Wordy Wednesday: Comparing Literature to Film

It has been such a long week.

I keep reminding myself that I just have to survive this first month or so of the semester, then everything should hopefully be a little easier for a while. But, honestly, things are really tough right now (like “I am on the verge of bursting into tears multiple times a day out of stress” kind of tough), which is something I haven’t had to deal with in a long, long time. (Basically: not since freshman year Spanish class.)

But also, all the stressful things I’m dealing with right now are going to lead to really fun things later on–I just have to get to that point. So I’m dealing with them. And I’m taking deep breaths. And I’m doing my best to remember to enjoy the little successes in the midst of everything else.

And, on the upside, in the past week and a half since the semester started, I’ve learned to super appreciate sleep?

Anyway: This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. (I knew I could count on you to vote for that!) This is a paper I wrote for my literature-to-film adaptations class last semester, so it’s a little long and not entirely focused on literature, but I think the differences between books and movies are really intriguing, and ultimately tell you about literature as a medium. (Which, you know, ultimately helps you with writing.)

Spoiler warning for anyone who somehow does not know what happens in The Great Gatsby. (And sorry that the formatting on this is a little rough! I don’t have time to make sure it translates properly from Word to WordPress, unfortunately.)

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Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of dashed hopes and the American dream, The Great Gatsby, is an accurate one, in many senses. The film brings all the important players to the screen, from Nick to Gatsby to Daisy; it draws attention to the symbolic importance of the green light at the end of the dock; and it shows the extravagance of Gatsby’s wild parties. However, it also changes the way the story is told. In particular, the film strives to make narrator Nick Carraway a more active player in the plot, which makes sense, since movies allow less opportunity for internal monologue and the role of voice than novels. The filmmakers seek to do this, in large part, by erasing F. Scott Fitzgerald so that they may rather insert Nick in his place. Setting Nick in this authorial role—not simply narrator, but someone who has the ability to pick and choose what he says, how he says it, and, to an extent, how the viewer perceives it—additionally, naturally changes the way Nick tells the story. And this changes The Great Gatsby on a principle level. Nick no longer is whispering the story of his friend Gatsby into a void, but shouting it—via words on a page—to a specific audience. He does not write the story voluntarily, but at the urging of his psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist is not interested in Gatsby; he is there to figure out how to help Nick. Thus this change, in essence, makes the story no longer about Gatsby, but Nick himself—and, because of this, the story no longer comes across as generally objective, but extremely subjective. Nick’s emotion, his pain over all that transpired in New York, tints—and arguably taints—everything. While of course this is also true for the novel, it happens to a much lesser extent there, due to Nick’s lack of awareness to the fact that someone is paying attention to what he says. The novel version of Nick has this magical ability of disappearing into the story, melting into the shadows in order to throw focus onto the characters who are more crucial to the plot. On the other hand, the film version of Nick finds a way to insert himself into every situation so that he is always present, everything is at least vaguely about him, and it is clear that he ultimately is aware that he controls what happens in the story. Thus, by utilizing Nick as not only narrator, but author as well, Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby changes not only how Nick phrases things, but ultimately what these things mean—as exemplified by a seemingly minor change in the opening monologue—, and this therefore transforms who Nick is as a character.

This decision to allow Nick to edit the story he tells becomes apparent almost immediately in the film, as his famous opening monologue begins as voiceover. However, the monologue is condensed—and thus changed—from the version found in the novel. Tweaks and deletions abound in the opening monologue, but one of the most intriguing changes is one that actually does not make it through to the final cut of the film. Rather, screenwriters Luhrmann and Craig Pearce made the change in the screenplay, then rescinded it—returning to Fitzgerald’s phrasing—in the actual film. This change is small, seemingly inconsequential: the removal of the words “and more vulnerable” in Nick’s opening line, otherwise written and spoken as, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice…” (Fitzgerald 1). In the screenplay, the line appears simply as, “In my younger years my father gave me some advice” (Luhrmann and Pearce 1). However, these three words greatly alter the viewer or reader’s perception of the story that follows. The fact that Nick admits to having not only been vulnerable when he was younger—but “more vulnerable,” as in he is still vulnerable, only less so, now—serves multiple purposes. Besides the obvious fact that this tells the audience to think of the past Nick as weaker—and the present Nick as someone who has learned from that weakness, although he is aware that he is not perfectly strong even now—, this phrasing also evokes a sort of sympathy.

None of the characters in The Great Gatsby are generally likeable, but this opening line makes a strong stride towards endearing Nick to the audience, and he is the sole character to truly get this sort of treatment. Everyone else comes across as impenetrable. In this way, it is Nick’s self-awareness, as much as his awareness of others, which makes him such a good narrator. The Great Gatsby is a naturally reflective story, as even in the novel, Nick spends his time looking back on the past and making judgments about it; while he claims, in another portion of the opening, to be “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald 1), he spends the entire novel making judgments about those he knew, what happened, and the various roles he played in it all. Even his last moment with Gatsby is a judgment on Nick’s part, as he states:

“They’re a rotten crowd … You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” / I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. (Fitzgerald 154)

Here Nick judges the Buchanans and their friends, as well as Gatsby and ultimately himself. He is glad he paid Gatsby a compliment, less because of what it says about Gatsby—as Nick hastens to add, he “disapproved of him from beginning to end” (Fitzgerald 154)—but because of what this comment means about Nick. It makes him feel like a good person, the fact that he unknowingly complimented a man just hours before his death, even if at the time he did not entirely believe in his own words. Luhrmann and Pearce transplant this section word-for-word to the screenplay, with the exception of the phrase “because I disapproved of him from beginning to end” Fitzgerald 154)—a change which, in opposition to the exclusion of “and more vulnerable,” works to draw the focus more to Nick’s judgment of himself rather than his judgment of Gatsby, and thus to Nick’s judgment of himself in general. It is decisions such as this that draw attention to the fact that it is this ability of Nick to judge himself that ultimately makes him who he is as a character and narrator in the novel and film.

