Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Great Gatsby, novel and 1974 movie version

I  finally read Scott Fitzgerald's classic The Great Gatsby. Quite frankly, I have a hard time seeing what all the fuss is about. I wonder if I would have continued reading if it had not been an official classic. I found the characters neither well developed nor particularly interesting. I found it hard to care much about any of them. Embryonic ideas about class and the nature of America's regions are casually tossed out and might be interesting if they were more developed. A better informed book club friend told me that Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby in a hurry because he needed money. That makes perfect sense.

Partial synopsis: Narrator Nick Carradine has just returned from WWI, too restless to settle down back home in the Middle West. He moves to New York to become a bonds salesman, and ends up renting a house on Long Island next to a mansion owned by a mysterious stranger who gives enormous parties. Across the small bay lives Tom Buchanan, an old school acquaintance, married to Nick's second cousin once removed. Tom and Daisy are rich, insanely rich. They are being kept company by Daisy's friend Jordan Baker, a golf champion. Daisy is not happy. Tom has a mistress, married to a pathetic gas station owner. Daisy used to be a Southern belle, pursued by many, in love with only one: an officer named Jay Gatsby who survived  WWI, but did not return speedily enough.  Gatsby turns out to be the mysterious stranger who owns the mansion next door. This is no coincidence, he has bought the house precisely because it is across the bay from Daisy. Gatsby turns out to be a self-made man from a hard scrabble background. We slowly find out that he earns his wealth through illegal activities. The novel revolves around the doomed, pathetic quest of Gatsby to regain Daisy, who he never stopped loving, and through her an idealized past. Tragedy ensues. Tom's working class mistress, her poor husband and Gatsby all end up dead, Tom and Daisy retreat into the privilege of their wealth, Nick is ready to go back home.

However, the writing is gorgeous, the descriptions of a time and place are beautiful. I can appreciate The Great Gatsby most if I think of it as a long evocative song, rather than a short book. Even while reading it, I kept thinking "Wouldn't this make a wonderful movie". Of course, a number of movie makers have thought exactly that.

With the novel still fresh in mind I got the 1974 movie version out of the library. I was particularly eager to see it after reading the review by Roger Ebert. He complains that the movie does not show the same emotional depth as the book. Perhaps I read too quickly and too superficially, but I had a hard time finding emotional depth in the book. Ebert also panned the performances and casting. I partly agree and partly disagree.

The movie follows the book almost to the letter, using narration just like the novel. The worst parts imho are scenes where it diverges from the book. In the book, narrator Nick Carradine learns Gatsby and Daisy's back story partly through Daisy's friend Jordan Baker, and partly through Gatsby himself. In the movie, that back story is told in a scene with Daisy and Gatsby alone, reminiscing. It feels stilted and unnatural, partly because Daisy is played badly by Mia Farrow. As far as I am concerned that performance is the biggest flaw in an otherwise beautiful movie. Since Daisy is a central character it is a big one.

What was the caster thinking? I agree entirely with Ebert on this one. The book makes much of Daisy's voice, which is described as low and musical. Mia Farrow doesn't thrill, she squeaks and titters and is entirely unconvincing. She has no glamour, no sex appeal, no chemistry with Redford's Gatsby. BOO! Throw a rotten tomato! Her side kick Jordan Baker on the other hand, played by Lois Chiles has a beautiful voice and moreover is more sexy than Farrow.  Perhaps they should have made her over into a blonde and cast her as Daisy. Come to think of it, skinny Farrow might have made a good Baker.

I disagree with Ebert on Redford's Gatsby. I thought he did a brilliant job capturing the social awkwardness of this self-made man, as well as his emotionally boyish and immensely vulnerable nature.  My prize for best performance in the movie goes to Karen Black, who plays Tom Buchanan's mistress Myrtle Wilson. Just as Fitzgerald describes, she exudes vitality. Her pathetic husband is convincingly played but too handsome for the part

Visually this movie is a treat, worth watching for the costumes and over the top party scenes alone. I do not regret the hours I spent filling this gap in my literary and cinematic education.


troutbirder said...

Well perhaps me and high society don't mix but I never thought much of the book. Apparently neither did the reading public back then either. Zane Grey and E.R. Burroughs were far far more popular but then that doesn't say much for taste either...:)

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I must admit I never read either of those. I would probably have enjoyed them in childhood. I loved Karl May.