Discussing the Corruption of Wealth in the Upper Social Class of American Society in the 1920’s in Jack Clayton’s Film the Great 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.
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