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By Alan Scherstuhl
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The only thing we English teachers hate more than Sparknotes is a high quality, mostly faithful movie version of a book. Why would a student slog through Pride and Prejudice when she can drool over Colin Firth in the excellent BBC miniseries? And shh! Don't tell the eighth graders about Gregory Peck's brilliant turn as Atticus Finch in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird!
Considering Baz Luhrmann's new adaptation of The Great Gatsby comes closer than any prior attempt at capturing the essence of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Great American Novel, we can safely expect high school students of the future to choose watching this version over doing the reading. With that in mind, I'm offering my fellow educators this by-no-means-definitive list of the worst errors and inconsistencies in the film. Feel free to use it to help craft quiz questions to trap the cheaters in years to come.
10. Nick writes the book from a sanitarium
The most glaring change Lurhmann made was to depict Nick writing the story while in conversation with a Santa Claus of a doctor, as part of his recovery from alcoholism at a sanitarium a few years after the action of the novel. As ridiculous as this device is, it only bothered me insomuch as the time necessary to establish and develop the story line precluded a number of other wonderful and witty scenes from making it into the film.
9. Nick dreams of becoming a writer
Perhaps to better hold up the flimsy sanitarium plot, Luhrmann exaggerates the connection between Nick and Fitzgerald. "Shakespeare!" Tom calls to Nick in the movie when they reunite for the first time. "How's the Great American Novel coming?" Wink wink. Ha ha. We get it.
And yes, his yearning, alienated persona smacks of every shy writerly type from Joyce's Stephen Dedalus to Goethe's Young Werther. But The Great Gatsby is not a künstlerroman; a narrator who observes more than he participates is not the same as a narrator who is developing as an artist. Other than making occasional reference to having "written" the words we are reading, Nick never expresses in the book the grand aspirations Luhrmann assigns him.
8. The clock in Nick's house isn't broken to begin with
Gatsby and Daisy finally reunite, quite awkwardly, in Chapter 5 of the novel. For two or three excruciating pages, Fitzgerald details how slowly time seems to pass: "A pause; it endured horribly." In an attempt to appear more comfortable, Gatsby leans back, dislodging "a defunct mantelpiece clock" from above the fireplace. The clock falls, but ultimately Gatsby catches it "with trembling fingers."
In the film, the clock is visibly functional. When it falls, the top breaks off and Gatsby clumsily tries to put it back together, promising to send someone over to repair it as soon as possible.
But the scene in the book is funny and prescient because the clock is broken to begin with. Gatsby is trying to reverse the progression of time, undoing all that has transpired in the five years since he's seen Daisy, so Fitzgerald subtly reminds us in this scene that time can only move in one direction: forward. In the book, after Gatsby catches the clock, he puts it back on the mantel and apologizes. Nick comments, "I think we all believed for a moment that it had smashed in pieces on the floor." Like Gatsby and Daisy's relationship, the clock is "defunct," no longer ticking, regardless of Gatsby's furious efforts. Though the clock appears intact, as Gatsby and Daisy once again appear in the same place, some hidden mechanism is no longer working.
Thanks for ruining this awesome symbol, Baz.
7. Daisy doesn't stutter, sob, or sulk
I'll admit Carey Mulligan's character is a big improvement on Mia Farrow 's cloying Daisy in 1974's bomb of an adaptation. But Fitzgerald has her stutter when she tells Nick she's "p-paralyzed with happiness," indicating she is anything but. No stutter in the film. In the famous scene when Daisy is touring Gatsby's mansion, and he shows off all his fancy shirts, Fitzgerald has her "stormily … sob" into the "thick folds." I would describe her tears in the film as a quiet whimper.
And when Daisy attends one of Gatsby's parties, she and Tom hate this orgy of new-money decadence. But in the film, Mulligan widens her eyes and coos "It's perfect," with none of the visible effort or phoniness described in the novel. Gatsby still mentions after the party that he doesn't think she enjoyed herself, and the parties still stop after this one, so it's clear Luhrmann didn't intend to morph her disapproval into approval. So what happened? Did I miss an eye roll somewhere?
6. Owl Eyes believes in Gatsby
In one of the book's funniest scenes, Jordan and Nick wander into Gatsby's library during a party. There, an inebriated old man with "owl-eyed spectacles" -- "Owl Eyes," as Nick calls him -- is staring at the books on the shelves. "They're real," he announces. "Absolutely real -- have pages and everything. I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard."
In the film, Owl Eyes is still in the library but instead insists that Gatsby isn't real -- that he doesn't actually exist.
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