Gatsby, What Gatsby?

Our Screen Talks event for The Great Gatsby brought over 100 audience members to Exeter Picturehouse and almost as many different reactions to the film. The process of adaptation was a key element in Dr Sinéad Moynihan’s introduction to the film, and a big debating point afterward. This blog brings a different perspective to the film – the reaction of a Screen Talks audience member who had not read the book. This special guest post by University of Exeter’s Zoe Bulaitis (Department of English, Arts & Culture) follows below.

Source: Picturehouse Cinemas.

Before watching Luhrmann’s film, I knew nothing about The Great Gatsby. Despite the fact it is regarded as one of the strongest contenders for the “Great American Novel”, regardless of its status as being a frequent choice for curricular Literature Studies and adapted into four films prior to this most recent attempt – I have not read a page nor harboured any facts about the novel at all. Actually, that statement is not wholly correct. In all honesty, I knew it was an American novel (this I had deducted from the fact it was written by Fitzgerald) and I had presumed at some point of the story (probably of relative importance to the plot) there would be a character called Gatsby, who may or may not turn out to be great. These are the skills of deduction that a BA in English Literature provide you with when faced with the situation of predicting information about a text that you have not read.

When I encountered the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s latest film for the first time, unsuspecting of the extreme sensory invasion, I was compelled to shut my eyes and ears off from the spectacle playing before me at the words “Gatsby, What Gatsby?”. Only thirty seconds into the extensive trailer, it was actress Cary Mulligan’s dainty inquiry that confirmed what I had already begun to guess: there’s a book adaptation movie coming.

My BA in English was prefaced by a childhood spent reading extensively; I have a comprehensive (albeit surface-level in places) understanding of most ultra-famous literary works. I have loved, and will continue to love reading “The Classics” of the literary canon. The feeling of sitting down with a book which has been valorised by generations of readers provides you with a sense of contentedness – a guarantee that the pages before you are set to be worthwhile and profound. This is a feeling, from my experience, that I have not found to be replicated in filmic adaptation of such texts. While Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet may be a success in the realm of cinema, it is unfaithful in conveying the original sentiments of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Certainly both book and film end with the star-crossed suicides of the titular characters, however, the route to this climax and the style in which is portrayed is entirely different. Shakespeare’s original cites parental pressures, the close knit Verona communities and the ignorance of an old apothecary while Luhrmann’s adaptation utilizes police helicopters, lad culture and Para-Ordnance P-13 pistols. I argue that the film adaptation is a different product entirely, and therefore my review of The Great Gatsby will not seek to draw comparisons to the text (which I have not and will not be reading in the near future). Instead I ask whether the film is good enough as a film.

I would like to clarify in reference to Romeo and Juliet above that I prefer a film adaptation that seeks to do something radical with a literary text than to tip-toe around trying to re-invent the same wheel. Isn’t it better to initiate something new, than imitate something already brilliant? For this reason I greatly admire Baz Luhrmann’s efforts in adaptation. His unique style accentuates what is of interest to his directorial tastes. In the trailer to the movie Luhrmann’s name is emblazoned in an Art Deco gilded gold frame. His authorial status is celebrated and is a major draw for the film. His name precedes the celebrity cast of actors. The fact that the film is adapted from a popular story is perhaps less significant than the gravitas of Luhrmann’s method of storytelling.

To briefly contextualize, it remains an undisputable fact that the majority of people like to watch literary adaptations. Since the Academy Awards began in 1927-8, ‘more than three fourths of the awards for “best picture” have gone to adaptations . . . [and that] the all-time box-office successes favour novels even more’ . Over the past year, some of the highest grossing box office sales in the United Kingdom were Les Miserables (January 2013), The Hobbit (December 2012 – January 2013) and Oz the Great and Powerful (March 2013) all adapted from novels. Since literary adaptations began there have been discussions of fidelity. Such conversations can be a little tiresome and repetitive – especially when you haven’t read the original, or think that the film version is less boring for the non-specialist reader (wading through 1500 pages of French-English translation of the 1862 writing of Victor Hugo is definitely a most arduous activity than the recent sing-a-long with Hugh Jackman and Amanda Seyfried). Wouldn’t it be fun to accept that the differences of medium limit the fidelity to the original text, but also offer new potentialities of storytelling?

Michael Klein and Gillian Parker posit an interesting suggestion that there are three kinds of adaptation:

“First, ‘fidelity to the main thrust of the narrative’; second, the approach which ‘retains the core of the structure of the narrative while significantly reinterpreting or, in some cases, deconstructing the source text’; and, third, regarding ‘the source merely as raw material, as simply the occasion for an original work’

I personally prefer the third option –the closer a director sticks to a text, the more frustrating the tiniest of neglects and nuanced differences become. Previously, I have not taken well to the cherished classics that I have read being adapted into blockbuster movies. I left the cinema halfway through the 2009 attempt at A Picture of Dorian Gray appalled at the sub-standard CGI and the weird temporal leap to WW1 in a story set in the Victorian era. As appealing as Colin Firth is in that white shirt, I still prefer Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen penned it. So maybe, as Klein and Parker suggest, the classics are better off if they are allowed to become mere “raw materials” for the creative talent of the filmmaker. If you want to see a version utterly faithful to the original – why don’t you just read the book again?

