12/02/2014 06:38 pm ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

The Greatest Gatsby of Them All

Given that most of us are familiar only with the 1974 (featuring Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan) and 2013 (with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, respectively) versions of The Great Gatsby, it's a surprise to learn that, going all the way back to the silent era, there have been five renderings of F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated novel, including a 2000 made-for-TV version, with the excellent but woefully miscast Mira Sorvino as Daisy.

The Gatsby "industry" began in 1926, a mere one year after the book was published, indicating that even back then, Hollywood was already eager to harvest the literary market (even though, in truth, Fitzgerald's novel wasn't initially a big seller). Indeed, the epic "Gone With the Wind" was released in 1939, three years after Margaret Mitchell published it (and two years after it won the Pulitzer).

As to the comparative merits of the five offerings, I've never understood why the reception to the 1974 version was so tepid, if not downright hostile. The film was brilliant. Not only was the cast exceptional, the director (Jack Clayton) and screenwriter (Francis Coppola) managed to remain utterly faithful to the tone and philosophical underpinnings of Fitzgerald's novel.

In Clayton's version, Redford was shown as withdrawn and enigmatic (more or less a "haunted" figure), Farrow as fragile, shallow and utterly selfish, and Sam Waterston (as narrator Nick Caraway), Gatsby's out-of-his-weight-class neighbor, as naïve, earnest and tragically innocent. Straight out of the book.

Nothing against DiCaprio or Mulligan, but 2013's Australian director Baz Luhrman (responsible for the wretchedly melodramatic and derivative "Australia") insisted on making the two of them entirely too animated and "complete." In Fitzgerald's novel, Jay Gatsby comes off as a tormented cipher; in Luhrman's movie, he is depicted merely as nervous and unfulfilled. As for Fitzgerald's Daisy Buchanan, Mulligan, a wonderful actress, plays her as too "healthy."

Whereas Farrow's (and Fitzgerald's) Daisy was a wealthy, hopelessly oblivious dilettante whom you wanted to alternatively hug with compassion or wring her neck, Mulligan's Daisy was played with little regard for the class elements and hypocrisy that permeated the novel. While Farrow was hideously clueless in regard to her capacity for wreaking destruction, Mulligan came off as essentially "sweet," which was a huge misstep. And it's Luhrman's direction that's to blame here, not Mulligan's acting.

But the most egregious example of faulty casting mixed with bad direction--even worse than Luhrman's casting of Spider Man (Tobey Maguire) as Nick Caraway--was having the Australian Jason Clarke play George Wilson, the coarse and cuckolded auto mechanic who murders Gatsby in the end. In the 1974 version, George was played by the gifted Scott Wilson ("In the Heat of the Night," "In Cold Blood," "The Right Stuff," AMC's "The Walking Dead," et al), who brought to the part the requisite trifecta--torment, loyalty and menace--that Fitzgerald imparted in his novel. He was brilliant.

Again, this was no fault of Jason Clarke, a perfectly adequate actor (watch him in "Zero Dark Thirty") who did his best in the part. The problem is that Clarke is no Scott Wilson. Which is like saying Josh Hartnett is no Marlon Brando. If you haven't yet seen the 1974 version, it's worth checking out. Had Baz Luhrman studied, deconstructed and emulated that film, his 2013 offering would have been a whole lot better.

David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor")