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David Ehrlich

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David is the Senior Editor of Film.com. His interests include the New York Rangers, movies about movies, and regretting this personal bio.

Baz Luhrmann’s ‘The Great Gatsby’: The 7 Biggest Differences From the Book

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If it really is true that every literate adult in this country was forced to read The Great Gatsby in high school, then F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece is one of the few things that America’s public school system unequivocally got right. The Great Gatsby and recess. The novel – compact, accessible, and haunted by sex and status – is one of those rare texts that’s equally compelling at all ages. Restless and alive, it’s like a quick bit of theater that endlessly repeats itself even when the book is closed.

In other words, The Great Gatsby has earned its status as THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, and – particularly considering how much of the novel transpires in the hollows of memory – you’d have to be certifiably insane to adapt it into a movie. You’d have to be Robert Evans circa 1974, when cocaine floated through the air like pollen and the only bad ideas were small ones. Of course, that act of madness pales in comparison to the thought of watching the movie that resulted from it and deciding to make another attempt at adapting Gatsby, and to package it into a gilded and glittering blockbuster, a spectacle of society that would easily cost north of $100 million. To do such a thing, you’d have to be completely cracked. You’d have to see something in this exhausted text that nobody else did or could. You’d have to be Baz Luhrmann.

I was most excited for Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” because, at the very least (and at the very worst), it looked different. To my eyes, there’s nothing less interesting than when a novel is transposed rather than adapted for the screen, when a story is merely photographed in an act of contempt for the cinema’s unique gifts of expression. In other words, I really hated “Watchmen.” It seemed as though a collective reverence for the source text might have freed Luhrmann to riff on Fitzgerald’s classic as he had with “Romeo & Juliet,” one of the few stories that’s even more familiar to American audiences. And, to my great surprise (and mild disappointment), it turns out that while “The Great Gatsby” is unmistakably the work of Baz Luhrmann, it’s also slavishly faithful to the novel, and – more strikingly – among the most literal adaptations I’ve ever seen (read our full review here).

With that in mind, I became especially intrigued by the changes that Luhrmann did make, and why a filmmaker who was obviously happy to use modern technology to visualize as much of the novel as possible (this includes flying between East Egg and West Egg as though they were two cities of Westeros, and spelling out Nick Carraway’s immortal final thoughts on the screen in a puff of grey letters).

Here are the seven biggest changes that Baz Luhrmann and pals made to The Great Gatsby.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE ESSENTIALLY REVEALS THE ENTIRE PLOT OF “THE GREAT GATSBY.” 

1.) THE FRAMING DEVICE

The Great Gatsby is, for all intents and purposes, an epistolary novel – Nick Carraway is writing his own memoir, the narration frequently referring to the “book” in which his thoughts are being collected. There is no mention of who the publisher might be, or to what end Carraway is telling this story (beyond reckoning with his own past, of course). No matter how many times I’ve read it, the events of the novel are always surprisingly simple. The beauty is in how the prose is processed, how they land on the awed, impressionable and “honest” (self-proclaimed) Nick Carraway.

This is the great pleasure of reading the book, and the great difficulty of adapting it. Luhrmann’s solution is fatally convenient, and increasingly reminiscent of the framing device he used in “Moulin Rouge.” The film opens with Carraway, a hot and sleepless mess, visiting a therapist during the snowy pits of winter. The therapist encourages Carraway to confront the memories that have so disheveled him, and suggests that the patient might try writing them out. Boom.

The film does its best to forget about this clumsy intro, returning to it as infrequently as possible, but the damage is done. By so obviously mediating the plot’s narration (voiceover inevitably ensues), Luhrmann reduces Carraway to a conduit of facts. The idea that Carraway might have an agenda of his own is scuttled (more on this later), and the few introspective moments he is afforded (such as the bit where he imagines his doppelgänger staring back at him from the sidewalks of Harlem), feel like lame asides rather than the fundamental essence of the text.

In all respects, Luhrmann’s approach makes Carraway less of a character than he is a device, a feeling cemented in the movie’s mishandled final moments, in which Luhrmann depicts Carraway actually completing his book, which is called simply “Gatsby,” until Carraway reflects on his work and scribbles on “The Great” with a winsome smile. And so dies the irony and rich pathos of Carraway’s final words to Gatsby, the only compliment he ever offered his strange friend.

2.) MYRTLE

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Oh, Myrtle. Poor, poor Myrtle.

In the novel, this is how she’s described: “Then I heard footsteps on a stairs, and in a moment the thickish figure of a woman blocked out the light from the office door. She was in the middle thirties, and faintly stout, but she carried her surplus flesh sensuously as some woman can. Her face, above a spotted dress of dark blue crêpe-de-chine, contained no facet or gleam of beauty, but there was an immediately perceptible vitality about her as if the nerves of her body were continually smouldering.”

In the movie, she’s Isla Fisher as possessed by Nicole Kidman’s character in “Moulin Rouge.” She isn’t even thick by modern standards, and – while milage may vary – I’d contend that her face contains at least some facet or gleam of beauty. Her performance is high camp, tied up in a stock Long Island accent that’s every bit as tragic as her fate, while Fitzgerald wrote her as a woman who was volatile but still recognizably human. That being said, Fisher’s take actually kind of works. She’s “smouldering” but stupid, and Tom’s lust for her is ultimately our best way of understanding his true nature.

