- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2001

When you watch "The Great Gatsby," there's no point pretending you're not comparing the movie with F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic 1925 novel.

The latest version premieres tomorrow night on Arts & Entertainment Network, and it's a pleasant 100-minute diversion that's a worthy tribute to Fitzgerald's jazz-age masterpiece. It will (and should) encourage people to pick up the book.

Yes, the plot developments are telescoped to fit the running time, but this process probably does less damage to the relatively short and cleanly plotted (if complicated) "Great Gatsby" than to most other classic novels.

The story is familiar — or should be — and this production hews closely to the novel, with one major exception (more about that later). The movie begins with fatherly advice about good fortune and ends with boats beating against the current, both in first-person voice-over narration from Nick Carraway. Nick becomes fascinated by Jay Gatsby, a mysterious nouveau riche who is his neighbor in a swanky part of Long Island, N.Y.

Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who live the idle, careless life of old money, reside on the other side of the bay. Gatsby has long-ago feelings for Daisy, who married Tom while Gatsby was off fighting World War I.

Gatsby uses Nick to facilitate a meeting with Daisy, and this use of Nick as a facilitator of adultery rhymes with Tom's use of him to aid his affair with a garageman's wife. The attempts to change romantic alignments and the consequences that flow from them constitute the novel's action.

"The Great Gatsby" has been made into a movie or TV movie at least four times before this version. Part of the reason probably is that the novel deals so much with surfaces and appearances, which television and film convey superbly and easily. To cite an example that gets more emphasis in the 1974 movie than in the A&E; version: Seeing Gatsby's shirts being tossed into the air with glee and abandon to impress Daisy has a lovely reverie quality, which prose struggles to describe.

Also, nothing compares with actually seeing one of Gatsby's parties or seeing the city of ashes or seeing the body of a car-accident victim laid out on a table. Even the symbolic green light is handled well here by being shown slightly out of focus, with the camera often jittering.

This concreteness has its threatened drawbacks, and that's in casting. When a novel is as well-known as "Gatsby," its characters leave such a strong impression that casting becomes risky. The 1974 film version is a notorious example of miscasting, with Robert Redford as the shady outsider Jay Gatsby, character-star Mia Farrow as the inaccessible Daisy, born-middle-aged Sam Waterston as the naive Nick Carraway and Bruce Dern as the hulking Tom Buchanan.

Here, although the actors are not as good and some of the line-reading is a bit wooden, the casting is much truer to type. British actor Toby Stephens looks right, conveying that oily charm that Gatsby has.

As Nick, we have open-faced Paul Rudd (memorable as the stepbrother in "Clueless"). For the role of Tom, Martin Donovan's thick neck and cold eyes are nicely threatening.

Then there's Mira Sorvino as Daisy. She's not a godesslike presence worthy of that green light or worth pining over for years or gaining a fortune and building a mansion to impress.

Instead, Miss Sorvino plays Daisy as a carefree, slightly scatterbrained fashion plate, consistent with her own previous roles. I've always seen Daisy as having a more ethereal, less earthy side.

The A&E; movie offers other visual pleasures beyond the presence of actors. I will remember for a long time how the film handles Fitzgerald's description of the first meeting between Nick and Gatsby. In voice-over, Nick describes Gatsby's smile using the novel's words, and the film stays on a freeze frame of that smile. When Nick gets to the part of how its effects evaporated, the freeze frame breaks back into life.

I do have one major reservation about the plot structure in this adaptation, but I am unsure quite how much weight to give it. My discussing it may constitute a plot spoiler (you have been warned), but that's almost the point.

Practically the first event you see is Gatsby being shot to death as he lies in his pool. For a classic novel like this, which much of the audience will have read or seen adapted in previous film versions, that hardly constitutes a spoiler. And we don't see who killed him.

But that isn't how Fitzgerald structured his novel for his reader (although Nick is telling the story in retrospect). I really wonder what could be the point of beginning with that revelation, particularly for someone unfamiliar with the text. The flashback strategy might make the destruction of Gatsby appear more inevitable than I remember it seeming.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "The Great Gatsby"WHERE: A&EWHEN;: 8 p.m., 10 p.m. and midnight tomorrow and 2 a.m. Monday; noon, 8 p.m. and midnight Jan. 20; and 4 p.m. Jan. 21

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