Adaptation and Transformation in Clayton’s “Gatsby”

In his film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, director Jack Clayton develops F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comments on the society presented in the novel. Clayton’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby successfully articulates to a large extent the novel’s theme that the class structure of 1920s America is unjustly prejudiced toward immoral individuals and against honorable figures to criticize the corruption of wealth in upper-class society. To convey just this theme, Clayton departs from the Fitzgerald text in a few significant ways, but perhaps is more notable for his emphasis on the properties of the film medium in re-envisioning a literary work.

Through color, Clayton develops the upper-class obsession with wealth and power. The film opens with a shot of gold items on Gatsby’s dresser, items which correspond to the “toilet set” of “pure dull gold” (Fitzgerald 91) in the novel. The color gold, a traditional symbol of wealth, indicates Gatsby’s upper-class status and desire to display his wealth. While the gold objects appear toward the middle of the novel, the film immediately introduces them, effectively establishing Gatsby’s wealth from the beginning. The color gold in the shot is significant because it appears on Gatsby’s hair brushes and mirror, objects typically employed to enhance one’s appearance. The status and wealth that these gold items embody contribute to Gatsby’s projected image of class and money that will attract Daisy. Furthermore, the low key lighting in the shot masks the colors of other objects in the frame, exposing only the gold, and emphasizing the prominence of money in Gatsby’s character. In the same shot, a fly crawling on the dresser is the primary source of movement, drawing attention to it. Carrying an unpleasant connotation implying filth and contamination, the fly exemplifies the corruption that plagues wealth. Despite its small size and apparent insignificance, the fly’s ability to stand out among items of luxury illustrates the power of corruption to permeate the upper class. With this shot, Clayton exposes the unavoidable presence of corruption among the wealthy to express Fitzgerald’s criticism of the evils of elite society. The film’s ability to convey this commentary in its opening scene demonstrates Clayton’s success in communicating Fitzgerald’s theme.

After Gatsby and Daisy meet, the color gold reappears as a symbol of wealth in a shot with the camera following Daisy’s hand touching a series of gold figures before touching Gatsby’s hand. The shot demonstrates Daisy’s obsession with wealth, as she caresses each item, and develops her materialism, which allures her to the gold objects. The focus on Daisy’s hand demonstrates the physical connection she has to money and to Gatsby, as both her character and her love lack depth. By revealing Gatsby’s hand at the end of the succession of gold figures, Clayton compares the material objects to Gatsby, while also displaying Gatsby’s lack of awareness toward Daisy’s insincerity. Touching Gatsby’s hand the same way she touches the gold figures, Daisy proves that she is attracted to him as much as she is interested in his displays of wealth. Daisy’s love stems purely from her obsession with wealth and the power it brings her, so she perceives Gatsby as a means to achieve those aspirations. This proves the illegitimacy of Daisy’s love, in turn condemning the shallowness of the upper class that is concerned with only materialistic matters, thus exposing the extent of corruption in the society that permits this behavior. Later, when Gatsby asks Daisy to tell Tom she never loved him, the camera first focuses on Gatsby’s white cuffs before tilting up to reveal his black vest. This sequence in which the camera introduces the colors mirrors Gatsby’s evolving understanding of his relationship with Daisy. Initially, Gatsby adamantly believes in the possibility of an uncomplicated relationship. In this moment, Gatsby’s mindset is a reflection of the color white, which represents innocence, purity, and simplicity. He ignorantly assumes that Daisy will abandon Tom, but after Daisy’s realization of Tom’s more respectable “old money” status and her hesitation to comply, Gatsby recognizes the improbability of his dream for a future with Daisy. This awareness induces Gatsby’s distraught state, which mirrors his vest’s black color that has associations with death and evil. Entering the scene confident in his idealistic fantasy, the corrupt forces of society compel Gatsby to acknowledge the role of money in his dream, a mentality that aligns to the sequence of colors that appear in the frame. Through color symbolism, Clayton successfully illustrates Fitzgerald’s comments on the upper class’s fixation on wealth and power to echo the novel’s theme that elite society inherently favors wealthy characters despite their corruption.

