The Great Gatsby (1974 film)

May 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Cinema is a very different medium from literature, no matter how frequently and how in-depth directors appropriate literary works in creating their cinematic adaptations.  Often films labeled “based on the novel” are wretched, turgid affairs not because the directors fail to be faithful enough to the source material but instead because they are too faithful, at least to the letter of the story and not to its spirit.  This is especially notable when the source material is a classic that has the mass readership comparable to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby.  In the 88 years since its release, four cinema versions (only three are extant – 1949, 1974, 2013 – with the 1926 silent film version being mostly “lost”) and one television mini-series (2000) have been released.  Of these adaptations, I have seen the 1974 and 2013 versions and over the course of two reviews, I plan on noting the ways that both approach Fitzgerald’s novel and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

The 1974 version certainly had some major starpower.  With a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola, this film also featured Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan.  With a running time of just over 2 hours and 20 minutes, the film was very faithful to the scenes and dialogue of the novel.  If anything, it tried too hard to replicate the voice of the novel, instead creating a cinematic experience that is often cold and distant from the vibrancy of Fitzgerald’s tale.  The only two characters who stand out are Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) and George Wilson (Scott Wilson); each of them figures more significantly into the action here than in the 2013 edition.  The rest of the roles are competently if not brilliantly executed by others including Bruce Dern (who played Tom Buchanan) and Lois Chiles (Jordan Baker).

The action mirrors the novel closely; there are very few scenes that do not at least quote parts of the corresponding novel.  At times, the movie feels as though it is close to becoming vibrant and emotional, only to see those traces of livelihood stamped down almost immediately.  Redford, based on his other films of the 1970s, could have displayed a wider range with Gatsby, but instead (possibly directed to do so by director Jack Clayton) his Gatsby is too formal, too polished, too devoid of inner anguish to really engage the viewer.  Likewise, Farrow’s Daisy is an odd character.  While her Daisy at least attempts to speak with a posh Southern accent, there were several instances where Farrow’s Daisy oscillates between capricious love and diffident materialism.  While this oscillation certainly jibes more with the original novel than how the character was portrayed in the 2013 version, it is too jarring here.  Perhaps the point is that Daisy’s vapidness is what makes her character so attractive to some, but Farrow too often overplays it.  Her scenes with Redford feel cold and the emotional lines uttered by both feel as natural as if a Wookie were to start emoting Hamlet.

Yet there are some interesting moments in this film.  Early scenes with Myrtle Wilson and the McKees in the NYC apartment as well as the first seen party at Gatsby’s mansion reveal a more nuanced approach toward the flappers and their rebellion against social mores than does the 2013 version.  Here, there is not the emphasis on spectacle that the recently-released adaptation has, but instead in their dances and in their comments, the young women, major and bit players alike, are not as sexualized here.  Although there certainly are hints of dalliances taking place in this film, the women here are allowed to be slightly more well-rounded than they are in the current release.  Chiles’ Jordan Baker more openly displays her amorality compared to Elizabeth Debicki’s portrayal, as her interpretation of the character is more subtle and yet clear in terms of her refusal to be constricted by rules and regulations.  As noted above, Farrow’s Daisy displays a wider range (albeit a range that sometimes works against the best interests of key scenes) and she is not as apparently besotted with Gatsby as was Carey Mulligan’s interpretation of the character.  The same goes for Karen Black and how her Myrtle Wilson captured more of the class consciousness of the novel than Isla Fisher’s more sex-centered portrayal.

Waterston’s Nick carefully walks the line between being a keen observer and a callow pushover.  His Nick is perhaps slightly better than Tobey Maguire’s simply because Nick plays a more integral part in the 1974 film.  Yet due to his co-stars’ failures to capture the mixture of burning passion and callousness that was present in the novel, Nick’s more memorable lines do not succeed in capturing the depths of his emotional confusion and outrage.  The only character that truly does so is George Wilson.  Scott Wilson’s interpretation captures a man whose simple honesty stands in sharp relief to the capricious games that the Buchanans, Jordan, and others play over the course of the film.  His descent into murderous grief is very believable here because more effort is made to show his inner conflicts.

At nearly two and a half hours, this film felt at times interminable due to the subpar acting performances and focus on showing the glamor of the 1922 Long Island setting at the expense of developing the characters better.  Yet the film suffers not only because it is compared to a great novel, but because its own promise was thwarted time and time again by Clayton’s choice to emphasize the exterior at the expense of the characters themselves.  With few exceptions, the characterizations show glints of greatness that are covered with a thick grime of affected poses and perfunctory nods toward character conflict.  This 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby captures the skeleton and most of the skin of the novel, but its heart and soul are withered in comparison.  Not recommended for most viewers.

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