The Great Gatsby (2013) was a visual treat. The actors and actresses looked superb in their 20s couture, and I will not be lead to believe that a written description of a lavish party could top Luhrmann’s filmic spectacle. Never have I seen a party more decadent on the big screen, nor could I imagine how it could be exceeded. The atmosphere of sheer extravagance and the imagination of Luhrmann is a match to the expectations of Gatsby in terms of brilliance. Luhrmann thrives on these energetic scenes, and whilst the dialogue and romances may appear a little unbelievable (and at times pathetic) throughout the film, there is little doubt in the authentic wonder of the lucky party-goers.

Luhrmann’s sense of speed and activity is successfully contrasted with the deaths of Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the car-crash victim Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) whose deaths are among the most striking moments of the film. Taking a breath right at the moment when life is extinguished, the two characters that die in the novel (Gatsby and car-crash victim Myrtle Wilson) both meet their end in slow motion. Death, like the vibrancy of a party is equally difficult to capture within the literary text. To confirm my suspicions that it is easier to die on screen than in a novel, I skimmed through the end of novel to compare the death scenes: for Myrtle Wilson only: “the business was over” is recorded and for Gatsby: “the chauffeur heard the shots”. For both Myrtle and Gatsby there is no written record of the moment of death. In the film, there is a blow-by-blow detailing of the event. Talking to a friend who has read the book, after having seen the film, she commented that in the book the deaths don’t really seem to carry much significance – the true betrayal and tragedy of the story occurs before the death of Gatsby. However, in Luhrmann’s film it is certainly the finale. What interests me is not the comparing the film to the book, but to analyze Luhrmann’s persistent drive and obsession with the death of the star throughout his filmic career. Romeo and Juliet is perhaps a bad example, as from page one of the play and the opening of the film alike, you know that the stars are destined to “take their life”. However, in Moulin Rouge Satine’s (Nicole Kidman) death is unexpected in the carnivalesque madhouse that the rest of the film consists of. Her death comes at the final curtain and much like Gatsby is dramatic and cinematically stunning.

I want to emphasize that I am not naturally morbid – the death-scenes are just one example of why I enjoyed watching this film. But I have chosen them as my example as they are something that I expected Luhrmann to do well as Luhrmann, in no relation to whatever the original was like. I suppose I would prefer it is we compared like with like, a good film with a bad film (or another good film), a good directorial style and a bad one (or a bad director in a moment of brilliance). Judging a film by a book seems to me to be unfair and unproductive in the process of creative storytelling.

Imagining Cancer: Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 (2011)

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 3rd June at Exeter Picturehouse. Alanna Skuse (Centre for Medical History and Dept of English, University of Exeter) will introduce 50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011).

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online in the week leading up to the film, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Alanna Skuse has written a guest blog-post for us on the language that surrounds cancer and its history:

On 3rd June I will be introducing 50/50, a movie that tells the story of a young man diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and his experience of that disease. In many ways, however, this film is less about cancer in a clinical sense and more about people’s reactions to it, and how being a cancer patient can alter your life in more than the obvious ways. In this blog post, I want to think about the persistence of some particular ways of thinking about cancer by comparing modern rhetoric around the disease with that found in texts dealing with cancer in the seventeenth century.

Only a few weeks ago, Cancer Research UK released a new fundraising appeal, across a number of different media. The slogan is ‘Oi cancer’. In the TV advertisement, people ‘tell’ cancer, “I’m not afraid of you” or “I’m coming to get you”. The website,, invites us to contribute our own ‘message to cancer’. Cancer Research’s advertising strategy is interesting because it locates a relationship with cancer that is quite different to that we have with any other disease. In the UK, heart disease and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease account for a similar number of years of life lost as breast of lung cancer.[1] Would a campaign which asserted “we’re coming to get you, COPD” be as effective? Almost certainly not, because despite the fact that it is, crudely speaking, a disease of our own mutated cells, we imagine cancer as something other; a disease which is in some way wilfully hostile to the body. That seeming agency is what makes cancer a disease that can be, even if only in rhetorical terms, ‘sent a message’.

