Thoughts on The Great Gatsby (1974)

gatsby robertmiaStarring: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, Sam Waterston, Karen Black, Lois Chiles

Directed by: Jack Clayton

In the run up to the release of the new adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the 1974 film, starring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby, was released on blu-ray, and I got it, and watched it, to see what filmmakers made of the book 40 years ago, and so I can compare it to Baz Luhrmann’s version when I finally see that next week. This is not meant as a proper review, just comments on a few things that really stood out to me.

I haven’t heard of Jack Clayton, apart from him directing a film adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written, but of course I had heard of the film’s screenwriter, Francis Ford Coppola. And so I expected a little more from the man who also wrote (and directed) The Godfather. The world of cinema is obviously where Coppola’s strength’s lie, but instead of adapting the novel to the way a film tells a story, which can be quite different to novels, the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby is incredibly faithful, down to certain dialogues taken word-for-word from the book, and this is mainly why the film fails. I know usually critics and audiences hate adaptations for not being faithful enough, but Coppola’s screenplay is annoyingly so. I felt like I was being taken through the book scene-by-scene, rather than being allowed to enjoy the film. Or maybe that’s just the downfall of knowing the book well.

The very few things that were changed or added, made little sense. Nick Carraway, in the opening, states “he has no idea why he decided to spend that Summer in the East”, which is quite a departure from the explanation we’re given in the book. Why not just leave it as him coming to New York to work? Another thing that annoyed me was the way scenes of Tom Buchanan and Myrtle were intercut with a montage of Gatsby and Daisy’s affair, as if to justify what Daisy was doing, because Tom was doing the same, and vice versa, but I’ve read the novel multiple times, and not once has it occurred to me that is what Fitzgerald was getting at. Rather, I think to Fitzgerald, the affair between Gatsby and Daisy is quite different. Tom doesn’t really love either of his women, and he was never going to leave Daisy for Myrtle, whereas Gatsby and Daisy loved each other, and I’m sure at some point even Daisy believed she would leave Tom.

Redford makes a good Gatsby, but I think the line ‘the cool man in the cool suit’ is taken a bit too literally. Jay Gatsby did so much in hopes of impressing Daisy, but there’s no passion in Redford’s version of the character. He’s so quiet and reserved, I’m not so convinced he did do all those things just to get Daisy to come back to him. Mia Farrow makes an incredibly annoying Daisy. The character should be desirable, but I didn’t understand why Gatsby loved her so much, or why Tom would stay with her. Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway is as boring as Daisy is annoying. In the novel he’s a character of great importance being the narrator, but on film that seems to translate as just getting in the way. And I don’t know what to say about Lois Chiles’s Jordan Baker, except it’s a terrible performance, and the voice sounded like it was dubbed over.

Clayton’s film version of The Great Gatsby, no doubt is more realistic than Luhrmann’s promises to be, but it doesn’t make for a world that seems all that fun to be a part of (or rather, entertaining to watch), especially since the only music to be played at Gatsby’s party seems to be the generic music that goes with the Charleston. I’m not sure whether watching this so soon before seeing what Baz Luhrmann does with one of my favourite novels of all time was a good idea or a bad one, since I certainly didn’t like it as a film in its own right, and it doesn’t make me feel very optimistic about whether a really good film can come out of Fitzgerald’s novel.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Great Gatsby (1974)

  1. Karen Black didn’t play Jordan Baker; she played Myrtle Wilson and won a Golden Globe doing so. Lois Chiles played (cheats at golf )Jordan Baker and, I agree, her performance was not great. I did the same as you in anticipation of the movie, and thank you for giving words to some of my impressions of the 1974 version. PS I don’t think that Fitzgerald was ever trying to say that the world of Gatsby or the age itself was “all that fun to be a part of”. I believe that he was showing it’s sheer decadence and shallowness.

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