For The Great Gatsby, written in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald and adapted in 2013 for the screen by Baz Luhrmann, fidelity and medium specificity play an important role. Thus, within this example, it can be seen that, by breaking from thematic fidelity and focusing primarily on story fidelity in cinematic adaptations, directors can take full control of their medium specificity. In this way, a critique on the original source is applied, with the film adaptation noting the excess of the text and conveying it through cinematic features. However, while the adaptation may be both unique and faithful to the sources at the same time, this can have negative impacts for the reception of the new text.
Within adaptations, the level of fidelity, as well as the value of such elements, is often debated, with story and thematic fidelity central. Thus, Harold (2018, p89) states that “preserving the story from one medium to another does not typically involve an aesthetically significant accomplishment, whereas preserving a theme across different media does”. For this reason, critics have been opposed to using story fidelity as a critical standard when reviewing texts, with Leitch (2017, p3) however noting that film criticism is shadowed in the belief that adaptations should be faithful to their source texts. This negativity thus still permeates the field in the concept of a hierarchy of art, placing the written word over film and other such formats (Hutcheon, 2012, p34). As with The Great Gatsby, while both the film and book plot are very much faithful to each other, Luhrmann removes sections due to the need for narrative compression (Harold, 2018, p97). Thus, Gatsby’s gangster affiliations and secret passions are sometimes dismissed amongst the overbearing romantic storyline, with Hutcheon (2012, p37) noting that adaptation is often viewed in negative terms for this reason. Even before this loss was made visible, when Luhrmann announced that The Great Gatsby was being adapted, there was great controversy due to “unreasonable expectations” (Hanich, 2018, p4). Sure that an act of almost sacrilege was to happen, many claimed that the story is ‘too intricate, subtle, and tender’ for film – especially with such an unsubtle filmmaker as Luhrmann “inevitably make[ing] changes…and thereby betray[ing] the letter of the text” (Livingston, 2010, p17). However, Fitzgerald’s novel is not, for the most part, subtle and, although it has moments of tenderness, is full of melodrama, murder, adultery, and wild parties (Hutcheon, 2012, p39; Harold, 2018, p97). Thus, Hanich (2018, p3) notes that “the reader’s own concretization is threatened” through this visual portrayal. By looking at film adaptation through two truisms, the stronger holds that detailed knowledge of, and reference to, the source is necessary for apt appreciation (Livingston, 2010, p3). However, the weaker truism notes that, while it is sometimes of value, knowledge of the source is optional (Livingston, 2010, p3). This can be seen in The Great Gatsby, where an overuse of fidelity (and knowing this) hinders appreciation of the film (Leitch, 2017, p8).
Similarly, Livingston (2010, p3) views fidelity as while always relevant, not always desirable. With the film using many of Fitzgerald’s original descriptions and direct dialogue, it presents much from the original text, using computer generation as a substitute for imagination to build a world where “the parties were bigger…the morals were looser…and the liquor was cheaper” (Fitzgerald, 1925; Luhrmann, 2013). As with Fitzgerald’s (1925) quote of being both “within and without”, the film does not know whether it is looking or taking part, with the audience unable to concentrate on single aspects (Corrigan, 2017, p29). Due to the radical nature of the film, the actors can do little with development, but must embodying their assigned roles in order to actualize the text (Hutcheon, 2012, p38). While Luhrmann’s diversions from the novel reveals a somewhat different emphasis, this alteration thus results in the novel’s loss of ambiguity, due to the director focussing on aspects which bring both personal and audience nostalgia (Hanich, 2018, p2). In almost indulging himself in creating the film through a “specific impulse” (Sanders, 2014, p19), Luhrmann (2013) states that Gatsby “represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn”, and goes on to praise his “extraordinary gift for hope”. Left with the feeling of a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (Fitzgerald, 1925; Luhrmann, 2013), many have praised the film for its attempt to remain faithful to the text’s vision, thus being stated as the most accurate adaptation of the novel to date (Leitch, 2017, p3; Hanich, 2018, p6). However, this has also been noted to sometimes be the problem (Corrigan, 2017, p31; Harold, 2018, p92) – there is just too much faithfulness, in both aspects of story and thematic fidelity.
In much the same way, medium specificity is something which can also have severe impacts within adaptations. While sometimes met with confusion, in basic terms medium specificity relates to an artist’s ability to manipulate features of their media to produce a work specific to their chosen form. Thus, many critics hierarchize particular art forms, with each having their “own formal and material specificity” (Hutcheon, 2012, p34). As such, a common argument for medium specificity in relation to film adaptations is that a novel must be reduced in size and, in turn, complexity to be adapted (Hanich, 2018, p8). Thus, many feared the reduction of The Great Gatsby, and the many elements that would be lost through the cinematic translation of medium specific elements (Harold, 2018, p94). However, Hutcheon (2013, 35) argues that while literature is an art of time, and painting is an art of space, the screen manages to be both, with this being used to rebuke misconceptions (Leitch, 2018, p5). By being an art of space and time, films are thus able to translate elements of both by turning paragraphs into simple actions, facial expressions, gestures, mise-en-scene, or even elements of production itself, thus being an over-emphasis on medium specific contributions (Hutcheon, 2012, p35; Livingston, 2010, p12). More often than not, in attempting to adhere to story fidelity, this can produce a more simplified work, with Sanders (2014, p19) stating it to be an attempt to make texts more ‘relevant’ or comprehensible. With thematic fidelity, film form can translate themes constructed over pages of text into visual elements, with the optic nature aiding in producing a profound effect (Hanich, 2018, p13). In the case of The Great Gatsby, by narrowing elements of the source text, the structure of the narrative is changed entirely, with Corrigan (2018, p24) noting the “textual commitment to faithful change…and continual transformation”. For this reason, Luhrmann is able to mostly adhere to Fitzgerald’s themes and narrative, primarily through the film’s medium specific attributes (Sanders, 2014, p19). Thus, Hutcheon (2012, p34) states that this form of adaptation has “theorised itself as medium specific with its own formal and signifying possibilities”, such as in the unique display of The Great Gatsby. In many of the scenes, the heavy extravagance of film, and Luhrmann’s overall style, shows greatly, with the “fullness of depiction” ultimately overwriting the audience’s “memory of the novel” (Hanich, 2018, p5). This can mainly be seen by any of the party scenes, where the audience’s gaze is constantly shifting to a number of elements of production (Sanders, 2014, p18). Medium specificity in this case makes the adaptation even more powerful by “recreating and intensifying” (Corrigan, 2018, p28) the source text through the modern soundtrack overlapping with the visual splendor of the ‘roaring 20’s’. Through this explicit relationship between sources, as well as the slight break from fidelity, thus allows Luhrmann to take full control of the medium specificity of film by creating a very visual world, one that was very much described by Fitzgerald’s timeless text (Sanders, 2014, p22).
In conclusion, fidelity and medium specificity are an integral part of the adaptation industry, with The Great Gatsby being a prime example. Livingston (2010, p16) states this to be due to the focused “interest of source/adaptation comparisons in which issues pertaining to medium-specificity, fidelity, and artistic value combine”. With the over- and under-use of story and thematic fidelity sometimes having negative impacts on the reception of adaptation, by moving away from such aspects Luhrmann is able to fully employ his own medium specific elements through the extravagance of film, while representing the text.
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