If you’ve looked up The Great Gatsby movie, you’ve probably realized that there is more than one. So which of The Great Gatsby movies you should watch? Wondering if you can skip reading the book?
We have a complete guide to each of the Great Gatsby movie adaptations, as well as some advice for writing about the movies!
The Great Gatsby Movies 101
Gatsby has had four film adaptations, with two especially big-budget, well-known movies: the 1974 version starring Robert Redford and the 2013 film with Leonardo DiCaprio. There was also a silent film adaptation made in 1926, just one year after the novel came out, but that film has been lost, with only a one-minute trailer that survives to attest to its existence.
Some elements of the film adaptations have strongly influenced people’s vision and understanding of the novel, but there isn’t one “best” Great Gatsby movie or one best Great Gatsby cast, or even one movie that has fully captured the spirit of the novel. (Compare this with To Kill a Mockingbird, which has just one major film adaptation that many consider not only worthy of the book, but also to be one of the best movies of all time.)
So, to be clear: none of the Great Gatsby movies can replace the experience of reading the novel. And there isn’t even one obvious choice for the best adaptation to watch!
However, watching one (or, if you’re ambitious, all!) of the adaptations in addition to reading the book can help you visualize the characters, recognize the sheer grandeur of Gatsby’s parties, and appreciate some of the larger themes of the book. Here are a few pros and cons to watching a Great Gatsby film.
Advantages of Watching the Great Gatsby Movies
Great performances. Although spread across the four different movies, each of the main characters in Gatsby gets at least one stellar performance, from Alan Ladd’s Jay Gatsby to Sam Waterston’s Nick Carraway to Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan. Watching the actors bring these characters to life can help you appreciate these characters’ best lines, motivations, and outcomes. This can, in turn, help you write better essays about The Great Gatsby!
Stunning visuals. Gatsby is often praised for its straightforward, descriptive writing, but it can be nice to see a filmmaker’s vision of, say, one of Jay Gatsby’s extravagant parties rather than just imagining the orchestra, the drinks, and the partygoers, in your head. Not only does this help you appreciate the incredible decadence of the 1920s, and specifically the wealthy characters in the novel, it can also help you appreciate a visual detail you may have missed on your first read-through of the book.
Appreciation of the key lines. When you’re reading a book to yourself, sometimes you may find yourself skimming over a line or passage that actually contains a really important piece of dialogue or characterization. Watching a movie adaptation, and hearing the lines the screenwriter chose to adapt and highlight, can help you catch and appreciate some of Gatsby’s most iconic phrases.
Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.
Reasons to Avoid Watching Any of These Movies
Time Commitment. You’re going to have to budget at least an hour and a half, but likely more, if you want to watch a Gatsby movie. The runtimes for each of the movies is as follows:
- 1949 Version – 91 Minutes
- 1974 Version – 149 minutes
- 2000 Version – 90 minutes
- 2013 Version – 142 minutes
Especially with the incredibly busy schedules many students have these days, it could be hard to find the time to devote two and a half hours to watching a Gatsby movie, on top of the time it takes to read the book.
Also, keep in mind the book is relatively short – in the time it takes to watch one of the movies you could easily read at least half of the book.
Inaccuracies and Deviations from the Novel. Obviously, no movie can perfectly adapt a book, so everything from small details (like Daisy’s hair color) to large plot events (like Tom blatantly telling George that Gatsby is the killer in the 2013 film) can be changed. This could be a problem if you mix up a scene that occurred only in one of the movies with something from the book when working on an assignment.
Mistaking the director’s vision for Fitzgerald’s. With any film, the director (along with the screenwriter, cinematographer, actors, and the rest of the crew) has a certain version or message that she brings to life. This can get a bit complicated in book adaptations, since a book – especially one as rich and layered as Gatsby – can contain a variety of messages and themes, but a director might choose to highlight just one or two.
As a brief example, the 1949 movie emphasizes Gatsby’s criminal enterprises and can almost read like a morality tale. But the 2013 movie puts Gatsby and Daisy’s failed love affair front and center.
The potential issue with this is that if you watch just one movie, and skip the book, you could totally miss a larger theme that the book clearly shows, like the false hope of the American Dream, contentious race relations in the 1920s, or the inability to truly recapture the past. In short, make sure you understand that while a movie has to focus on just one or two themes to be coherent, a book can present many more, and you definitely have to read Gatsby to understand the various themes it touches on.
With those pros and cons in mind, you can read on to learn more about each film adaptation to decide if you want to watch one (or all of them!).
After the summaries, we’ll have some advice for writing about the movies, which is an increasingly common assignment in English/Language Arts classes!
