December 2, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

There’s a saying: “Never judge a book by its movie.” Sometimes this is more true than others.

Rumours are abounding about Baz Luhrmann’s proposed adaptation of The Great Gatsby: Leonardo Di Caprio is reputed to be playing Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan, and, most contentiously, Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway. Whether any of these casting choices pan out, and how appropriate they may be, misses the point altogether. Gatsby has been filmed twice already, once with Alan Ladd in the title role, and once with Robert Redford (the latter featuring a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola). What none of these adaptations reckons with is the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 novel is essentially (and necessarily) unfilmable.

Fitzgerald’s chosen structure, which filters everything through the psyche of first-person narrator Nick, is quintessentially literary, and actively resists translation into a visual medium. For the same reason that heavily psychological or impressionistic writers like Henry James or Franz Kafka do not translate well into cinema, Gatsby – a literary novel if there ever was one – seems doomed to failure on the silver screen.

Tony Tanner highlights the book’s literary aspect in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition:

The extent to which the book is Nick’s version can hardly be overstressed. To be sure, he assembles his material from different sources. In addition to his own memory, there are documents, like the youthful Gatsby’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy with its Franklinesque “SCHEDULE” on the flyleaf and Nick’s own infinitely suggestive list of Gatsby’s guests of the summer of 1922, which is now “disintegrating as it folds,” suggesting perhaps the inevitable disintegration of other depositories of time – including the memory of the narrator. Then there is the long oral account of the first phase of the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, given to him by Jordan Baker, and the accounts of Gatsby’s early life, Dan Cody and the war years given to him by Gatsby himself during the doomed and hopeless vigil after the night of the fatal road accident. But it is Nick who transcribes these accounts; how much he may be requoting his sources and how much translating them – transforming, embellishing, amplifying, rewording – we can never know.

Nick’s memory, the documents he catalogues, his recapitulations and embellishments, are inseparable from the manner in which he records them in the novel. All of what Tanner describes is conveyed through Fitzgerald’s manipulation of words on a page, and none of it can be translated into a visual medium without losing something integral.

Perhaps this is what the producers of the New York production Gatz were thinking. Running to more than seven hours, the show is a verbatim rendering of Fitzgerald’s text, executed in a manner that, according to the Guardian‘s Matt Trueman, is “deliberately ill-fitted to the stage.” Trueman quotes novelist Sebastian Faulks as saying that attempting to adapt a literary work to another medium is tantamount to “trying to turn a painting into a sculpture.” In the case of the verbatim rendering of Gatsby, Trueman finds the enterprise “ungainly and counter-intuitve.” However, these very qualities render the production impressive in Trueman’s assessment: “By refusing to make textual amendments, it retains the qualities, form and feel of a novel. But its brilliance as theatre stems largely from the difficulties of – and failures in – staging it as such.”

He continues:

By embracing the irreconcilability of novel and stage, smashing the two together awkwardly, Gatz sheds light on both. You come to understand the novel’s construction and the process of reading it, and learn about the mechanics of theatre. Gatz, I think, succeeds for two reasons: first, its defiance of the habitual conventions of “good drama,” and second, by admitting the very process of adaptation.

Perhaps this is the only way literary adaptations can succeed: by eschewing any attempt to erase the distinction between media and freely acknowledging the transposition of both form and content (the way Charlie Kaufman does in his cheekily titled screenplay Adaptation). Perhaps the only truly effective adaptation is a truly postmodern adaptation: one that remains entirely aware at all times of the distance between the adapted work and the original source material.

Or perhaps there really are literary works – The Great Gatsby among them – that can never fully exist in any other form than the one in which they were first created.


2 Responses to “Adaptations”
  1. Brian says:

    I thought the stage version of The Great Gatsby was a wonderful adaptation of the book in a way that preserved the novel, the book as a form, and the wonder of reading nicely, myself, as I described here: I think I find much common ground with Trueman’s review (which I hadn’t read). I also agree with your skepticism about a film version, though perhaps there are ways of doing it, as with the theatrical adaptation, in which one cleverly references the way in which it was first created – perhaps as with Adaptation as the firm version of The Orchid Thief. I would have watched that but I can’t stand the idea of staring at that much Nicholas Cage.

  2. I think that it’s interesting that people keep trying to film Gatsby and I don’t know why it should be impossible to film.

    I recently re-read the William Burroughs piece on adapting Gatsby…

    Here’s a few quotes:

    “In fact the closer you look at Gatsby the more mysterious he becomes… That he was a hybrid a synthetic being literally created by Fitzgerald’s prose who could not possibly have existed in any other medium.”

    I think that it’s good that film makers and stage producers keep coming back to Gatbsy. It’s some kind of tribute.

    Wish that I had the chance to see the stage production. But will read Brian piece.


    Here’s the link to the Burroughs essay: