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December 6, 2022

Breaking Down The Great Gatsby

It’s time to tackle the behemoth of English literature classics. Adapted by Baz Luhrmann in 2013 into a glamorous feature film, let’s break down what’s so great about The Great Gatsby

A party scene from The Great Gatsby featuring Daisy, Gatsby, Nick and Tom. Daisy is wearing a blue shawl and them are wearing suits and clutching cocktail glasses.
The Great Gatsby captures the color and hedonism of the 1920s.

The history of The Great Gatsby

The book, originally published in 1925 by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was not a success upon its initial release. F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 not knowing the impact his story would have, and making very little money off the novel.

Ironically, it took Fitzgerald’s death to change public perceptions of The Great Gatsby. Literary critics and writers, prompted by Fitzgerald’s death, underwent a re-evaulation of his work.

In fact, their reappraisal of the novel was so influential that in 1942 when the US entered WW2, a government initiative to provide cheap books for the soldiers selected The Great Gatsby as one of the works to reprint.

50 years later enter Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director who has made a living off his dynamic colorful visual style, irreverent attitude, and full-force love for the lavish and the beautiful. 

Luhrmann took on adapting the novel in 2013 with Leonardo DiCaprio in the titular role, injecting the source material with a pep that it long needed.

So who are the main characters in The Great Gatsby? 

Who are the main characters in The Great Gatsby?

The Great Gatsby has a relatively small cast. However, there are lots of relatable characters in The Great Gatsby that are superbly well-drawn, all interacting with each other in intricate ways. 

A movie poster for The Great Gatsby highlighting the actors of 6 main characters in The Great Gatsby from Joel Edgerton to Carey Mulligan.
The Great Gatsby has a star-studied Hollywood cast.

Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire)

The narrator of the original novel and protagonist in the 2013 adaptation. Nick is a late 20s bond salesman and veteran of WW1 from the Midwest. He is probably one of the most relatable characters in The Great Gatbsy.

His cousin, Daisy, moved to New York some time ago, and Nick follows, looking to make his fortune in the exciting and booming city. He is an optimistic and wide-eyed character who slowly becomes disillusioned as the novel’s events progress. 

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) 

The titular character of the novel, Gatsby is an extraordinarily rich man living on Long Island bay in a massive mansion. Gatsby is amicable and eager to impress everyone he comes in contact with, hosting massive parties for free every weekend. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to tell how much of Gatsby’s persona is a construction, and how much of it is authentic.

Daisy Buchannan (Carey Mulligan) 

Nick’s cousin, Daisy was a rich debutante and the jewel of many a suitor’s eye (including Gatsby once upon a time). Daisy was once vivacious, but Nick observes that Daisy has become dispassionate and distant in her new marriage to Tom. Her affair with Gatsby is an escape from her doldrum life.

Tom Buchannan (Joel Edgerton)

Daisy’s husband is a hyper-masculine man who comes from old money. Tom is a brutish oaf who is cheating on Daisy with the wife of a local mechanic. He espouses some highly questionable views on racial issues and has little time for those who disagree with him.

Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debecki) 

Jordan Baker is Daisy’s closest friend and possible love interest of Nick. She is a relatively masculine woman, a golfer who attends high-society events. She is acerbic and sharp, able to see through people and sincerely wants to try and help Daisy achieve some semblance of happiness. 

George Wilson (Jason Clarke)

George is the mechanic of Tom’s vehicle, living in the rundown “valley of the ashes”. He’s working class.

Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher)

George’s wife is a dynamic and frustrated woman. She is Tom’s mistress 

With the characters out of the way, let’s get to the story.

Breaking down The Great Gatsby

Now let's get into the main break down and examine the main beats in The Great Gatsby.

Opening Image

The Great Gatsby begins with Nick Carraway in the future, older, and reminiscing on his time in New York in the 1920s. The doctor in the sanatorium he is staying in suggests that he write about his experiences to get out of his mental slump. Nick takes his advice. 

Setup and inciting incident

We flash back to the early 1920s and the bustling city of New York in the throws of the Jazz Age. Nick has decided to abandon his writing career and move to New York to become a salesman and make his fortune. He uses what money he has to buy a cottage beside a great mansion, supposedly belonging to a mysterious man called Gatsby.

Nick has bought a house near his cousin Daisy, and her husband Tom. Nick goes to their home, meets his cousin as well as the acerbic Jordan Baker. Nick also talks some with Tom who has some problematic and outdated ideas about the world. At dinner, it becomes clear that Tom is nearly openly having an affair, and neither Daisy or Tom pay much mind to their child. 

Tom is eager to bond with Nick more, so he offers to bring him into New York to party. On the way, Tom stops in a motor garage in a dismal area called the “valley of ashes” where a working-class couple Myrtle and George Wilson talk with Tom. Nick realizes that Myrtle is likely the woman that Tom is having an affair with. 

Tom brings Nick to the party where they get inebriated and party with some anonymous women. However, when one of them mentions Daisy’s name to Tom he launches into a rage, hits her, and breaks her nose. It’s clear that Tom is pretty unhinged and Nick is wary of him.

Turn to two

 A couple of nights later, Nick becomes intrigued by the massive parties held at his neighbour’s mansion. At the party he meets Jordan again, who tells Nick that the mansion is owned by an extraordinarily rich man called Jay Gatsby who throws these parties for free. 