The Great Gatsby (1949)
The first big adaptation of The Great Gatsby came in 1949, just as the book was becoming more popular (but before it had really settled in as classic American novel). So this movie, made by Paramount Pictures, is not very high budget and mainly relies on the star power of Alan Ladd as Gatsby to sell the film.
Perhaps the studio was right to lean on Ladd, because it turns out that Ladd’s performance is the main aspect of this adaptation worth watching. He brings an incredibly layered performance of Gatsby in a performance that’s, unfortunately, much better than the movie around him.
This film isn’t as accurate to the book’s plot as later adaptations – it focuses more on Gatsby’s criminal enterprises, makes Jordan more significant, and ends with Nick and Jordan married. It’s also lower budget than the later productions and has more of a film noir feel.
Plus, the other actors, particularly Betty Field as Daisy, aren’t nearly as good as the lead, making the overall cast weaker than later productions. (Though Shelley Winters is fantastic as Myrtle.)
This film is also harder to find since it’s older and not readily available on streaming services like Netflix. Your best bet would be checking out a few clips on YouTube, tracking down a DVD copy at a local library, or purchasing it on Amazon.
Basically, this film is worth finding if you want an excellent visualization of Gatsby himself but aren’t as worried about the surrounding production or other characters and/or you like old movies and film noir. But for most students, one of the later adaptations will likely be a better choice.
The Great Gatsby (1974)
The 1974 version of The Great Gatsby (sometimes referred to as the “Robert Redford Great Gatsby”) was Hollywood’s second attempt at adapting the novel, and by all accounts everyone involved was working a lot harder to do the book justice. It had a really large budget, brought in Francis Ford Coppola to adapt the screenplay, and cast big name actors like Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The costumes and sets are stunning.
However, some critics noted the expensive scenery somewhat takes away from some of the authenticity of the book – for example, in the scene where Daisy and Gatsby reunite, the weather is sunny instead of rainy, presumably because the rain would have ruined the costumes.
Despite these blips, Coppola’s screenplay is much more loyal to the book’s plot than the 1949 version. However, the movie fails to channel the energy and passion of the novel, and so can fall flat or even become dull.
Redford received mixed reviews for his performance. He crafts two characters – the suave Jay Gatsby and the hardscrabble Jay Gatz – which some reviewers like and others find a bit heavy-handed. (It’s much less subtle than Ladd’s performance, in my opinion.)
Sam Waterston is great as Nick Carraway. He captures a lot of Nick's naïveté and optimism, but isn’t given as much to do as more recent versions of the charcter. Mia Farrow's portrayal of Daisy has become our culture’s image of this character, despite her blonde hair and waifish figure. (In the book, Daisy is described as having dark hair, and was meant to resemble Ginevra King and Zelda Sayre).
All in all, this is a mostly faithful adaptation of the book with beautiful sets, costumes, and some good performances. Especially compared to the more raucous 2013 version, this is probably the closest movie we have to a page-to-screen adaptation of Gatsby. The downside is that it’s somewhat low energy, and lacks a lot of the zip and wit of the novel.
This version is available on Netflix streaming, so if you have a Netflix account, it’s really easy to watch.
The Great Gatsby (2000)
This movie is decently accurate, but because of its shorter run time, there are some cuts to the plot. It also has a few odd additions, like Daisy coming up with the name “Gatsby” instead of Gatsby himself.
Paul Rudd as Carraway and Mira Sorvino as Daisy were mostly considered good casting choices, but the Gatsby here (Toby Stephens) wasn’t great – rather lifeless and unenthusiastic. I also didn’t love Jordan, especially compared to Elizabeth Debicki’s Jordan in the 2013 film. Heather Goldenhersh’s Myrtle is an interesting take, as well – she’s more meek and pitiable than other Myrtles (especially Shelley Winters and Isla Fisher), which is a bit strange but I think it makes for a more sympathetic character.
This film also has much lower production values since it was made for TV, so it doesn’t have the escapist feel of either the Redford or Luhrmann films. (The party scenes are especially sparse.)
I would consider watching this if you want a film mostly accurate to the book that also moves along more quickly, since it has a shorter run time. It’s also a good choice if you want to see some great characterizations of Nick and Daisy.
Teachers, this might be a good choice if you want to show a version of the film in class but don’t have two and a half hours to spend on the 1974 or 2013 versions.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
This one is likely the Gatsby movie you are most familiar with. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, this Gatsby has the eye-popping visuals, dancing scenes, high energy and big production values his movies are known for. In other words, this 2013 adaptation has all of the energy and enthusiasm the previous two adaptations were lacking.
