I recently was reminded how much movie actors can change characters and meanings in books while watching the 2013 film version of The Great Gatsby. In the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, Jay Gatsby is a lovelorn, romantic who devotes his entire life and being to finding and winning over Daisy. Daisy is married to a well-heeled American aristocrat Tom Buchanan, and Gatsby sets out to match his wealth dollar for dollar as a way of proving his worth.
In the book, I found Gatsby to be aloof and distant, an enigma with remarkably little dimension. In fact, I found most of the characters in the book flat with little arc to their characters. I found the story a fairly existential experience, with none of the characters really breaking through, or even testing, their own personal limits. Of course, as a writer of books with strong characters and plots that require heroic acts, I guess I should not have been surprised at this reaction.
But, that’s probably why I found the film version more satisfying even though this version was remarkably faithful to the book. Leonardo DiCaprio (as well as Carey Mulligan, both under the direction of Buz Luhrmann) takes minimalist material and adds dimension and layers to Gatsby’s character. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, I think DiCaprio’s interpretation of the Gatsby humanizes him in an unusual way by giving him heroic characteristics befitting of Fitzgerald’s romantic inclinations. It’s an excellent case of where an arc is given to a character because DiCaprio gives Gatsby emotions and reactions that are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate effectively with the written word. Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s minimalist text and story gives DiCaprio (and Luhrman) space to interpret the character. As a result, Gatsby, in my opinion, has more dimension in the film than in the book, and the result is a story more appropriate for the big screen.
This is an interesting case where the movie version interprets the text in way that is both different and interesting, without sacrificing the fundamentals of the original novel.