If only Christina Hendricks were Australian…

3.) FORESHADOWING

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Perhaps because of the inelegant framing device through which he introduces the plot, Luhrmann doesn’t seem much interested in recapitulating Fitzgerald’s nasty love of foreshadowing. The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg still watch for tragedy, but Luhrmann clings on to what little suspense he can wring from this story.

Luhrmann omits a number of different references to automobile accidents, but most telling is how he introduces Owl Eyes in the library during Gatsby’s blow-out bash, but then skips over the bit in which the older man crashes his car on Gatsby’s lawn later on that evening (you see the flipped over automobile, but so briefly that it feels like just another of Gatsby’s grand attractions).

“But as I walked down the steps I saw that the evening as not quite over. Fifty feet from the door a dozen headlights illuminated a bizarre and tumultuous scene. IN the ditch, beside the road, right side up, but violently shorn of one wheel, rested a new coupé which had left Gatsby’s drive not two minutes before…” And then, of course, the revelation that there was a second man in the car, that Owl Eyes himself may not have been behind the wheel….

4.) NICK AND JORDAN DON’T GET PHYSICAL

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Myrtle aside, the women of Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” all capture the original spirit of their characters with riveting immediacy, none more so than statuesque newcomer Elizabeth Debicki, who assumes the role of Daisy’s closest friend, lithe dilettante Jordan Baker. Luhrmann’s film ensures that Baker is a constant presence, but she’s hardly more involved in the action than T.J. Eckleburg.

Their relationship is a bit more complicated in the novel. Here’s how Carraway describes the athletic beauty: “Her gray, sun-strained eyes stared straight ahead, but she had deliberately shifted our relations, and for a moment I thought I loved her. But I am slow-thinking and full of interior rules that act as brakes on my desires…” Hey, brakes! Indeed, Jordan is some of literature’s slinkiest foreshadowing, but she’s also used to throw harsh relief on Carraway’s character, and reveal a bit more about his lusts, and how he’s filtering the events of the summer through them.

In a rare case of muting a opportunity for more screen sex, Luhrmann resists this element of Jordan’s literary purpose, effectively depriving Carraway of one of the only instances in which he asserts his own agency (their kiss in the novel is perhaps his most forceful moments). Fitzgerald, in his deliciously gossipy way, alludes to the fact that Carraway and Jordan have sex, but Maguire’s take on the character is so jittery and removed that it may have been too much of a wrinkle to include in the film. That being said, the promo still used above suggests that this might have been shot and then excised from the theatrical cut.

5.) MEYER WOLFSHEIM IS NOT JEWISH*

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In the novel, Gatsby’s shady business partner (the man who allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series) is defined by his jewishness, and not in the kindest of terms. Fitzgerald describes him as “A small, flat-nosed Jew” with “tiny eyes” and an accent that effectively made him the Jar Jar Binks of his day. Carraway may be an honest man, but he’s also kind of an anti-semitic one.

Needless to say, this was never going to survive the adaptation process, and Luhrmann’s solution is a neat one indeed: He cast Bollywood super (duper) megastar Amitabh Bachchan in the role, placing no emphasis on race or heritage. It’s clear that Bahchan is a dangerous man, but he wears his exoticism in much the same way as Gatsby drives his car – some may be natural, but all of it is used for show, like the cufflinks he wears that are made from human molars. It doesn’t hurt that he’ll do some major damage at the international box office.

*It’s been brought to my attention that, in the film, Tom passingly refers to Wolfsheim’s Jewishness with a derogatory slur. Weird fan-service?

6.) LEO PUNCHES THINGS UP

You know this face?

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Yeah, this face isn’t in the book. The movie’s big Leo moment, in which he goes ballistic and threatens to punch Tom in the face, is never implied by Fitzgerald’s text. Instead, the Plaza Hotel confrontation ends with a whimper, as Carraway relates that Gatsby and Daisy were “gone, without a word, snapped out, mad accidental, isolated, like ghosts, even from our pity.”

7.) WHAT HAPPENED TO MR. GATZ?

More than anything, Luhrmann’s film is undone by the means by which he (fails) to convey Gatsby’s personal history, both chronologically and emotionally. That being said, Luhrmann was nevertheless probably wise to severely downplay the role of Gatsby’s father, Mr. Gatz, who spends some time with Carraway in the days after Gatsby’s murder. In the novel, Gatz’s presence makes the extent of Gatsby’s facade strikingly clear, the ultimate attempt to wrest him away from the myth of his own making.

While Luhrmann struggles with story’s final moments, it was likely wise to downplay Mr. Gatz, particularly when the filmmaker uses that valuable time to refocus our attention on Daisy’s daughter, finally making the child real.

Did you notice any other major changes in the film? Let us know in the comments below.


Categories: Columns

Tags: Baz Luhrmann, Book vs Movie, F. scott fitzgerald, Leonardo dicaprio, The Great Gatsby, Tobey maguire

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