This illusion may seem like a modern phenomenon, of the same order as claims that ‘positive thinking’ can diminish tumours. In reality, however, it is a pattern of thought that has persisted for hundreds of years. The very word ‘cancer’ comes from an ancient Greek term, karkinos, or crab. Medical practitioners in the early modern period took it as obvious that cancerous tumours were named after this creature because they were round and red, like a crab, with darkened veins surrounding the tumour which looked like legs. In addition, they noted that ‘the tumour is so rooted in the Glands of the Breast, that ’tis no more possible to extirpate it, than force a Crab to quit what he has grasped betwixt his griping Claws’.[2]

Furthermore, many physicians saw cancerous tumours increasing as the patient visibly diminished and came to the natural conclusion that the disease was literally ‘eating’ the body. From the medieval period to the eighteenth century, practitioners of various kinds claimed to have seen worms in cancerous ulcers. In 1714, one ‘empiric’, or unlicensed practitioner, even claimed to have seen a wolf poking its head out from a cancerous ulcer.[3] So invested were early modern physicians and their audiences in the idea of cancer as purposefully intractable that the very word ‘malignant’ meant more than simply ‘prone to spread’. ‘Malignant’ encapsulated a whole range of qualities including resistance to cure, painfulness and the ability to ‘break out’ into painful ulcers. More than a clinical term, this was evidence of cancer’s ‘evil’ nature.

In the twenty-first century, most of us agree that the idea of cancer as an independent, hostile entity within the body is a rhetorical one, psychologically useful rather than literally true. In the language of ‘battling’, ‘fighting’, or saying ‘Oi’ to cancer, however, we can see that historical influences on our conceptualisation of this disease are far from extinct.



[2] Pierre Dionis, A course of chirurgical operations, demonstrated in the Royal Garden at Paris (London: 1710), p.248.

[3] Daniel Turner, De Morbis Cutaneis: Diseases Incident to the Skin (1714), p.76.


Savants and Stereotypes: Barry Levinson’s Rain Man (1988), Mon 22nd April, 6.30pm

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 22nd April at Exeter Picturehouse. Dr Ginny Russell (Research Fellow at Egenis at the University of Exeter) will introduce Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988)

Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information: Book online, call the Box Office 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Dr Ginny Russell has written a guest blog post for us, outlining the film’s influence on the ways that autism is understood:

Rain Man was released in 1988 to overwhelmingly positive reviews. It is the story of yuppie Charlie Babbitt, played by Tom Cruise, and his estranged brother Raymond, played by Dustin Hoffman. Raymond is an autistic savant; his character was modelled on a person named Kim Peek, although not autistic, did have a developmental disability with similarities to autism. He was also a savant with an eidetic memory. Researching the movie, producers referred to the diagnostic criteria for autism to develop the characterisation.

Hoffman’s performance as Raymond is compelling and the character has enormous screen presence in the sense that you never know what he is going to do next. Rain Man won Best Film Oscar in 1988 as well as Best Actor for Hoffman. Despite his limitations, the audience is drawn to Babbet because in his case, normal rules do not apply. In this way, Babbet displays classic symptoms of autism: normal social rules are not easily understood or adhered to. Rain Man’s autistic-hero is a cinematic archetype with a long tradition: Zen, star of the Thai film Chocolate. Peter Seller’s idiot savant in Being There, and Tom Hank’s Forrest Gump are all heroes with limited intellectual and social capabilities who unwittingly conquer their worlds. It is the quality of innocence that draws us to these characters and to Raymond. Raymond is as naive as his brother is scheming and worldly, yet it is Raymond himself who eventually offers his brother the possibility of redemption: an emotional connection that transcends material gain.

For the autism community today, Rain Man had two important consequences. First it raised awareness of the condition, and in its wake has come a flood of popular autistic autobiographies: Temple Grandin, Daniel Tammet and Donna Williams notable amongst them. Autism’s increasingly high profile is most certainly partially responsible for the spectacular rising prevalence of the condition since Rain Man’s release. Such high profile media coverage has led to far greater recognition and application of the diagnostic label. The question of whether the rising prevalence of autism is entirely an artefact of changing diagnostic practice or whether there really are more children with autism today is the subject of my own research.

The second unintended effect of Rain Man was to inadvertently encourage a stereotype that autism equals special abilities. In fact, such savant skills occur rarely in autistic individuals, in about 1-10% of the population with autism according to Darold Treffert, the primary researcher in this field. Savant skills are known as islets of ability and a particular skill, maybe rote memory, artistic ability, or musical talent, is highly developed compared to other skills. Oliver Sacks has written beautifully about his experiences of such cases in his book An Anthropologist on Mars. The problem with the public notion of the autistic savant is it promotes an unhelpful stereotype of what is often a profoundly disabling condition. Most children with autism are profoundly affected, have no special talent, struggle with everyday tasks, and in many cases do not develop speech at all.