Accordingly, the exclusion of “and more vulnerable” then begs the question of why the filmmakers thought to remove it in the first place. Based on the general paraphrasing of the opening monologue, the easiest answer is that they initially cut it to save time, which is a more limited resource in films than novels. However, three words do not take long to state; in fact, actor Tobey Maguire’s recitation of “and more vulnerable” takes less than a second—more specifically, seventy-three hundredths of a second. Likewise, the majority of the paraphrasing distributed throughout the monologue works more to reduce Fitzgerald’s wordiness rather than to change the meaning of the writing. For example, Nick remembering the advice his father gave him transforms from: “‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’” (Fitzgerald 1) to the less wordy: “‘Remember, not all the people in this world have had the same advantages as you” (Luhrmann and Pearce 1). It’s about streamlining, not steamrollering. Thus, the deletion of “and more vulnerable” must have been very purposeful, and the next most obvious conclusion is that the writers must have believed that their version of Nick—the one who is aware of his audience and his control over the story he weaves—would not admit to this vulnerability. A Nick Carraway who does not want the audience to know that he was, and continues to be, vulnerable is one who closes himself off from the viewer. He judges others, but not himself. Whether due to a lack of trust or simply a lack of sincerity, this lends itself to a Nick who, if the rest of the adaptation were to follow suit, would be as unsympathetic and ultimately unlikeable as the rest of the cast. Although Nick indeed does function as an audience surrogate in the novel version of The Great Gatsby, this role expands when he becomes the author of the story. Since he is in control, it is important for the viewer to feel safe in his hands, as if he will be honest and forthright about all that transpired. The viewer must believe the story in order to connect with it and learn from it, and that’s only possible when the viewer believes the person telling it. The viewer needs Nick to not only be vulnerable, but to readily admit to this vulnerability, in order to buy into everything else. This means that the phrase “and more vulnerable,” in essence, is a promise, upfront, to the viewer of what is to come.

Of course, it does appear the filmmakers realized this while recording the voiceover with Maguire, because amongst other changes to the opening monologue between the screenplay and film, “and more vulnerable” also reappears. While Nick’s character still transforms between the page and screen due to his increased role, as author, his vulnerability—and thus his ability to judge and therefore become relatable to the audience—remains intact. This decision works in the filmmakers’ favor, as Nick’s willingness to judge also plays into one of the story’s deepest-running themes. What Luhrmann captures best in his adaptation is that The Great Gatsby is a story of want: Desperate, contagious, inescapable, insurmountable, uncontrollable want. As the screenplay and film versions of Nick tell Gatsby, “[Y]ou can’t repeat the past” (Luhrmann and Pearce 140). The Nick of the present, the one telling the story in the psychiatrist’s office, has not forgotten this lesson. Thus, he decides how to tell the past in order to shape the future into the one that he wants. He has witnessed the effect of the green light at the end of the dock. He knows where Gatsby’s passionate, un-satisfiable type of want inevitably leads. Thus, where the novel ends on a note of hopelessness, the filmmakers are aware of their opportunity to end the story differently, and so choose to give a hint at something more—a slightly more positive ending that might better appeal to the movie-going audience, which is generally broader than the contemporary audience which reads classics such as The Great Gatsby. It is at this point, with the story of Gatsby completed and all the focus narrowed in, tight and center, on Nick, that Luhrmann’s film veers from its accuracy to the novel to truly charting its own territory, even if only for a few seconds. Nick does not tell this part. The voiceover narration has finished and the source material has run out. Here the film moves from the subjective first person point-of-view to a third person one actually far more objective than the perspective shared in the novel. Finally, the filmmakers grant the viewer the opportunity to see Nick from a distance, rather than from inside his head. They show here, explicitly, how Nick is choosing how he remembers the past. While not all of the changes Luhrmann makes improve The Great Gatsby, or even arguably work, this one does. The camera follows Nick as he finishes typing a manuscript titled Gatsby. He has finally become a writer, as he always wanted to be. He binds the manuscript, ready to leave the past behind. With a pen, almost as an afterthought, he decides to add the words “The Great” to the title. He chooses to remember Gatsby in this way. And with the binding of the manuscript, like the closing of a book, Nick leaves the past behind in order to move on with his life. He is aware of his vulnerability, but willing to embrace it, learn from it, and live with it. Nick judges himself, but also grows from these judgments. Although time might bear him back “ceaselessly into the past” (Luhrmann and Pearce 224), he has made the decision to meet it head-on. By utilizing Nick as not only narrator, but author as well, Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby changes not only how Nick phrases things, but ultimately what these things mean, which therefore transforms who Nick is as a character. In this case, he is vulnerable, judgmental—and, in consequence, actually a more hopeful Nick Carraway.

*****

Bibliography:
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Trade Paperback Edition ed. 1925. Print.
Luhrmann, Baz and Pearce, Craig. The Great Gatsby. 2013. Screenplay.
The Great Gatsby. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Warner Home Video, 2013. Film.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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