However, there are some pretty big plot diversions here. For example, the movie uses a completely different frame – Nick is a bitter, institutionalized alcoholic looking back at the summer he spent with Gatsby, rather than just a disenchanted former bond salesman like in the novel. Also, Tom Buchanan is much more overtly villainous, since we see him bluntly telling George that Gatsby was the killer and the man sleeping with Myrtle.
A lot of the imagery is also quite over the top. For example, the scene in Chapter 1 where Daisy and Jordan are introduced, lying in white dresses while white curtains blow around them, is faithfully but subtly done in the 1974 and 2000 films. But in the Luhrmann movie, the CGI curtains stretch all the way across the room, and we get 15 seconds of Daisy and Jordan giggling while Tobey Maguire’s Nick looks on, bemused.
Still, despite the plot diversions and sometimes heavy-handed imagery, many praised Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan’s turns as Gatsby and Daisy, respectively. Jordan, played by Elizabeth Debicki, is also fantastic – arguably the best on film so far. Instead of fading into the background of scenes, Debicki’s Jordan is energetic and engaged, enlivening all of the scenes she’s in.
The 2013 movie is good to watch if you want an extra high-powered version of the Jazz Age extravagance and are curious about a more artistic adaptation of the novel.
Comparing the Great Gatsby Movies to the Novel
One increasingly popular assignment on The Great Gatsby is to compare the book with one of the movie adaptations. This can be a fun assignment to work on, since you get to write about both the book and a movie version of Gatsby. But some students struggle with it, since it can be tricky to incorporate an analysis of both the book and a movie into your paper.
Here are some pro tips for constructing this kind of essay.
Have an overall argument or point you’re trying to prove, and make it manageable! Don’t try to compare the entire movie to the entire book. Instead, zoom in on a particular aspect, like comparing Daisy Buchanan in the book to Daisy in the movie, or look at just a few of the symbols. For example, if you’re asked to write about how symbols are adapted in the movie, don’t go through every symbol you can think of. Instead, you could focus on your paper on the green light or the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, and really look at your chosen symbol in detail.
Make sure to use specific lines, scenes, or shots to back up your argument. In your English classes, you’ve probably learned about using evidence from the book as evidence for your essays. It turns out, you can do the same with movies! Even better, you have a wider variety of evidence to choose from. You can talk about a specific shot of the film, and how it’s composed (basically where the actors and objects are arranged in the shot). You can also talk about lines from the script, or the order of scenes. Just make sure to point to specific, concrete evidence! (Don’t say: Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is flighty. Do say: Carey Mulligan’s performance in the flashback scene demonstrates more raw, intense emotion than apparent in the book, revealing Baz Luhrmann’s tendency to overdraw emotion.)
Don’t just make a list of plot differences between the book and the movie. Just listing the plot differences won’t allow you to do any deep analysis of the director’s vision for their film and how it’s different from the novel.
Movie Essay Example
As a brief example, let’s look at how one of Gatsby’s most famous symbols, the green light at the end of the Buchanans’ dock, is shown in two of the movies and what it shows about the directors’ visions.
In the 1974 film, the green light is very simply rendered – it’s quite literally a small green light at the end of Tom and Daisy’s dock:
Director Jack Clayton doesn’t linger on it, and at the end of the film you just get a small glimpse of it before the final fade to black. Its significance, I would argue, is even more underplayed than in the novel. The treatment of the green light echoes how Clayton goes for a subtle, even elegant, treatment of the novel, focusing on the interactions between the characters rather than the symbolism.
But in the 2013 film, the green light shows up often, and Luhrmann uses CGI and sound effects to underscore its significance (check out how it’s used in the last scene). Luhrmann’s overwrought rendering of the green light speaks to how he strongly stresses the novel’s most famous visuals, in an effort to bring the image of the novel to light. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of some of the character relationships and fidelity to the book’s plot.
This is just the beginning of what could be a longer analysis of the symbols in the movies, but you can see how even zooming in on just one symbol can give you quite a bit to talk about.
Other Notable Films
If you’re really getting into all things F. Scott Fitzgerald, you might also consider watching these three films for fun:
- G, which came out in 2002 and is a loose adaptation of Gatsby. In the film, Gatsby is Summer G, a hip-hop mogul trying to win back the love of his life, Sky. The film opened to generally poor reviews, but you can’t deny it’s a really creative take on Gatsby, and it has attracted a small but loyal following online.
- Midnight in Paris briefly shows Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during their time in Paris, as portrayed by Tom Hiddleston and Allison Pill. This is a fun, if fictional, glimpse into F. Scott’s life as he was writing Gatsby.
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a recent film starring Brad Pitt, is based on an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story.
Check out our biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald to learn more about where and how The Great Gatsby was written.
Or, start with a summary of The Great Gatsby, along with links to all our great articles analyzing this novel!
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.