The better the book, the harder the fall. Tinny and melodramatic, the 1974 film treatment of The Great Gatsby raises a perennial question: if they can make a decent movie out of The Bridges of Madison County, why not a great one out of one of the best novels of the 20th century?
Maybe it’s near impossible: who wants to futz with Fitzgerald’s gorgeous prose? Maybe Francis Ford Coppola in 1974 (in the midst of the Godfather series and The Conversation). But he only wrote this film. And director Jack Clayton, who even now has only made fewer than a dozen movies, appears overwhelmed by Coppola’s faithful adaptation.
The credits roll over the opulent, empty rooms of Jay Gatsby’s (Robert Redford) mansion, an elegance that soon turns obvious, as we see clippings about Daisy and a pillow embroidered with Gatsby’s initials. Is this to reassure those who aren’t sure if they’ve stumbled upon The Great Waldo Pepper by accident? The first scene also overstates its case: Nick (Sam Waterston) drives a small motorboat, as Waterston reads from Fitzgerald’s novel. Visually, this feels right; fumbling with his hat, Nick is a likable lead. But the narration is awkward; the film is determined never to let the audience forget they’re watching an adaptation of that novel. When Nick says, “Gatsby turned out all right in the end,” before the movie has barely begun, it’s no longer delicate foreshadowing; it’s an elbow to the ribs.
The movie continues in this vein, although the narration subsides for long stretches. The camera does a lot of slow zooming in and out, highlighting the symbols as literally as possible, particularly the light at the end of the dock. In a novel, you can make symbolism a character’s primary reason for being; in a movie, spending time with an insufferable character is a bigger risk. Here, Daisy (Mia Farrow) moots the point; she’s not effective as human being or symbol.
Farrow’s delivery is slow and overdetermined, yet constantly on the verge of hysteria. She pioneers the performance technique that I associate most with Jack Nicholson in The Shining: laying all of the character’s cards on the table as soon as possible (Jack seems crazy in The Shining before we’ve spent five minutes with him; similarly, Daisy exudes irritating flakiness before she’s allowed to develop any mystery about her).
The rest of the cast is fine and naturalistic in their tough roles. It’s neat to hear Redford say “old sport.” He and Waterston manage some touching moments. But when, say, the “better than the whole lot of them” scene is staged gracefully, it only underlines how much of the rest of the film is soft-focus mush. Perhaps we ought not to feel that we deserve strong film versions of great novels; I’ll never complain that no one ever made a great book out of Pulp Fiction. And to be fair, I haven’t seen the 1926 or 1949 versions of the novel, or the 2001 TV movie. But if a Coppola/Redford version, made at one of America’s cinematic peaks, can’t pull it off, my hopes are not high. Call it a convincing argument for separation of book and film. Not because the novel is in any way “ruined” by this movie, but because the movie works itself into ruin over the novel.