Through mise en scene, Clayton highlights the upper class’s tendency to exploit wealth. In preparation for tea with Daisy, a silver tea set is placed on a table in front of Gatsby, the focus of the frame, obstructing Gatsby’s body. The placement of the tea set, a physical representation of Gatsby’s wealth, and the substantial space it takes up in the frame suggests that Gatsby, in his desperation to win Daisy’s love, is hiding behind his wealth and materialistic exterior to assume a new persona and appear to Daisy exactly as she wishes to see him. Similar to changing his name and shedding the “James Gatz” figure, Gatsby conceals his past, penniless self to present a new rich version in a way that will ensure Daisy’s love. The composition of this shot demonstrates Gatsby’s willingness to transform his character to please Daisy. While Gatsby is concerning himself over charming Daisy, Daisy herself is absent from the shot. This indicates her influence over Gatsby, as she can dictate Gatsby’s actions from outside the frame, exposing the corruption of the upper class for exploiting wealth. The mise en scene of this shot successfully conveys the theme that society wrongfully punishes sympathetic characters and allows corrupt characters to thrive. Fitzgerald’s criticism of the careless upper class is evident in this shot, as Daisy, who is shallow and materialistic, easily and unknowingly manipulates Gatsby in her favor. The corruption of wealth in the upper class also appears during Wilson and Myrtle’s argument, when Wilson is crying and Myrtle faces away from him. By filling up most of the frame with Wilson’s face and positioning Myrtle with her back to the camera, Clayton portrays Wilson as sympathetic and Myrtle as antagonistic due to her infatuation with wealth and status. The shot captures the pained expression on Wilson’s face while revealing none of Myrtle’s feelings, which creates a contrast between the tremendous effect their argument has on Wilson and the lack of emotion Myrtle experiences. Since Myrtle has a direct connection to the upper class while Wilson is the complete opposite of wealthy people, their opposing characters display society’s corruption. Myrtle suffers when she attempts to pursue wealth and status, and after her death, Wilson kills himself from grief. This effect of chasing wealth illustrates the corrupt nature of society that punishes those like Wilson who come from unfavorable circumstances, without regard to their morality. This helps the film demonstrate the theme that the 1920s social structure unfairly favors immorality.

While Clayton successfully illustrates the cruel nature of elite society that rewards wealth, he also alters particular details in Fitzgerald’s novel. When Nick meets Gatsby, Clayton sets the conversation in a different location. Instead of talking to Nick at the party before introducing himself, Gatsby orders his servant to accompany Nick to a secluded room, then immediately states, “I’m Gatsby.” This weakens the communication of the novel’s theme regarding the society’s corruption. The novel characterizes Gatsby as an ordinary man, since Nick limits his description to a “man of about my age” (47), without association to the extravagant exhibition of wealth at the party. The film also loses the element of surprise, which in the novel identifies him with additional similarities to the common person. Whereas Fitzgerald’s Gatsby appears as simply another guest, establishing his humble character, Clayton’s exploits his wealth by sending a servant to escort Nick to him, taking advantage of his money to achieve his wishes. In this way, Gatsby loses his sense of humility, appearing more snobbish. Additionally, Gatsby meets Nick in the novel while standing at the same level as the other guests, but in the film, he makes Nick ride up an elevator to meet him. This elevated height suggests superiority and self-entitlement, furthering the comparison to the spoiled upper class.

