Gatsby vs. Gatsby: searching for realism

“Great films are not made. They are remade!” (Garnett)

As director Tay Garnett claimed in his 1937 cinematic masterpiece Stand-In, when movies were widely acknowledged as great, they end up being remade (Garnett). Although Garnett, in his movie, decided to mock classical Hollywood cinema industry, he actually made a strong point about great movies and their remakes, which are two objects of discussion also today. However, if we take into account only Garnett’s claim without firstly questioning what makes a great movie, we might fall into mere invalid assumptions. Then, those assumptions will lead us having an even more arguable conclusion according to which only if a movie is remade is great. Nevertheless, there are so many factors to take into consideration in order to talk validly about the greatness of a movie that we must not restrict the field of research to a formal analysis of the movie. In fact, one might argue that a narrative movie is great thanks to its editing or cinematography, or thanks to the starring actors’ performance, or due to other formal aspects. Yet, it is important to consider also the variety of genres that are out there, in the narrative cinema world, and to see the way a given movie follows (or not) the canons of the genre to which it (supposedly) belongs. The idea of genre itself might be problematic too, but this essay will not open that discussion up. Rather, this essay will focus on two movies (one remade of the other), and argue the greatness of one over the other by focusing on the realism.

What makes a movie realistic has always been object of discussion among cinematic scholars. According to American professor David Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film, realism (which he referred to when talking about art cinema) is a representation of the narrative world with little emphasis on cause-effects relations, and, in formal terms, with an extensive use of natural lighting, unconstructed location sets, and so on (Bordwell). Therefore, Classical Hollywood movies, which Bordwell along with Kristin Thompson and Janet Staiger studied in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, are but realistic, as Classical Hollywood Cinema, by nature, is the embodiment of construction and formal representation of narratives (Bordwell).

The verisimilitude Bordwell talks about also refers to the degree to which a movie is trustworthy and reliable when it occurs to portray a certain reality or a historical context. However, in the particular case of a movie based on a novel, it is much easier to affirm the very movie realism is directly connected to the way its script stays true to the novel of reference, as in fact the novel itself is by nature realistic. In these terms, the realism in question is all concerned with the movie being more or less able to represent the world (already) realistically described by the literary novel.

Jack Clayton’s 1974 The Great Gatsby is an American romantic drama movie whose screenwriting, by Francis Ford Coppola, is based on Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel of the same name. Screenwriter and novelist William Goldman has considered Francis Ford Coppola’s script as one of the greatest adaptations of a novel, for the movie staying true to the novel, and depicting all the reality and passions included in the novel (Goldman). The realism of Clayton’s The Great Gatsby is achieved by a faithful representation of the post-war American world of the ‘20s, when upper and middle classes people merely used to live on an anesthetized attitude by having unreasonable fun most of the time. The way Clayton’s represents the American life and the post-war American dream of the ‘20s portrays an atmosphere of (apparent) wellness, though without falling into a nostalgia for the “good times gone”; in fact, Clayton’s movie proximity to Fitzgerald’s literary novel makes the movie realistic, hence great too. Especially when Clayton’s The Great Gatsby is compared with Australian director and screenwriter Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 remake, it is easier to notice Clayton’s version being effectively realistic. In fact, Luhrmann, well-known director of dreamlike movies such as Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Mouline Rouge (2001), decided to represent his own interpretation of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In fact, what Luhrmann did differently from Clayton is adapting the world story to the style of the current time. While Clayton, in 1973, maintained a certain temporal distance and represented a past world as it was, Luhrmann did include anachronistic diegetic elements from the 2010s, which clearly distinguish his movie and his style as director. Although both movies narrate the same story based on the very same novel, they provide two different representations of the American world in the ‘20s, also by highlighting different aspects of that society.

Clayton’s The Great Gatsby very first scene is a sort of establishing sequence of the main location of the movie. It is a sunny day, a gentle music typical of the ‘20s is on air, and the camera moves around Gatsby’s wonderful house, showing us details of his rich furniture and objects with his initial ‘JG’, and some close-ups of photos of a beautiful blond girl. Therefore, from the very first 30 seconds, the spectator is told what the movie is likely to be about: a love story between the owner of the great house and the beautiful blond girl in the photographs. Everything is so pure and bright that the spectator has already gotten a sense of what living in the ‘20s would have been like. On the other hand, the very first scene from Luhrmann’s remake shows what we will get to know is Daisy’s house. The camera moves forward the house over a stormy glass-like sea at night, while an intense and gloomy male voice over starts talking about an advice by his father: “‘Always try to see the best in the people’ – he’d say – as a consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all my judgments” (Luhrmann). At this point, a graphic match replaces the view of the house with a snowy day view of a Sanitarium, where we finally see the voice-over narrator’s face: Tobey Maguire starring writer Nick Carraway. Almost the same speech and voice-over narration is provided by Clayton’s version though in such different way, just after the sequence of the house at the beginning. Nick Carraway here is starred by Sam Waterston who says, with a delightful tone of voice, the precise words Fitzgerald wrote at the beginning of his novel: “‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone – he told me – just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’. And as consequence I’m inclined to reserve all my judgments” (Fitzgerald). Just by focusing on this small difference between the beginnings of the two movies, we can see how much emphasis on drama Luhrmann put in his version, as opposed to Clayton’s attitude of staying true to the novel and avoiding any personal interference. By modifying lines and moods of the characters, Luhrmann provides his remake with a much darker atmosphere surrounding the story world: watching his remake, we perceive the ‘20s as a world of fake wellness that covers a gloomy reality made up only with lies, falsehood, and crimes. In Clayton’s movie, Nick Carraway is firstly seen while going by boat towards his cousin and brother-in-law’s house: it is a sunny day, some sail boats are out on the lake, and the camera shows Nick approaching the house wearing an elegant suit, and looking proud, though a little bit clumsy on the boat. Clayton’s ability to distance himself, as director and reader of Fitzgerald’s novel, from any interpretation offers the spectator the chance to rely on him and on his movie, in order to get an overall realistic view of American society in the ‘20s.

