realistic. Nick's initial skepticism towards and eventual friendship with Gatsby follows a natural progression that leads the audience to believe in their relationship. It is Nick's changing attitude towards Gatsby that highlights the tragic finale, as he is not able to realize what a true friend he had in Gatsby until it is too late. The film also provides viewers with a greater understanding of Gatsby by showing Nick reminiscing with Gatsby's father at Gatsby's funeral. Through this exchange, audiences learn that it was not greed or status that drove Gatsby, but the desperate need for self improvement that fuels the American Dream. With that one scene, the film not only addresses Fitzgerald's theme of the dark side of the American Dream, but also makes that same corrupted dream the underlying cause of Gatsby's tragic end. Thus, while both films adeptly retell the fascinating tale of Jay Gatsby, the 2000 adaptation's focus upon the novel's original approach to character and theme creates a deeper emotional resonance by showing viewers just what it was that made Gatsby great.

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