How does the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby compare to the novel?
Several film makers have brought Fitzgerald's novel to the screen, generally without a great deal of success. The 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow demonstrates the problems inherent in attempting to translate Fitzgerald's prose into a screenplay. The visual components of the novel--particularly the settings and the wardrobes--can be captured on the big screen, but the literary elements are elusive.
The film is rich in production values. The lush mansions, Gatsby's frenetic parties, the gray Valley of Ashes, the busy streets of New York, and the cars, clothes, and music of the Roaring Twenties--all of these are very well done in the film and presented with historical accuracy. The film does capture the look and feel and pace of the novel. The scenes placing Gatsby's mansion in relation to the ocean are very effective in making Fitzgerald's setting visual. The use of color in the film is striking and effective.
What does not work in the film is the dialog. It often seems artificial and stilted, particularly in Gatsby's character. Gatsby's speech in the novel is, of course, often artificial, since he is presenting himself to the world in a false manner, but the context of the novel creates an understanding of Gatsby's past and his great dream of the future that makes his stilted speech meaningful. These details are left out of the film, making Gatsby often seem, well, silly.
A basic problem in filming any of Fitzgerald's novels is the difficulty of translating his evocative style of writing into a dialog form. The passages of beautiful descriptive prose don't translate. In the 1974 film, an attempt was made to address this by creating voice overs; throughout the film, Nick's voice can be heard reciting key passages of Fitzgerald's prose, word for word.
The 1974 film is fairly effective in developing the superficial conflicts and advancing the plot. The characters argue, as they do in the novel, Myrtle's death is ugly and violent, and George Wilson's mental disintegration is dramatic. The film, however, cannot capture the essence of the novel--its symbolism, irony, and most profound themes. Nor can it place Jay Gatsby in the greater context of American history and the American Dream itself. The novel is the story of dreams and their power to shape identity. Gatsby can be placed on a screen; he can be made to walk and talk. However, what makes Gatsby, Gatsby cannot be depicted. It is an idea born of emotion, not a series of events.