Review: The Great Gatsby: a graphic adaptation by Nicki Greenberg of the novel by F Scott Fitzgerald
While we’re all still talking about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby, let’s have a look at another reimagining of Fitzgerald’s classic novel.
Creating any kind of adaptation is always a tricky business, but adapting a novel as intensely loved by as many people as F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby seems particularly fraught with danger. Nicki Greenberg’s graphic adaptation of Fitzgerald’s classic story demonstrates the possibility of using the specific qualities of a different medium to re-envision rather than simply recreate a text. By translating the story into a visual medium, Greenberg captures the emotional essence of the source material and offers the audience a very different reading experience.
Presented as a loving tribute to Fitzgerald’s work, Greenberg focuses her interpretation through a nostalgic and whimsical aesthetic that emphasises the visceral emotion of the text. The Great Gatsby can be interpreted in many different ways, and often it is the more cynical or critical layers that are discussed. Yet filtered through Greenberg’s perspective, it becomes primarily a story about love, yearning and loss. The sepia wash and gentle shadings of light and dark over her thin, delicate linework immediately saturate the novel with a feeling of nostalgia and romance.
This poignancy is also evoked by the layout of the panels, which references the pages of a photo album. Rectangular panels with crenulated edges are scattered across the page, just as we see Nick at the beginning of the opening chapter literally pasting photographs into a book. The photo album acts as both a visual device and a narrative one, constantly reminding us that this is Nick’s story, pieced together from fragments of memory.
Perhaps the most immediately obvious way Greenberg uses the visual possibilities of the comics medium to reimagine Fitzgerald’s story is by presenting the characters not as humans, but as a cast of peculiar, alien-like sea-creatures. Greenberg explains on her website:
To me, Fitzgerald’s characters are so incisively rendered, their personalities, movements and voices so immediate and true, that an ordinary human representation does not capture the essence of the written characters . . . my aim was to make their physical attributes embody and illuminate their personalities.
Indeed, her rendering of Fitzgerald’s characters seems to capture their emotional essence in heightened form. Nick, the quiet onlooker, is drawn as a small, soft, inoffensive salamander-like creature, with two observing antennae that highlight his role as observer. Daisy’s dandelion-like puff of a head and delicate, gangly limbs emphasise her sense of aimlessness, while Gatsby’s aura of grandeur is captured in his resplendent appearance as an elegant, enigmatic seahorse.
The immediate effect of Greenberg’s use of whimsical creatures is to lend the text a dreamy, impressionistic feel – a heightened realization, perhaps, of the allegorical quality of the novel. It also nods to the long tradition of animal characters as a trope of comics (from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat to Charles Chultz’s Peanuts to Art Speigelman’s Maus, animals have long played an emotionally-charged role in graphic narratives), both placing it within the history of the medium and enhancing the nostalgic effect.
Significantly, it also directs our perception of these characters. While from Fitzgerald’s novel it would be very possible to read Gatsby and Daisy as somewhat contemptible – they are arguably both superficial, selfish and dishonest – Greenberg’s rendering of them is affectionate, emphasising their vulnerability and loss. From Daisy’s wide, sad eyes, to Gatsby’s childishly outstretched arms as he reaches out over the water towards a hopeless dream, to the prettiness and delicacy of both their forms, Greenberg’s treatment of these two ultimately tragic characters encourages us to empathise with them.
Throughout the graphic novel, Greenberg plays with visual metaphor, drawing attention to Fitzgerald’s lyrical, imagistic prose and enhancing its surreal quality. Daisy’s face often appears in the clouds, the sun or a puff of smoke when Gatsby and Nick are talking about her, visually depicting the way she is perpetually present in Gatsby’s mind. At one of Gatsby’s parties, Nick’s tipsiness is captured through crooked panels in which he slides elatedly down a swirling stream of water, which itself seems to have materialised out of a swirling stream of musical notes on the previous page.
There are also silent panels – a device that, in Greenberg’s words “make us pause and think and question and fill out the meaning for ourselves. Moments that hang and quiver, the way time can stretch and stop.” Silences – a lack of words which can never be achieved in a novel while still presenting images and atmosphere – allow the simplicity of Greenberg’s characters’ expressions and her careful execution of the surrounding environment and architecture do the talking.
It might not surpass or even equal Fitzgerald’s original text – but then, that was never really the intention. What Greenberg offers is a fresh way of reading and experiencing a widely loved (and for many people, studied and analysed to death) novel. Demonstrating the way the grammar of comics can be used to engage creatively with the source material, this graphic novel shows how an adaptation can exist as both an interpretation of the original text and quite possibly as a new text in itself.