Di Caprio in Baz Luhrman’s 2013 The Great Gatsby: “Adaptation, old sport, must somehow—ahem, old sport—translate the original’s essence, old sport.”

For many years I have been fascinated by the notion of adaptation. Adaptation, more than any mise-en-scène or editing trick, incenses moviegoers with critical bloodlust and turns the most amateur viewer into a self-proclaimed expert on literature-to-film metamorphoses. Remember when the Harry Potter films came out and every other person you talked to had qualms with the directors for leaving out scenes from the novel, which fans deemed of vital importance to understanding Rowling’s world? Why did Peter Jackson eschew Tom Bombadil’s presence in the Lord of the Rings franchise? Perhaps even more infuriating, how did Jackson get away with creating a three-part installation of the singular novel The Hobbit?

I, for one, have always been very forgiving when it comes to adaptations. I would rather a film capture the “essence” of a novel than fastidiously adhere to the minutiae of plot points and filler characters. Nicholas Sparks’s The Notebook was a far less enjoyable experience than the cinematic version, partially because of Ryan Gosling and partially because the geriatric sex scenes in Sparks’ version were too much for my early-teenage imagination to handle.  Yet the problem remains, how do we define the “essence” of a text that so necessarily needs to be captured in the cinematic medium? 

Baz Luhrman’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s prized classic The Great Gatsby is a divisive film that gets at the core issue of essence. Since it’s one of my favourite novels, I have asked my father many times to read it. He got halfway through the novel and threw it down, perplexed that we should care about a bunch of millionaire yuppies who just party all the time. Similarly, he never finished the film adaptation because it was just too much luxury. Around the time of the film’s release I heard this qualm repeatedly. Luhrman’s vision was too much glitz, too much glam, too much Jay-Z. But in an era when 23-year-olds already feel like failures because they haven’t achieved the success of their millennial idols (Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Lordes, etc.) doesn’t the excessive gluttonous glitter of The Great Gatsby film speak to the strong emphasis put on luxury during a time where most people under thirty can barely afford to pay rent? Of course it’s too much. It has to be too much because, arguably, Gatsby’s flapper opulence in his own time wouldn’t compare to the magnitude of the 1% we are accustomed to drooling over today (Rich Kids of Instagram, anyone?)

Why did Baz Luhrman include Jay-Z in his soundtrack if F. Scott Fitzgerald was probably listening to Parisian Jazz? Luhrman’s film is not only an adaptation—it’s a translation. We have few “local” millionaires comparable to Gastby’s reputation in the novel. We do, however, have international superstars like Jay-Z that inspire both jealousy and a motivation to succeed. Luhrman adapted and translated The Great Gatsby so as to be relevant to viewers in the 21st century, a similar strategy he used to film his successful adaptation/translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

What then is integral to a text’s “essence”? Is it the characters, the plot, the mood, the message, or all of the above? While we’ve gotten over the idea that a text has only one “meaning,” I would argue that the novel’s “essence” lies more in its movement and timbre (as in a symphony) than paltry details that do little to amplify or limit the perceptibility of that “movement.” Dr. Who has been written by numerous authors yet retains its “fidelity” to an original sci-fi-mystery schema. Because the series goes out of its way to embrace this, there have been few riots resulting from the casting of new Dr. Whos in the television series. The queering fan-fiction of Star Trek outlived the series and enabled LGBTQ viewers to place themselves within the romantic triangles of the intergalactic crew. If we limit adaptation to the notion of “fidelity to the original,” do we not limit the possibility of making “old” texts relevant and inclusive to new audiences? Sure, if I had kids I would want them to read the original Shakespeare and Homer. But if the first time they familiarize themselves with these texts is through The Simpsons is that such a problem? Don’t we want Shakespeare to appear interesting before we inundate high school students with tedious hours of Elizabethan code-cracking?

The answer to the adaptation conundrum lies in an expansion of definitions. To “adapt” is to take a novel and make it into a film. To “adapt” is also to acclimatize and change according to the conditions of our environment. Why then, in cinema, are the two definitions of “adaptation” so mutually exclusive? If a film adaptation re-molds the original text to the cultural moment of the cinematic release, why do we feel ripped off? Is this just another escapist desire parading around as staunch respect for originality? Adaptation can include a multitude of things. Intertextuality, paratextuality, and translation all play a critical role in the multimedia-saturated age in which we find ourselves. We’ve all accepted the Barthesian notion that the reader “writes” the text and that the author is dead. Why then, does J.K. Rowling’s authorial dignity come to overshadow the directors’ artistic ambitions in striving to bring an entire fantasy world to life?

Despite my frustration with the adaptation argument, I must admit I have a problem with Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine being nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. When I saw the film, all I could think was “Tennessee Williams.” The similarities between Blue Jasmine and A Streetcar Named Desire are painfully obvious. The class dynamics, the sisterly relationship, the obnoxious privilege of Blanchett’s character. While I wouldn’t call it an “adaptation” of Williams, I would certainly call it an “interpretation.” Can an “interpretation” be lauded as an original work of art when it so clearly relies on intertext? Perhaps. There are elements of Allen’s film that are different from the stage play in question, but to me at least the “essence” is all Williams. From Ginger’s bodily presence to her greaser boyfriend smashing the apartment apart, I think part of Blue Jasmine’s success can be credited to the timelessness of Williams’ antihero and the age-old conflict that festers when siblings are divided along class lines.

Ultimately, it might be said that we privilege the text over the cinematic adaptation due to their places within history. The novel outdates cinema by several centuries, with the Lumière brothers’ first films being shown in 1895. By that time the novel had gained international popularity and prominence within intellectual culture. When a person likes a movie, they often feel compelled, out of some sense of literary duty, to read the original novel. Does The Wolf of Wall Street book differ so much from the film? I’m not sure, but several people purchase it every day at the bookstore where I work.

Whether or not my sketchy definition of “essence” has convinced readers of the fluidity of adaptation, it is at least clear that “fidelity” has become an obstacle, more than a vehicle, to understanding and appreciating films and novels alike. While Jay-Z wasn’t in Fitzgerald’s original, I was nevertheless as moved by Di Caprio’s lifeless floating body as I was by the original author’s relation of events:

A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about … like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding towards him through the amorphous trees.


Brent Stait

A very enjoyable article! I agree that the 2013 adaptation of Gatsby worked well. It was ‘over the top’ in the sense that the party scenes were pretty much impossible to duplicate on that scale in real life even with the house and the cash. Just as the 2012 film “Project X” does not accurately and realistically depict a high school parents are away for the weekend house party, the 2013 Gatsby house parties are partly fantasy and wishful thinking. The 1970s adaptation with Robert Redford was much more realistic in depicting what a Long Island mansion party would be really have been like. However, adaptations need to excite the audience of the time. In 2013, filming party scenes as done in the early 1970s Gatsby adaptation would not have stimulated the audience. So, yes, to make a splash we needed those crazy visuals, despite their Vegas-show style effects. It worked – modern audiences were excited. Realists who complained (and had a valid point) that the 2013 adaptation was too unrealistic at times can take comfort in the realistic party scenes of the 1970s adaptation (which I also enjoyed). To merely re-do the scenes from the 1970s version, well, what would be the point of doing the new version? A new adaptation should bring something new, and this 2013 Gatsby did.


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