How many times have you gone to the cinemas to see movie based on your favourite book, and left feeling utterly deflated at how the director got it all wrong? It’s a cliché, but I’m yet to find a movie that is outdoes the novel it’s based on. When you read a book, how you understand it is completely up to you – the reader, and this mental construction is different for everybody. Seeing someone else’s interpretation (the director’s) will inevitably seem disappointing in some aspect. Certain things may translate better to the screen, such as the stunning scenery in Lord of the Rings, or the magical special effects in the Harry Potter movies. However; setting, character development and overall feel of the movie will differ to how you felt the author meant it to, and how you saw it play out whilst reading.
One such disappointment was The Great Gatsby, written originally by F. Scott Fitzgerald and made into a movie last year by Baz Luhrmann. The book is an undeniable masterpiece. Having read it, loved it, written a high school English assignment on it and fallen in love with it even more, I rented the dvd with low expectations. How could Baz Luhrmann, a mere 21st Century director, really understand what Fitzgerald was trying to convey in his artful and satirical conveyance of the roaring 20s? Well, I’ll give you the short answer here; he couldn’t. Producers of the movie aimed to create a party “that kids wanted to come to,” and so Jay-Z is an executive producer, and the soundtrack is full of Beyonce, Lana Del Rey and Jack White.
As a rather critical article in the New Yorker by David Denby explains; “Gatsby’s excess – his house, his clothes, his celebrity guests – is designed to win over his beloved Daisy. Luhrmann’s vulgarity is designed to win over the young audience, and it suggests that he’s less a filmmaker than a music-video director with endless resources and a stunning absence of taste. This book is too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies.” This is spot on, as although I’m all for multiple interpretations of art, some things can only get worse when translated to the screen. Fitzgerald’s heartbreakingly wistful prose simply doesn’t work with Lana Del Rey playing in the background.
When stories are re-created on the big screen, it’s inevitable that the actors chosen won’t match up with the way you imagined them. They may lack features you assigned to them in your mind’s eye, and seem like overall frauds of the intensely real characters you got to know so well. Especially in first-person narrative styles, onscreen translations can seem shallow and un-relatable in contrast to the descriptive internal dialogue of a novel. In the case of the Great Gatsby; although I love Leonardo diCaprio and think he gave a stellar performance in the role, he simply lacks the element of mystique that Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby so effortlessly possesses. In saying that, diCaprio definitely outshone all the other actors in this film. It is beautiful to watch how his seemingly unshakeable charisma transforms into sadness and desperation in his pursuit of Daisy.
Some of my favourite quotes of all time were butchered in Baz Luhrmann’s adaption by actors who just didn’t get it. Carey Mulligan’s attempt at playing Daisy was forced, turning Fitzgerald’s poetic prose into over-practiced lines. Another main character, Nick Carraway was played poorly by Toby McGuire, in my opinion. The narrator is intended as an interested observer in the spectacle that is Gatsby’s life, and a catalyst for his storyline; someone lacking in a plot-altering personality themselves, yet at the same time being likeable and genuine. Maguire, however, is uncomfortable, unsophisticated and more like an intruder than an involved observer in this role. I feel an unknown actor would’ve been better suited to the role, rather than the rather high profile Maguire. The risk of bringing in well known actors to a book-turned-movie is that you remember the past characters they played, and you can’t help unconsciously mashing up the separate roles. There is just no way that a nerdy Spiderman can transform into a 20s era bonds businessman and be taken seriously by me. Sorry Tobes, I simply can’t un-see that famous ‘Tobey-face’.
Another difficulty with director’s adaptations of books is that they must produce it with the intention of appealing to a wide audience and being commercially viable. The film industry must consider which groups will be offended or disinterested by a script or plotlines content, and therefore cannot confine a movie to a single genre at the risk of alienating these audiences. Increasingly, films have become a ridiculous cross-pollination of genres, such as the 3D-romance-drama-partyscene fest that is ‘The Great Gatsby’ in order to offer something of interest to every demographic and gain maximum movie attendance. In doing this, directors commercialise a piece of art, watering down its impact as it’s spread thin to please the largest possible section of society, at the loss of genuine lasting effect on anyone.
In saying all this, however, movies do have their benefits. Personally, when I read books I find it difficult to really get a clear picture of what settings and characters look like. So I love watching movies to get a vibrant visual, rather than a fuzzy image of main protagonists, as well as peripheral characters. I have to say, it’s always more enjoyable watching a movie that hasn’t been adapted from a novel, as you go in with no expectations for the on-screen version to live up to. The ‘Grand Budapest Hotel’ directed by Wes Anderson is one I saw recently that is the perfect example of this. It’s funny, creative and has stunningly sophisticated cinematography. I dare say it wouldn’t work well as a book, as it’s more a feast for the eyes then focused on script, and so reliant on visual effects.
Ultimately, it’s really impossible to compare movies and books. It’s like apples and oranges. Both bring different things to the table and offer totally different forms of entertainment.
Books become a part of your life when you read them, like a long term relationship. You spend time with them on a regular basis, connect with the story and miss them when it’s over. Like with a partner you’ve been with for a while, you get to know and love the author’s writing style and become involved in the protagonists’ struggles. You know you’ll eventually find a new one when it’s over, but the memories will stay with you long after you’ve closed the covers for the last time. Movies, however, are more like a one night stand that carry you along on an exciting whirlwind experience for a few hours. Good for a bit of fun, maybe to learn something new; but you probably won’t see them again. You might meet up with them again for a late night booty call when you’re bored or sentimental, but unless you really like them, there’s no lasting emotional connection.
Coming back to the Great Gatsby, the book I mean, you should all go and read it, as it’s a million times better than the movie. Even if you were forced to read it in high school (and subsequently harbour the resentment for it that every teenager has towards something they are made to do), try to appreciate the underlying messages Fitzgerald is trying to tell us. I could fill pages with my favourite quotes from this genius, but here is one I feel is particularly poignant for us, as students at the height of our optimism for the future (or so I keep being told);
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning” So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
To me, this means that although we will never wake up one day to find we have achieved everything our heart desires, we can get pretty damn close, and this unbeatable hope is what will get us far in life. So, my message to you, is to read books and watch movies (maybe not cinematic adaptations of books, though), appreciate the culture, art and creativity in these complex mediums; both using your imagination to interpret it your own way as well as trying to understand the author or filmmaker’s vision.