Soon enough, Nick and Jordan meet the man himself who seems almost bigger than life itself. He is cordial and is eager to talk with Nick the next morning, though he’s illusive as to why. 

Promise of the premise

The next morning, Gatsby is true to his word and shows up outside Nick’s house in his golden car. Gatsby is a talker and seems eager to impress Nick for some reason, who is slightly bewildered by the lavish treatment he is receiving.

Gatsby brings Nick to a speakeasy in the depths of the city where he meets some gangsters, and with some more knowledge from Jordan, it becomes increasingly clear that Gatsby’s money may not be all from entirely legal means. 

Jordan, who Nick bumped into in the city, also tells Nick that long ago, Gatsby met Daisy and was smitten by her, but WW1 took him away before they could run away together. Gatsby, now a much richer man than he was then, is eager to come into contact with Daisy again. The lavish parties, and even his mansion that sits on the opposite side of the bay from Daisy’s mansion, is all in a vain pursuit to lure her to him. 

Nick, genuinely wanting to see them happy (but perhaps stoking the flames) suggests that he could organize a small get-together at his cottage so that they could be reunited. Gatsby agrees, but is clearly nervous to meet the woman he has idolized for so long.


True to his word, Nick sets up the small party. Gatsby, out of sorts and incredibly nervous about meeting Daisy, almost bails on the entire plan, but he manages to muster his courage and meet Daisy after so long. Their meeting is initially awkward, but the chemistry starts flying, and soon enough they are enamored with each other again. 


Gatsby and Daisy start an affair. Gatsby’s greatest desire in his life has been fulfilled and they enjoy an intense honeymoon period. Their love burns so bright that Daisy decides to run away from Tom for Gatsby, but Gatsby says that she should get a divorce, something Daisy is much less certain about. 

Turn to three

Gatsby insists that Daisy divorce Tom, and in order to force her into it he invites himself to a dinner at her mansion. The confrontation with Tom is frosty, but the men stay polite for as long as they can. 

Tom is pretty certain what’s going on between Daisy and Gatsby, and suggests that they (+ Nick and Jordan, who are also there a little awkwardly) go into the city to continue their party. 

However, the party goes little better in the city. Tom drives Nick and Jordan into the city with Gatsby’s car, while Gatsby takes Daisy in Tom’s car (this will be important in a moment). Tom stops at George’s garage for gas, and George tells him that he is suspicious that Myrtle is having an affair and they are going to move soon. 

Things do not go well in New York. Gatsby pressures Daisy into announcing a divorce, something Daisy can’t bring herself to do. To make matters worse Tom has strong suspicions that Gatsby’s entire story is a lie and that he’s not really the man he makes himself out to be. 

Daisy and Gatsby drive back in Gatsby’s car, while Tom takes Nick and Jordan back. However, on the way back past the Wilson garage, Myrtle runs in the front of the road (thinking that Tom is still driving the golden Gatsby car) so that she can run away with Tom. However, Daisy is driving too fast and hits Myrtle, killing her in an instant. Gatsby tells Daisy to drive on, leaving George a widow and furious. 


Nursing a guilty conscience, Daisy fully reneges upon her affair with Gatsby and tells Tom everything, including killing Myrtle. Tom says he will sort everything out. Meanwhile, Gatsby confesses to Nick that he was in fact born penniless, his name is really James Gatz, and he picks up many of his mannerisms from one of his old mentors. 

George, knowing that Myrtle was killed with Gatsby’s car, suspects that Gatsby was in fact having the affair with Myrtle, and Tom encourages the lie. George loads a shotgun enters Gatsby’s mansion and shoots Gatsby dead before killing himself. 


Despite Gatsby’s parties that were attended by thousands of New Yorkers over the past years, Nick is the only friend of Gatsby’s to attend to his funeral. 

The press print vicious articles about Gatsby, accusing him of the affair and slandering his name. Meanwhile, Daisy and Nick decide to leave New York, resigned to their unhappy marriage.

Nick is disgusted by the entire New York society and the people in it. He too leaves, reflecting on whether the pursuit of dreams is worth it. In the present day, Nick closes his journal the doctor asked him to write and entitles it “The Great Gatsby”.

What can we learn from The Great Gatsby

There are two primary lessons in The Great Gatsby.

When you’re adapting source material that is part of the literary canon, you need to tread a very thin tightrope between staying faithful to the source material and making necessary changes. 

This is a relatively faithful adaptation and it includes all of the main characters in The Great Gatsby, but it innovates and modernizes primarily through music choices and cinematography. Luhrmann was wise enough not to mess with a good story too much, making small changes in the name of pacing alone.

Stories like The Great Gatsby are so highly praised because of the unity of their elements. There is not a word wasted or a scene that could be cut. Everything plays into the central relationships between the cast of compelling characters. Ask yourself in your own work whether every single element of your story is contributing to one single central goal.

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Breaking Down The Great Gatsby
Alex D. Reid

Alex is a professional screenwriter who loves writing horror. He won the horror category at Austin Film Festival for his screenplay Delirium in 2019 and is currently studying for a Ph.D in English Literature with a focus on the horror genre

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