In Clayton’s movie, we see Daisy, magnificently starred by Mia Farrow, for the first time when Nick, as he arrived in the house, comes in the bright and spacious living room where she is lying on a couch. Mia Farrow does not need any fictitious cinematographic tool to look great; hence, she is naturally lying down on the sofa, gently greeting her cousin with a lovely and tender kiss expressing all her happiness in meeting him again after a long time. Everything looks natural and incredibly real, as if someone had hidden a camera from the ‘70s in a dining room of an American house in the ‘20s. On the other hand, in Luhrmann’s version, in the same scene showing Daisy - Carey Mulligan - for the first time, everything is but natural and realistic. Daisy appears little by little from the dreamy white curtains, which go around the room because of the wind blowing through the opened doors. A quick shot reveals the detail of the crystal chandelier, while Nick goes on looking for his cousin’s figure through the transparent white curtains. The camera goes through the curtains as well, showing us very slowly just hints of the whole figure of Daisy, who at this point, must look like a goddess, as most spectators would think. A pair of hands touching one another, fluttering over the couch, are glimpsed for a while, when the curtains are still flying about giving a dreamlike atmosphere. Everything is surrounded by the sweet and pleasing sound of the curtains swishing all around the room, while we hear the sound of sensual female laughs coming from down the couch. And here she goes: a blond girl similar to any other in the world.

What Luhrmann does throughout the movie is giving the spectators constant hints that create expectations, and just a moment later he disappoints those expectations by showing insignificant or – even worse – inappropriate portraits of a scene. For instance, he extensively uses anachronistic diegetic music in most party scenes. Realism goes away as the spectator, watching a supposed scene from the ‘20s everyday life, suddenly starts to hear Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young and Beautiful’, released precisely in 2013. No trace of realism is glimpsed in the scene of the ‘private party’ that Nick and his brother-in-law Tom have downtown with Tom’s lover and her sister. While they are having fun in a so-called ‘Trimalchio’-ish party, the camera suddenly reveals a dark-skinned trumpet player playing the soundtrack music (from the ‘2000s) while standing somewhere out there in the balcony of a room of their hotel.

Clayton’s honesty has its basis on a non-constructed representation of the events. In fact, while Luhrmann displays a saturated colored world, where everything is nothing but a mere illusion that will disappear in a second, Clayton keeps his feet on the ground. Other than portraying a reality as it was, thanks to Coppola’s trustworthy script, Clayton captures his Gatsby with an unalterable and timeless quality that Luhrmann, could never achieve. Luhrmann’s advantage, on the other hand, might also be seen as his worst constraint: his involvement, emotionally speaking, in the stories he wants to represent, does not allow his movies to ‘last’ eternally, so to speak. The way he perceives a story is so personal and attached to his time that his movies unavoidably lack realism. Because it is firstly himself that does not present the story for what it is but for what he feels it is, his movies are never as great as realistic movies.

“Any film that survives will have audiences over time. A film that is remade encounters new audiences, individuals who might not have encountered the original if someone hadn’t decided to remake the older film” (Horton). Certainly, every film has its own success, which lasts over time according to its greatness. Luhrmann’s remake almost surely has allowed his audiences to (re)discover and go through Clayton’s older version of The Great Gatsby.

Therefore, it is Luhrmann at first that, even unconsciously, states the greatness of Clayton’s Gatsby just by thinking about shooting a remake of it. In other words, directors are unlikely to remake a movie if they, firstly, do not consider great and inspiring that movie. Consequently, the remake will be eternally eclipsed by the original movie; therefore, audiences will always refer to the original, as the remake itself refers to that. Remakes have reasons to exist and be done, though: they celebrate the greatness of original masterpieces of the past, might reveal narrative aspects and elements that original had not, and reawaken the glory of some lost movies that nobody would currently be watching otherwise. Still, greatness of Claytons’ Gatsby will always cloud Luhrmann’s Gatsby remake.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison. 1985. Print.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrative Principles and Procedure. Routledge: London. 1988. Print.

Horton, Andrew, and Stuart Y. McDougal. Play It Again, Sam. University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1998. Print.

Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York. 1925. Print.

Garnett, Tay. Stand-in. Walter Wanger Productions: USA. 1937. Film.

Goldman, William. Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade. Pantheon Books: New York. 2000. Print.

Luhrmann, Baz. The Great Gatsby. Warner Bros. Pictures: New York. 2013. Film.

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