The Novelist’s Complicity

Zia Haider Rahman in the New York Review of Books:

Luhrman-great-gatsby“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a word of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel that many regard as one of the finest literary works of the twentieth century. It’s certainly one of the most popular. The words are uttered by Nick Carraway, the narrator, through whom the entire story is told. His father’s advice is to refrain from judging people because not everyone has had the advantages he has had. But what of those who had all the same advantages and then some, the people who make up Carraway’s milieu in the novel? Carraway proceeds to condemn them, though perhaps pulling his punches when it comes to the eponymous hero.

No effort at putting Fitzgerald’s novel on screen has ever been entirely successful, certainly not in terms of fidelity to his vision. The medium of film has a major obstacle to overcome if it is to provide a faithful rendering of a first-person novel, such as the The Great Gatsby: in general, film cameras show everything in the third person, not from the vantage point of a particular character but from a stance separated from any consciousness. If our reading experience of a first-person novel is substantially conditioned by the particular perspective of the character telling the story—when is it not?—then recreating that reading experience through the third person of film is impossible.

There are often other impediments. Time and causation are dealt with differently, flexibly, in novels. Take Fitzgerald’s novel. There’s some doubt about how Jay Gatsby made his money; in the end, Carraway can really only report half-heard hearsay and rumors of historical shady dealings. How could such antecedents be brought into a film narrative while retaining the quality of doubt as to what precisely happened? That doubt or vagueness is, after all, essential in giving us permission to regard Gatsby sympathetically.

What I’m getting at with all this detail is that there’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.

More here.