For some, Robert Redford is the personification of the American Dream: blond, handsome, tall – he looks simply gorgous. But is he really the right choice for Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby? Jay Gatsby (formerly James Gats) is not such a clear-cut character:

His parents were siftless, unsuccesful farmpeople – his imagination never really accepted them as his parents at all... He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of a vast, vulgar and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conceptioin he remained faithful to the end (.F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, p.95)

His controversial past, however, does not become apparent in the film. On the contrary. Our first vision of the Great Gatsby is him, standing at the edge of his balcony high above us: a gentleman of the upper class. In the book, by contrast, Nick does not even reckognize the host at the party in the " elegant young roughneck...whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd" (p.49).

The film also fails to convey the symbolic quality of the Great Gatsby. It is the essence of the American Dream whose tragedy Gatsby is enacting. He is a mythic, a tragic character: imprisoned in the present, he belongs much more to the past or to a future which never really existed but in his dreams. His death is a symbolic one. It is the consequence of his insecure grasp of social and human values, his lack of critical intelligence and above all his radical failure to recognize the cheapness and vulgarity of his love-affair with Daisy Buchanan.

Gatsby and Daisy

In the film, the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby is celebrated like a romantic love-story whose happy end is prevented by "cruel Fortuna", tragic circumstances and fatal misunderstandings.

In the book, however, it is clearly class boundaries which separate them. In contrast to Daisy, who is born into the upper class, Jay Gatsby does not have a comfortable family standing behind him. Disregarding this fact, he has, ever since he saw her, created a vision of her in his mind which, after five years, Daisy literally tumbles short of "not through own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her...beyond everyting. ..No amount of freshness and vitality can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart." ( p.93)

Gatsby fails to admit to himself that Daisy has become a creature of the Jazz Age, "a precious piece of furniture" who has nothing to offer in a human relationship. And for this failure the Great Gatsby pays with his death.

The book is undoubtedly one of the severest and closest criticisms of the American Dream. It was written by an author who was fully immersed in the consumer society of his age but who at the same time could step outside it and criticise its superficiality, its snobbishness and its decadence.