May 25, 2013

Musings on The Great Gatsby

With the new Gatsby movie now out, I've been thinking about the adaptations that came before it.  1974’s Great Gatsby is the most remembered adaptation. The 1949 one isn’t remembered as much, and it’s too early to know how long Baz Luhrmann’s version will last in the public’s consciousness. The very first Gatsby adaptation however, is a lost film. It was a 1926 silent Paramount and the critics weren’t impressed. It starred Lois Wilson, Warner Baxter, Neil Hamilton, and the great William Powell. All that’s left of the film is the trailer. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald reportedly hated it, and didn’t even watch until the end. Zelda wrote to their daughter Scottie: “We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

Though Fitzgerald would eventually try in vain to make it as a screenwriter, he didn’t write Gatsby’s screenplay. The silent film was based on the stage play written by Owen Davis. And considering The Great Gatsby’s transition from book to stage to screen, I consider adaptations and interpretations. I wonder how the play with all its dialogue translated to in a silent film. Nick Carraway’s narration, and the dialogue is so important. I can’t imagine Gatsby being boiled down to title cards, but apparently the film was criticized for having too many title cards.

The trouble with adapting Gatsby for the big screen is that there’s barely a plot. It was never intended to be performed. But then, Fitzgerald reportedly ‘wrote for the ear.’ He read each line out loud, so maybe, on a subconscious level he did sort of imagine it being performed. And it wasn’t that he didn’t have any experience with writing for performance. Fitzgerald had directed plays during his time at Princeton. He wrote a failed play, The Vegetable in 1923. But it seems he never could make a success out of that sort of writing.

There’s a sort of parallel to Gatsby’s early failure to translate on the screen, and Fitzgerald’s failure to become a successful screenwriter. His first foray into screenwriting in 1927 was a disaster. During that time in Hollywood, he worked on the screenplay of a flapper film called Lipstick that never got made. He reportedly had a difficult time trying to channel his talent into writing useable screenplays. Producer Joseph Mankiewicz would later say that Fitzgerald wrote literary novelistic dialogue “that lacked all the qualities required for screen dialogue.” Screenwriting was essentially an assembly line – several writers tinkered on the same script. And Fitzgerald never could accept that screenplays had nothing to do with what he wanted.

When it was originally published in 1925, The Great Gatsby failed. And though writers like T.S. Eliot and Edith Wharton praised his work, Fitzgerald never saw the book’s success in his lifetime. It only became popular in the early 1950s. Today, Gatsby sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year. And with the new film, it will probably end up being one of the top-selling books of the year in the United States.

Further Reading
"Slow Fade: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood" The New Yorker 16 Nov. 2009 by Arthur Krystal

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