The Three Film Versions of the Great Gatsby: A Vision Deferred

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Although Fitzgerald himself worked as a screenwriter, and his novels would seem to lend themselves to cinematic adaptations, Fitzgerald has fared badly in the matter of screen versions of his various works. Tender is the Night (made into a film in 1962 by director Henry King, as well as a 1985 miniseries directed by Robert Knights), The Last Tycoon (adapted to film in 1976 by Elia Kazan) and The Great Gatsby have been filmed several times, in the case of Gatsby no less than three times. But to date, not one of Fitzgerald's novels has been brought to the screen with a true sense of fidelity to the original source material. This is a shame, inasmuch as the story structure of Gatsby, in particular, is both suspenseful and highly visual, and given the novel's status as a contemporary classic, one would think that the definitive version would have been produced long ago. But, as this brief survey will document, in all three adaptations of The Great Gatsby, the various screenwriters and directors who translated Fitzgerald's novel to the screen have taken excessive liberties with the work, which all but eliminate the intensity and power of the novel. Sadly, however, one of the filmic versions of the novel has been lost to us forever; and in many respects, it seems that this first version, made in 1926, might have been the most authentic adaptation the novel received.

In 1926, following The Great Gatsby's adaptation into a successful Broadway play, Fitzgerald received $45,000 for the film rights to Gatsby, which a combination of Famous Players/Lasky and Paramount produced as a silent film. This first, silent version of The Great Gatsby was based on Owen Davis's play of Fitzgerald's novel; the play opened at the Ambassador Theatre in New York City on 2 February 1926. The play, but sadly not the film, had the distinction of being directed by George Cukor, whose numerous film credits in the decades to come would include such classic productions as A Star Is Born (1954), Pat and Mike (1952), Adam's Rib (1949), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Women (1939; ironically, Fitzgerald worked on the screenplay for this film, though he received no screen credit for his work), David Copperfield (1935), and Dinner at Eight (1933). One can only wonder what Cukor might have made of the play if given a chance, but at the time, Cukor was firmly established solely as a stage director, and had yet to make the jump to Hollywood (Schultz 105). So when Paramount decided to film The Great Gatsby in the summer of 1926, they assigned a rather pedestrian contract director, Herbert Brenon, to the project, thus robbing the film of much of its potential for visual vitality.

At a running time of eighty minutes, or 7,296 feet, the film was designed as lightweight entertainment, based on Fitzgerald's then-popular novel, and Owen Davis's stage adaptation, which was both a commercial and critical success. Paramount was clearly hoping for a significant box office return above all other considerations, and as might be expected, played up the party scenes at Gatsby's mansion for all their scandalous potential. It is important, in this light, to remember that this first version of Gatsby was created as a popular film, nothing more. Nevertheless, the film itself has an excellent cast, including Warner Baxter (Gatsby), Lois Wilson (Daisy Buchanan), Neil Hamilton (Nick Carraway), Georgia Hale (Myrtle Wilson), William Powell (George Wilson), Hale Hamilton (Tom Buchanan), and Carmelita Geraghty (Jordan Baker). The screenplay was adapted from Davis's play by Becky Gardiner and Elizabeth Meehan; Leo Tover photographed the film.

The casting of the 1926 version of The Great Gatsby is rather interesting, in view of the later work done by some of the performers in the film. Warner Baxter would go on to star in a number of influential films in the 1930s, such as Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street (1933), without ever becoming a major star. William Powell would achieve international fame during the early sound era as Nick Charles, the debonair detective in the long-running Thin Man series for MGM. …