Rain Man is often cited by members of the emerging Neurodiversity movement who argue that autism should not be viewed as a sickness but an alternative and valid way of being. Autistic self-advocates frequently refer to Raymond Babbet and other autistic heroes in literature and documentary when they describe their own experience of autism. The philosopher Ian Hacking has suggested that such portrayals themselves shape and feedback into how the disorder is experienced and understood. In this way Rain Man provides a neat illustration of a representation of sickness on screen that has itself influenced understandings of diagnostic criteria as well as vice versa .

Dr Ginny Russell has written extensively about autism and how it is understood and diagnosed. Read more about Ginny’s research here.

‘The Only Thing Greater Than the Power of the Mind’: A Beautiful Mind, 11th March

The next Screen Talks event will be on Monday 11th March, 6.30pm. Dr Ali Haggett will introduce Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001). Join the event on Facebook and find out more here.

Booking Information book online, call the Box Office: 0871 902 5730 or buy tickets on the door (half price for students on Mondays).

Ali has written a guest blog for us on A Beautiful Mind and its importance as a film and a way of engaging with historical and current-day issues around mental illness:

A Beautiful Mind, starring Russell Crow and Jennifer Connelly and directed by Ron Howard, was released in 2001 and went on to win four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Based on the biography of the same name by Sylvia Nasar (1998), it recounts the life of the American John Forbes Nash, Professor of Mathematics, whose work on Game Theory eventually earned him the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. However, the film is much more than a biography of a mathematical genius, as it charts Nash’s at times devastating battle with schizophrenia.

The film is important on a number of levels. First and foremost, it offers insight into the experience of mental illness from a number of perspectives; from John Nash himself as the sufferer, but also from the view point of his family and colleagues. It also raises numerous questions about involuntary institutionalisation, physical and chemical restraint and the pharmacological treatment of psychotic illness. Nash’s illness developed during the late 1950s which was a key period in the history of psychiatry. The discovery of chlorpromazine in 1952 appeared to offer real hope to Schizophrenic patients; however, one of the drawbacks of the treatment was that it stifled creativity and in some cases muted not only delusions but also the experience of ‘real’ life. .

The film also raises broader questions about life and how we create ‘meaning’ to our existence. Nash initially begins his lifetime search for a ‘higher truth’ through mathematics, logic and rationality. This was the period of the Cold War, and the film deftly portrays a sense of optimism, so significant at the time, that a young generation of mathematicians and scientists might offer the key to a better world. However, despite winning a Nobel Prize for his work, Nash ultimately finds ‘meaning’ in his life as much through the love and loyalty of his wife. Something that could ultimately never be explained by mathematical formulae.

There are of course a number of diversions from actual events, some undoubtedly for popular appeal. Visual hallucinations, for example, were added to Nash’s auditory delusions. However, other changes reflected the sensitive nature of the subject matter. Nash claims in the film, for example, that he continued to take anti-psychotic drugs, when in reality he stopped medication sometime during the 1970s, learning to control the delusions himself. The production team were clearly cognizant of the strong anti-psychiatry sentiment during the period and keen not to be portrayed as sympathetic to this stance. However, Nash’s eventual spontaneous recovery was rare and Howard notes that the producers were keen not to offer false hope to other patients and their families. A number of other omissions include an illegitimate son and allegations that Nash had relations with other men. These might perhaps illustrate some of the difficulties associated with recounting the life story of someone who is still alive.

Nash admitted, during a conversation with the director, that schizophrenia had humbled him. Recognition and success were perhaps, in the end, less about external factors and professional achievement and more about what he had learned from his illness and his relationships. Crow and Connelly found many of the scenes difficult and exhausting – and sometimes even frightening. Ultimately, their portrayal of the characters, and Crow’s portrait of the illness, is extraordinarily convincing. This is a powerful film. Whether or not our lives have been touched in any way by mental illness, it speaks to us all on many levels.

Dr Ali Haggett will introduce the film, and there will be opportunities for informal discussion in the bar afterwards.

Ali has written extensively about the gendered representation of mental health in the post-war period. Find out more about Ali’s research here.

Sickness on the Screen: Coming Soon!

Screen Talks will soon be launching a new strand under the title ‘Sickness on the Screen’. This theme will consider issues relating to medicine, health, sickness and wellbeing on film – we have a fantastic selection of films coming up.

We will offer a wide range of films that address mental and physical illness (psychiatry, obesity), medical practitioners (migrant doctors, sorcerers), patients or sufferers (cancer) and more. These will be introduced by scholars from a range of departments including English, Sociology, Medical History, Film and Medicine. These topics are of universal significance and should provide plenty of food for thought – the films are really rather good too. As promised by all Screen Talks: great films, great debates!

Keep an eye on the blog, Facebook and Twitter for details of our launch on 11th March and the first film in the strand.

The launch of this strand is funded by the AHRC so expect lots of lovely special offers in the next few months – tell your friends!