the great gatsby as a test case for what we lose in adaptation; not a post in which i grumble about the superiority of any medium over another, i promise

Greg Olear, writing for The Weeklings, makes a good argument that Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is gay. I’m a sucker for unlikely theories about books and movies, but even more so when they rely on a close reading of the evidence. Also, since Baz Luhrmann’s movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby is finally coming out this week, Olear’s argument has gotten me thinking about the fundamental differences between the art of film and the art of writing.

Before I get to that, I’ll have to convey to you the gist of Olear’s argument, especially the way he uses Nick’s point of view to make it. A big chunk of Olear’s evidence comes from the way Carraway describes each of the other five major characters in the novel. Part of the argument comes from how Nick casts a pretty detached eye on the women, even though they are all supposed to be desirable in their own way. As an example, there is a passage where Nick describes Jordan Baker (a golfer), the woman he gets involved with: “She was a slender, small-breasted girl, with an erect carriage, which she accentuated by throwing her body backward at the shoulders like a young cadet.” Olear summarizes it this way: “Other than the word small-breasted — which de-emphasizes the golfer’s feminine attributes — this could be a description of a man.”

Meanwhile, when Nick talks about Tom Buchanan he is struck by “the enormous power of that body.” This does seem telling, since in my experience as a straight dude, we don’t normally characterize other guys this way unless we’re talking about football players.

But I’ve just now re-read the passage that Olear uses to make his case that Carraway is “in love” with Gatsby, and I find it unconvincing — it seems to just be a description of a man who has quite a bit of charisma, but straight men can recognize that in other men just about as well as gay men can. To me, the description seems to convey mostly a general sense that Gatsby makes everyone feel better in his presence and is able to use his charm to uplift everyone he meets; we all know people like this, and it’s not at all clear that Carraway is attracted romantically to him.

photo by Rakka under cc

Whether I agree with Olear or whether Nick Carraway really is gay doesn’t matter so much to me, though. Instead, what occurred to me while reading was about how any of this would be communicated on film. My conclusion is that it can’t. The paragraphs Olear cites are a great example of what a book can do that a movie can’t even under the best of circumstances.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how novels can go into a character’s head in a way that feels intimate; what I’m thinking of here is similar to that phenomenon but still distinct. I do this thought experiment: What would we get if a filmmaker set out to do the most faithful rendition of the book possible, sans running commentary in voice-over by Nick Carraway? (It would just be cheating if he were allowed to read the book over the images.) Well, we’d have a long movie, but even with all the extra hours of scenes, we probably still wouldn’t know that Nick thinks of Tom Buchanan’s body as having “enormous power” or that Jordan Baker’s bearing reminds him of a cadet’s. We can see through Nick’s eyes or from Nick’s perspective in the film, but seeing isn’t the same as describing.

photo by advertisingelyse under cc

Frankly, I feel as though film is inevitably more objective than the written word, since it is divided from the connotations of words. I’m worried there’s a grand theory of film that has already proven me wrong, but I’m okay with that possibility, because damn if it doesn’t seem intuitively true. An image by itself can’t convey the dense forest undergrowth of mental associations that Nick makes when he eyeballs other people. I hate to talk about the essential qualities of an art form, but I have to admit, at times like these, I want to talk about what a novel does best vs. what a film does best. I can only hope Baz Luhrmann’s film can make up for what can only ever be lost in the transition.

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