What 'Gatsby' Gets Wrong

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 has 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.

Okay, what?


5. Gatsby meets Daisy's daughter. In both the novel and the film, Daisy pays very little attention to her daughter, Pammy, who represents all of Daisy's obligations to Tom and the years they've spent building a life together. When Pammy comes in to meet Gatsby in the book, Nick notes, “I don't think he had ever really believed in its existence before”—it being the child.

This scene doesn't happen in the film. I wish we could have seen Leo grimacing as he sees proof of the fact that, yes, at one point, Daisy and Tom did love each other enough to consummate their marriage.


4. Myrtle's death is pretty. In the film, when she gets hit by a car, Myrtle flies gorgeously into the air and drops dead onto the pavement with artistically placed cuts intimating her fatal injuries. In the book, Fitzgerald writes, “[The accident] ripped her open.”


3. Nick doesn't have a late-night encounter with Mr. McKee. Scandal-obsessed teen students weaned on TMZ and Perez Hilton love speculating about Nick's possible homosexuality: his obsession with Gatsby, his sexless relationship with Jordan, his comment on the first page that he has “feigned sleep” to avoid hearing about “the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.”

But no scene inspires feverish claims that Nick is gay, or at the very least dabbles in bisexuality, more than the ending of Chapter 2. After getting wasted at Myrtle's apartment in New York, Nick leaves with Mr. McKee, a neighbor described as “effeminate.” The elevator boy scolds Mr. McKee for accidentally grabbing the phallic elevator lever, and Fitzgerald allows the reader to imagine what he meant to grab. Then, ellipses, and Nick is “standing beside [McKee's] bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear.” More ellipses, and Nick is back at Penn Station, waiting for the train.

None of this makes it into the film.


2. Gatsby is the only one whose fortune is tainted. As all my students can now coherently explain (I hope), Fitzgerald does his best to skewer the American Dream: the idea that people who work hard will make more money and can ascend in class. Luhrmann picks up on the point that social mobility is damn near impossible but neglects to emphasize the many places where Fitzgerald points out that most people, not just Gatsby the bootlegger, gain their money through unethical means—or by doing nothing at all.

Gatsby doesn't inherit the money left to him by alcoholic yacht-owner Dan Cody because Cody's mistress, Ella Kaye, kills Cody and engineers some legal machinations to get the fortune herself. Nick mentions that his family made its money when his grandfather sent a substitute to the Civil War and started a hardware business.


1. Nick never catalogs the people who came to Gatsby's parties. In an allusion to Homer's catalog of the ships and captains who traveled to Troy to fight in The Iliad, Fitzgerald spends three pages at the start of Chapter 4 on an elaborate party guest list. As in, these are the people we worship in society now: not great heroes and warriors, but drunken rich people. Elevator Repair Service, the experimental theater company that produced the critically acclaimed Gatz, a seven-hour play that involves reading the novel aloud in its entirety, at one point envisioned these pages filmed in the style of Martin Scorcese's famous tracking shot in Goodfellas, scanning over each party attendee as we hear about the grisly ends so many of them meet.

The pages are somewhat boring to read, so I can see why Luhrmann might have deemed them superfluous, but adding a visual element to the catalog would have improved it tenfold. A major missed opportunity.

And what else? Believe me, I could go on about this for hours, but . . .

Daisy never calls Nick “Nicky.” Wolfsheim has human-molar cufflinks, not a human-molar tie pin. Klipspringer, the boarder, is a terrible piano player and is certainly not related to Beethoven, as the movie claims. Jordan and Nick make out. Jordan is a compulsive liar. Gatsby's parents are “shiftless and unsuccessful,” but not “dirt-poor.” Gatsby's father and Owl Eyes both attend Gatsby's funeral; Nick isn't the only one, as the movie claims. There is no mention of Daisy and Gatsby maintaining their tight control over their public masks by not drinking. We never hear that Daisy's voice is “full of money.” We never hear Nick say he believes himself to be “one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”


And at one point in the book, Gatsby says he's from the Midwest. When Nick asks where, specifically, Gatsby replies, “San Francisco.” What? Hilarious! Why would you cut that?

No, seriously. Why, Baz Luhrmann? Why?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *