Is the Great Gatsby unfilmable?

Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio team up for the latest Gatsby adaptation. Let’s hope they fare better than the previous outings.

It moves spaniel-like through F Scott Fitzgerald’s text, sniffing and staring at events and objects very close up with wide, mopey eyes, seeing almost everything and comprehending practically nothing.” New York Times critic Vincent Canby wasn’t a fan of John Clayton’s 1974 Gatsby adaptation. Neither was anyone else. The consensus was that this huge-budgeted, Robert Redford-starring blockbuster conjured the shallow opulence of East and West Egg all too well. It got the sparkle but not the soul.

A similar fate befell the 1949 version. Too stagey. Felt flat. Boring. Old reviews of both movies descend into lists of ways the film fails to capture the message and melody of the novel. People began to wonder whether The Great Gatsby is unfilmable. A two hour movie can only take the bare bones of a novel, and Gatsby’s bones are very bare indeed. Shorn of Nick Carraway’s narrative voice – the moral and lyrical heart of the novel – The Great Gatsby is an implausible melodrama, distastefully decadent and driven by coincidence.

The novel is no thrill ride. It isn’t loved for its plot. It’s loved for the ineffable truth that flickers in its pages. Take this passage: “I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets. I saw him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without.” Pity the director who has to film that.

And pity the actor charged with playing Gatsby: “He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favour.” Descriptions of Gatsby in the novel are grandiose but vague. For all his wealth and ostentation his character is fundamentally mysterious.

Redford was too commanding, not enigmatic enough. Alan Ladd was too tough in the 1949 version. Will Leonardo Di Caprio fare any better? He and director Baz Luhrmann combined successfully on the global smash Romeo and Juliet in 1996. Just don’t expect reverence: it’s in 3D and the soundtrack features Jay-Z and Kanye. Still, if you can turn Shakespeare into a big screen success, perhaps Fitzgerald will be a doddle.

By Alex Dymoke

• The Great Gatsby is in cinemas on 17 May.