Although the secluded room indicates Gatsby’s isolation from the shallow party guests, distinguishing him from the materialistic upper class, other aspects of the meeting counteract this, ultimately portraying Gatsby in a way that opposes the book’s characterization. Therefore, Clayton’s adaptation does not always highlight the contrast between sympathetic characters and corrupt characters, and it does not entirely articulate the novel’s theme that society’s class structure harbors a fundamental inclination toward wealthy people who lack moral goodness. Clayton’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby thus conveys the novel’s theme that elite society unfairly favors the wealthy. The film reveals the characters’ obsession with and exploitation of wealth to express Fitzgerald’s disapproval of the unfair nature of society that inherently allows and even commends superficiality and immorality among its citizens.

Using Film to Expand Upon The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald explores the whirlwind lives of the 1920s New York upper class. In the novel, Fitzgerald criticizes the unattainability of the American Dream as well as the shallow nature of the upper class. From this novel, several movie adaptations have stemmed, including movies directed by Clayton (1974) and Luhrmann (2013), each interpreting the novel differently. While Clayton presents a literal, superficial interpretation of the work, Luhrmann expands on the existing work while staying true to the heart of the novel, ultimately making it the more effective adaptation.

The choices in soundtrack and audio editing impact the reception of both movies. Clayton chose to have time-period accurate pieces, choosing to have the parties be very traditional in tone and mood. While this sets the proper time period for the work, it limits the interpretations of the scenes by taking such a surface level analysis. The parties, while containing the debauchery so prominent through Fitzgerald’s book, is limited by this literal interpretation and the scenes come across as acoustically underwhelming despite the intense or desperate actions of Gatsby. However, Luhrmann chose to use modern music to overlay the establishing shots, scenes, and Gatsby’s parties. This choice provides another layer to the film itself. By having modern music, the sense of corruption and stark depravity is heightened through the contemporary lyrics and creates images of a growing city and age. With modern music, the significance of the time period is better communicated as well as the mood of the parties. The parties come across as much more raucous and intense. This brings a modern spin to the movie, with the soundtrack choice expanding on the ideas of growth and change in the New York landscape at the time. Despite the differences in sound track, the audio editing is similar. Both directors use periods of silence to call attention to emotions and reactions during the hot summer scene when Tom discovers the affair. This technique to call attention to character’s reactions is effective in both films. Through this use of sound, more emphasis can be provided to particular instances that the book did not necessarily apply. With this addition of sound, or lack thereof, the movies can further expand upon ideas in the book. However as far as the use of music and soundtrack, Luhrmann’s 2013 version of the novel proved to be more effective as it expands upon the text.

The symbols of the novel are heightened further in the Luhrmann version of the movie, bringing a new layers to the novel. In Clayton’s version, the green light is depicted in the start of the movie as Gatsby is introduced, but not elaborated on. In the novel, the green light represents Gatsby’s unattainable dream of winning Daisy’s heart. The light is seen in scenes involving Gatsby’s longing, such as when Gatsby questions if the past can be attained. Through this, the symbol is seen and understood, but it is not built upon and is instead only explored at a superficial level. The symbol is present to the same extent as the novel and carries the same meaning, but it is just observed by the director and not particularly emphasized. However, in Luhrmann’s version, a noise is associated with this symbol. Starting from the very beginning, when Gatsby was first introduced on the pier, a low tone plays each time the light flashes at the end of Daisy’s dock. This tone continues to play each time Gatsby looks out onto Daisy’s house, and even once he seemingly wins her heart. During their affair, there is a scene in which Gatsby holds Daisy, but even with her in his arms, the ominous tone plays again. Luhrmann managed to take this symbol of unattainable dreams and extend it further by applying it to a scene that in the book was not included and did not reference the green light. By applying this symbol even during the relationship, Luhrman highlights this central idea of the novel, the unattainability and hopelessness of the dream. By taking advantage of the media, Luhrmann expands on the preexisting symbols and meaning of the text to create an effective adaptation and interpretation.

