The Great Gatsby movie comparison – 1974 vs 2013

Today we finished viewing the 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. This production was directed by Jack Clayton and based on a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (of The Godfather).

I say “finished”… yes, this was our second sitting. At 146 minutes, this is a loooooong movie for such a short novel. And we felt it. The script, to its credit, is extremely true to the source—much of the dialogue is word-for-word. But, as I’ve learned over the years, an accurate adaptation does not a good movie make, especially if it is lacking in the areas of cinematography or just editing. One reaches a point where you ask yourself, why not read the book instead?

I read the book again recently, and one thing is for sure, it is nice to see a tasteful film version. My biggest gripe with the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio Gatsby was that it is anything but tasteful…a lot of vulgarity (to the point I turned it off halfway in embarrassment and finished it later alone 😅). By comparison, the 1974 movie is more refined, still glamorous but not raunchy. It’s just… poorly paced and boring in parts, especially the first half.

On to characters… The two Gatsbys are both convincing, but rather different. Robert Redford plays up the gentler, war-veteran side of Jay, the handsome first love with a wistful longing for Daisy. DiCaprio, on the other hand, exudes more of the bootlegger with a dubious past and dangerous obsession.

I really didn’t care for Daisy in either production. Nothing against Carey Mulligan or Mia Farrow, but neither one really has the screen presence and charisma that Daisy needs, IMHO. Between the two, I’d probably give a slight edge to Mia, but her affected way of talking is more annoying than endearing.

As for Nick Carraway, Sam Waterston’s performance (1974) blew me away. He really saves the movie in many ways from being a total bore. I couldn’t stand Nick in the 2013 film (sorry, Tobey Maguire fans!), but it may have had more to do with the cringy narration than the casting. There’s narration in the older film, too, but it’s done so much better, featuring more lines from the book instead of ramblings about alcohol.

My other critique of the 2013 script is that it is so… cartoonish, for lack of a better word. It’s a shame, because I did somewhat like the second half of the film, where things get more serious by nature of the plot. But as a whole, it’s just lacking the poetry of Fitzgerald, which, for all its faults, the older adaptation manages to convey.

Last thought… when it comes to aesthetics, the older version makes some effort towards “believable glitz,” while the newer film amps up the sets in a very theatrical/operatic style. I don’t like sets that look too pristine and orchestrated, even if that’s the intention, but a little style and art makes for a better movie. So I think my ideal Gatsby aesthetic is somewhere in-between the two… think Downton Abbey, or pretty much any BBC production from the mid-2000s. Indeed, if the 70s version had been made today, I think it would be right on the money. (um, no pun intended.)

That said, here’s a few stills from 2013 which certainly make for nice eye candy:

The Great Gatsby – Musings and Memories

Curled up in my oversized chair, I plied the pages of The Great Gatsby… at times smiling over some witticism, at other times choking back tears. The tragedy of false hopes, shapeless dreams, and empty materialism was getting to me. Was this novel really that “great” (pardon the pun), or was I just getting older and sentimental?

I hadn’t planned to read it this year, but when Stephen said he was rereading it for the Classics Club challenge, I jumped at the chance of a readalong. It was a revisit for both of us. I first read The Great Gatsby in 2015, nearly seven years ago. At the time, I gave it a middling 3.5 stars.

“Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!”

My ties with the story go back further, though, to the release of the 2013 film. I mostly ignored the hype, except for my would-be boyfriend sending me Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful.” It was fitting, though perhaps not in the way he intended… I never cared for the lyrics, but the melody haunts me still.

When I finally got around to reading Gatsby, I thought I had matured. I was impressed, but with a sense of detachment. These were selfish characters, vastly removed from me in their lofty 1920s microcosm of parties, alcohol, and general debauchery. The book was interesting, even touching, but I didn’t love it. I certainly didn’t learn from it.

After all, what did I have in common with Daisy, the southern debutante who falls for a poor soldier but marries the comfortably wealthy, shockingly cruel Tom Buchanan? Or Jay Gatsby, the title character, whose mysterious mansion across the water from Daisy’s is the site of endless parties and frivolity?

Nick, the protagonist, comes to West Egg, New York—home of the nouveau riche—with much the same feeling of detachment. He soon discovers his neighbor Gatsby has moved to the area with the dream of winning back his young love, Daisy. Gatsby believes that now he is a “somebody,” with wealth and prestige, he can reverse the past and be reunited with her. Too little, too late…

His dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.

Eventually I watched the film and hated it. Well, the second half was pretty good, but the first half was so crass as to make it nearly unwatchable. In spite of any book quotations, the movie, in my opinion, completely missed Fitzgerald’s poetry. Because nobody writes heartache like Fitzgerald. The substance of The Great Gatsby delves deeper than the surface-level bawdiness and riches which the film emphasizes (arguably, given the sudden popularity of 20s-themed parties). The novel, rather, pushes that aside to expose the things every human being wants—being loved, understood, and needed.

I should have first read it as a cautionary tale. As a murder mystery, a dark comedy, and a tale of horror. That’s how I read it this time. Every strained scene, every painfully oblique conversation added to a general feeling of dread, even though I knew what was coming.

Gatsby’s futile desire to rewrite the outcome of his past is symbolized by the green light coming from Daisy and Tom’s house. He stares towards it at night, dreaming of his happy reunion. In short, he’s crazy… drunk on nostalgia. I can say that with conviction because in the years since that first reading, I carried my own “green light” which failed as spectacularly as Gatsby’s, though thankfully not with such dire consequences. Still… if I had “gotten” the novel the first time, could all of that have been prevented? Maybe.

But the book does not try to sermonize. It’s simply Nick Carraway’s recollections of a tragic friend and neighbor.

I’ll just end by saying I felt more empathetic towards Daisy this time. There was much more to her than “spoiled rich girl.” Her fidelity to Tom, her lack of drinking, and most of all, her ultimate decisiveness lent a weight to her character I didn’t notice before. Not saying she’s particularly likeable, but we can be quick to take Jay’s side while forgetting that a woman in this time period, in spite of her wealth, was in a position to make few choices. On some level, I understood her forging ahead in life and owning up to her decisions. Jay should have respected her more than he did.

5 stars this time, and recommended.