F Scott Fitzgerald wrote a great story in 1925. Since then there have been at least six film versions of the story, so it must be with great expectations that anyone who has seen the earlier versions will regale himself or herself with the latest remake. This is particularly so if you had seen the 1974 production directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford, Sam Waterston and Mia Farrow – “a film that even surpassed, I think, the novel by Scott Fitzgerald” (playwright Tennessee Williams in Memoirs) – and if you are a fan of Leonardo diCaprio.
The risk that any production committed to the spirit of the novel runs is engulfing the story in its setting, which becomes distracting. Yet without running that risk, it would have failed to capture the wanton grandeur of that jazz age marked by the lavish parties that had so inspired Scott. In fact it was this very lack of pomp that made one of the earlier productions that I had seen so forgettable.
Baz Luhrmann might have gone a little over the top in projecting the extreme of Jay Gatsby’s lavish parties, and with the updated music that made it an extravaganza quite out of its time when you wished a little more of the nostalgia of that age of decadence. There is an unmistakeable Moulin Rouge touch to it. But it is forgivable; better an excess of the frills than a lack of it.
Scott’s story is such a powerful work that any production that stays close to the book should be able to carry it through with some ease of sustaining the viewer’s interest. Yet it is how the actors bring to life the characters they play that differentiate the productions one from another.
In the definitive 1974 production, Redford’s Gatsby was cool and romantic, emanating the mystery that enshrouds the character; diCaprio’s portrayal is more hot-blooded and dramatic, much less of a mystery. Both Waterston and Edgerton gave strong performances as Tom Buchanan. Mia Farrow was the perfect Daisy Buchanan, naturally disliked for her callousness and vanity; Carey Mulligan did not exhibit as mean a streak but came across as being more pitiably trapped in circumstances – a veritable performance for a newcomer. In the end, it was Tobey Maguire as the narrator Nick Caraway in the latest version that gave the film its presence from beginning to end, unlike the way that the narrator generally tends to retreat into the background of the story.