Both Clayton and Luhrmann further promote the heart of the novel, that the dream is often unattainable and the chase futile, through additional scenes depicting Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship. Clayton includes scenes of Daisy and Gatsby’s courtship, including them picnicking and swimming at Gatsby’s mansion. In the novel itself, the courtship is largely vague, with just references to some events along the way such as the firing of servants. However, Clayton expands on the courtship in his adaptation with these additional scenes. This inclusion of additional scenes elaborates on Gatsby’s attempts to achieve his dream, the scenes themselves are ideal dates, imaginary romances. Gatsby attempts to recreate this perfect future and relationship, and Clayton shows these attempts in greater depth than the novel did. This addition provides further insight into the heart of the novel, by enhancing this attempt at creating an ideal relationship, Gatsby’s failure to achieve this dream is also enhanced. Luhrmann creates a similar effect through the use of repeated phrases. Throughout the 2013 movie, Daisy repeatedly says “I wish it could always be this way” (Luhrmann), to which Gatsby says that it can be. This interaction happens on their dates, when they are dancing, and culminates to Gatsby telling Nick he doesn’t understand why they can’t just go back. Through the repetition of Gatsby’s holding on to the dream, the idea of the unachievable dream is accentuated. Daisy is shown to understand that it’s too late to go back, but Gatsby holds on to the past and the delusion. While both movies make an effort to accentuate Gatsby and Daisy’s relationship and the unattainability of Gatsby’s dream for the relationship, Luhrmann’s technique proves to be more effective. It provides more dialogue and by having the conflict reoccur, it heightens the core of the novel.

The visual choices in each movie, such as color and mise en scene, serve to intensify the on-screen drama and scenes to emulate the novel. One of the greatest differences between the two adaptations was the style, with Clayton going with a classic style and Luhrman taking a modern and dramatic approach. The colors and editing style in Clayton’s adaptation are reminiscent of lazy summer days. The muted colors in scenes such as the tea at the Buchanan’s house at the start of the movie are all in whites and creams, with even the foliage not being particularly lively. The cuts are smooth and but altogether underwhelming. Even in the party scenes, the colors are muted and the camera work smooth. Clayton’s adaptation effectively shows the setting, the summer in New York, and creates a smooth finished product. Nonetheless, the adaptation is limited by the very literal reworking of the setting and does not serve to show the underlying tones of desperate relationships and high strung emotions, especially with Gatsby. Luhrmann’s adaptation however takes a colorful, crisp and vibrant approach. The composition of the scenes themselves are amazingly busy and filled with primary colors. The party scenes especially are reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s descriptions of “yellow cocktail music” (Fitzgerald, 40) and “gaudy with primary colors” (40). As a result, the parties’ magnitude and fervor is more accurately mirrored. Additionally, the camera work is crisp and modern, the cuts between faces in scenes such as when Gatsby waits for tea with Daisy are blunt. This very different approach highlights the intensity many of the characters are experiencing and serves to highlight the fraught nature of many of Gatsby’s actions. Both of the films heavily use proxemic patterns and territorial space to highlight character’s emotions. When Daisy and Tom talk about the affair and decide to move on, they are at an intimate distance, showing their emotional draw in Clayton’s adaptation. Luhrmann uses the shots of the characters to establish emotional distance, such as by having Gatsby’s back to the camera in the hotel scene. Luhrmann and Clayton both introduce Gatsby initially from behind, establishing emotional distance early on. While both Luhrmann and Clayton establish characters visually, but Luhrmann uses color and extremely intense shots to establish more energy and passion, sticking to the undertones of the novel better.

The Great Gatsby conveys the ideas of dissatisfaction, disappointment, and desire. Through adaptations such as the 1974 Clayton film and the 2013 Luhrmann adaptation, these ideas can be elaborated on and the work itself can develop. Luhrmann’s film is ultimately more effective due to its extensive exploration of the central ideas of the novel. Rather than just taking the work as it is and retelling it, Luhrmann expanded and considered the work as a whole in a wholly new way. By adapting the novel, more implications are revealed and the work can be seen differently. It is through the adaptation and interpretation of works that more connections and implications are shaped and a work is made greater.