Great Gatsby: Book vs. Film
Before the invention of television and film the art of story telling was restricted to theater and literature. Theater was and still is performed live by actors who tell some kind of story through their performance. But theater is still limited greatly in its ability to convey setting to the viewer. In order to fully grasp the power of any story one must believe, in a sense, that the events are happening before them. Literature is better able to accomplish this by utilizing the power of the human imagination. Even more than this literature has the ability to describe human emotion through the use of strong metaphors and colorful language. It is this technique of writing that remains unique to literature. Even film cannot approach the human emotion and heart that literature has given people over the ages. Yet film is not without advantages of its own. Film can have strong power behind it. A kind of power that a viewer is forced to see and feel. This power is delivered though a film s soundtrack, it s quick pace, and in recent years, the use of special effects. Good books are often made into films. Which is better? The answer to that question depends on the intentions of the author of the book.
Both film and literature are a form of art. They are fiction and they create a false reality and a plot that is bound by that false reality. When comparing the two the intentions of the artist must be considered. When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath he intended the book to be sort of modern day epic that modeled the patterns of old world epics such as The Odyssey. Steinbeck wanted people to read a book that would take them into the human side of the troubles facing many farmers during the Great Depression. The book includes interchapters that do not advance the plot but serve only to offer another, more general point of the events being presented in the actual story. An attempt to model something like this in film would be futile as its meaning would become lost. Toni Morrison s Beloved is another example of book that could never be translated into film and maintain the power of its literature counterpart. Most of that book is based on metaphors and symbolism. Rather than say that a character is in distress over something symbolism is used to give the reader something that most people can relate to so that they can identify with the hardship facing the character. Literature will always be able to offer emotion and passion more powerfully than film. Film is not without its own virtues, however. People rely on vision more than any other sense and to see something magnificent in person is far better than reading about it. Mel Gibson s Braveheart told a story of Scottish rebels fighting against their English oppressors. Reading a story of massive battles is of no comparison to seeing hundreds of people on a big screen battling for freedom and life. Add a powerful and moving soundtrack and this film is superior to any book telling a similar story. Then there are books that deal with normal life situations that can be easily told through both literature and film. In this case, as it is with The Great Gatsby, the intentions of the author must be evaluated..
The Great Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was originally a book written in 1925. Several years later the book was translated into film. The book is written in first person narrative from the point of view of one of its main characters Nick Carraway. The choice of first person narrative by Fitzgerald causes the reader to be brought closer to the level of the characters in the book, rather than be at a distance as would be the case with a third person narrative. A story told in the first person most likely includes the personal feelings of whoever tells it. Nick Carraway begins the book with the line, In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I ve been turning over in my mind ever since, (p 5). Immediately emotion has been handed to the reader through Carraway s words. This line implies that at the present time of story telling Carraway has grown in some way since the time he refers to as his more vulnerable years. Film can do this as well, but only on a limited basis by using a voice over. No one wants to see a movie that has a continuous voice over but a first person narrative in a book is one large voice over and the narrator s feelings are continuously expressed to the reader.
One important scene in both the book and the movie is when Carraway meets Gatsby for the first time at his party. In this scene Carraway does not immediately recognize Gatsby because he has never seen him before. Up until this point Carraway has only heard of Gatsby and he is very interested in meeting the person himself as Gatsby is a very unique individual. The fascination and anticipation that Carraway has for meeting Gatsby is not communicated very well in the film because the viewer of the film does not know what Carraway is thinking or feeling. The reader of the book does. Carraway s own fascination is described through his own description of his surroundings, It was testimony to the romantic speculation [Gatsby] inspired that there were whispers about him from those who had found little that it was necessary to whisper about in this world, (p 48). This line alone conveys a great deal about the mystery surrounding Gatsby and the film cannot match it. Again, film does have advantages over literature and those advantages are displayed in this same scene. Visual representations are more powerful than those written in words. The incredible size of Gatsby s party shown in the film far surpasses the description in the book. Immediately the reader understands the magnitude of the event rather than having to read several paragraphs to only get a glimpse of the extravaganza. Since the book is about the character of Gatsby and is unique impact on those around him the book has the strongest advantage in this scene.
Another important scene in the story is where Mrs. Wilson is accidentally run down my Daisy. This is a pivotal point in the book because it brings two conflicts together: Tom Buchanan s affair with Mrs. Wilson (and subsequently Mr. Wilson s hatred of him) and Gatsby s interference in the marriage of Tom and Daisy. The importance of this conflict is amplified by the descriptive violent nature in which Mrs. Wilson dies. The book offers no light description, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for her heart beneath, (p 145). But the film gives the viewer an even more intense representation showing a bloodied and mutilated corpse that was the result of a car accident. This gives the viewer a feeling of shock because until this point the story had been relatively mild in comparison to this event. Now the tension felt by the characters is better known to the viewer. That feeling of tension will carry on for the rest of the film. The book cannot compare to the shock given to the viewer in the film. At this point the film has the advantage. In a following scene Gatsby is waiting discretely to make sure Tom does not take anger out on Daisy over the day s events. After Carraway checks to make sure everything is okay he tells Gatsby this is so yet Gatsby refuses to leave even though there is no danger to Daisy. The book describes the emotion of this scene very well, [Gatsby] put his hands in his coat pockets and turned back eagerly to his scrutiny of the house, as though my presence marred the sacredness of the vigil, (p 153). This tells the reader that Gatsby is not staying around the house because he fears for Daisy s safety. There is something more human here and the literature is able to communicate this more efficiently than the film. Again, the author intended the book to surround the mystery of Gatsby s unique character and therefore the book again has the advantage.
Perhaps the most important scene of the book is the one of Gatsby s death. Here the book and film differ greatly in their presentation of the events. The film actually shows the murder of Gatsby by Wilson taking place. The book presents the event as Carraway would have seen it. Since he did not witness the murder the reader does not either. By showing the murder the film is able to convey the emotions Mr. Wilson was feeling just before the murder. He was in a state of hysteria and rage. The film shows him hesitating to pull the trigger (an event not mentioned in the book) in order to convey the internal conflict that haunts Wilson. It may also be to create a moment of suspense for the audience as they hope that he does not carry out the act. The book does not offer much depth into Wilson s character at the time of the murder. When Carraway and some others find Gatsby s body the scene is almost tranquil in tone, The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved [Gatsby s body] slowly, tracing, like the leg of a compass, a thin red circle in the water, (p 170). This is calm, as though to imply that Gatsby was so unique that even a brutal murder such as this could not disrupt his mysterious nature. The murder of Gatsby in the book is an event that acts as the conclusion to Fitzgerald s unique character. The film takes away from this feeling by turning it into a suspenseful moment. Fitzgerald did not intend The Great Gatsby to be an action book or a suspense thriller so the film s version of this event seems unfitting. The author s intentions are better carried out in the book. Again, the book has the advantage.
The Great Gatsby is not an action book or a tale of mystery. It is a book that follows one man s observations of a most interesting character, Gatsby, who is in love with Daisy, a married woman. Not a book of action, The Great Gatsby is a book of emotion and human feeling. Almost all of the scenes in the book have been translated into film but the film is unable to capture the humanity behind Fitzgerald s mysterious Gatsby.