Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Great Disappointment

 by Fay Davies

                                          The Great Gatsby (dir: Baz Luhrmann) (source: FilmFilia)


It appears that Fitzgerald was quite the prophet. He wrote in his 1926 article 'Pasting it Together': 'I saw that the novel [...] the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art [...] subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power'.

This December, Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby will attempt to grace our screens. Since they caught wind of the idea back in 2010, fans and critics alike have charted each infinitesimal mark of its progress. Every decision – whether casting, setting or filming – is ravenously followed (and often crucified) by ultra-fans of what is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. And no small number of them believe that it will fail. For what power is more glittering and more gross than 3D cinema?

The news that the film was going to be in three dimensions drove some to distraction. Trawling message boards across the internet, I find varying levels of outrage. In an apt re-imagining of the novel's final line, one writes: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the (future?)”. Some are more explicit in their disapproval: “Making a film of Gatsby in 3D is such a monumentally stupid idea that even Baz Luhrmann wouldn't do it”.  A disturbingly high number of people take particular objection to the “silly glasses” that 3D viewing requires. But the decision to shoot in 3D is only part of the problem. It is of course impossible to transfer any book onto the big screen without losing some of its vital essence, and Fitzgerald's masterpiece represents a particular challenge.

The Great Gatsby is a novel of retrospection, metaphor, symbolism – poetry. Fitzgerald feared 'an art in which words were subordinated to images', and his novel is replete with words that simply cannot be transformed in this way. How could one convey the synaesthesia of 'yellow cocktail music', or the reverse, 'twinkling bells of sunshine'? The jarring, incongruous and perfect descriptions of 'triumphant hat boxes' or wreck of a car that 'crouched' would be lost in a film adaptation. Even more difficult would be the portrayal of the abstract and conceptual: 'What I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever' and 'a universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain'.

And Gatsby, the elusive, ephemeral Gatsby, is perhaps the biggest obstacle of them all. With his masterful handling of structure, Fitzgerald ensures that we never truly know Gatsby. He lacks clarity. He is his own conception. His 'incorruptible dream' means that he somehow transcends the human world. The physical presence of an actor on the screen would go some way to trivialising this man who should be so impermanent; this character who should never be allowed to truly materialise.

Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games provides a conveniently sharp contrast to Fitzgerald's work. Finding myself in the depths of inordinate excitement surrounding the trilogy and recent film, I decided to sample the first book for myself. One thing struck me immediately. They are written as if conscious precursors to a film adaptation – screen plays for the book-buying public. It's no surprise, then, that the film has seen fantastic success so far, already heralded as the next Twilight or Harry Potter. And it's no coincidence that the book lacks everything that The Great Gatsby has in abundance. Little philosophising; barely any poetic beauty; nothing of the abstract or symbolic. Instead, The Hunger Games offers plot, intensity, and adrenaline; qualities that translate perfectly into film. This book encapsulates the reason why The Great Gatsby is fundamentally incompatible with the medium of film. 

Yet, leaving pessimism aside, there are some moments of the novel which would lend themselves easily to cinematography. 'The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high'. This iconic image forms one of the novel's great symbols, and in an adaptation they would retain their stature and importance. Gatsby's death cries out to be filmed: 'with little ripples that were hardly the shadows of waves, the laden mattress moved irregularly down the pool'. Even at the moment of reading, it's impossible not to imagine the eerily tranquil scene unfolding before your eyes.

Dialogue is something that can remain untouched in the conversion from book to film, although it is rarely reproduced in its entirety. Many of the novel's casual exchanges reveal the superficiality and corruption of wealthy Americans of the '20s, and it would be profitable to recreate these. Some of the novel's most notorious lines are direct speech, and would reverberate with meaning equally well in the context of a film. Gatsby's tragic exclamation 'Can't repeat the past? […] Why of course you can!' forms a potent example.

The film doesn't have to be a monstrosity. There is indeed potential for it to stick closely to the novel in places, but it will deviate at times. A film adaptation of a book should never be judged on its ability to replicate it perfectly: should we not appreciate a work in its own right? So, despite the 3D, the book's poetic nature, and the relative obscurity of previous adaptations, we shouldn't give up on Luhrmann just yet. For all we know, the film might be spectacular. It just won't be Gatsby.

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