Recently I reread Fitzgerald’s magnum opus The Great Gatsby in preparation for the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film adaptation to be released in cinemas later this week. This reading was unique however, in the sense that, from the start, those familiar images and sounds and styles in my mind were bombarded by a new motif. The media blitz to advertise the film has rapidly grown to unprecedented (or Gatsby-esque) proportions, incorporating everything from the customary television and radio spots to extravagant Gatsby inspired lines of suits and diamonds from brand manufacturers. I do not mean to say that the images in my mind were somehow pristine and virginal, never influenced. When I see Jay Gatsby in the ether, the man is not exactly Robert Redford (the star of the Gatsby film with which I grew up) because I am not the sort of reader to so easily surrender my autonomous imagination to the whims of a clever filmmaker — but perhaps an uncle Redford from which Robert takes a distinct likeness…. Certainly, the new leading man — the new Gatsby — will have a similar impression on future readers, who will inevitably come to know the monumental novel only after seeing the film. I had to take a moment and think about this—what is the nature of this modern relationship between film and literature? How does it affect the literary canon? Is it required — does a film have to be made for a novel to have any longevity in the consciousness of the masses?
For answers to these questions and some insight into the Film-Literature relationship I reached out to Michael Barrett, movie critic for the San Antonio Express News and card-carrying member of the local Literati.
A brief history of Gatsby on film:
The Great Gatsby was filmed silent in 1926 (now a lost film for the Lost Generation), then in the postwar funk of 1949 with Alan Ladd (a film invisible for decades due to legal issues, yet recently uploaded onto Youtube!), then most lavishly in 1974 with Robert Redford. This is the version most people have seen, and it’s generally agreed to be watchable without setting the screen on fire. A TV movie followed in 2000, and now we’re getting Baz Luhrmann’s version. It’s in 3D and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire and, amazingly, Indian superstar and 70s action hero Amitabh Bhachhan as Meyer Wolfsheim.
Film and Literature:
A consummation devoutly to be wished: a great novel becomes a great movie. The triumphant example is To Kill a Mockingbird, a book and film equally beloved, continually reinforcing each other in classrooms. Before that, the most meticulously filmed novel was the thunderously successful Pulitzer-to-Oscar hat-trick of Gone with the Wind. It’s interesting that both books were by Southern women, although the 20 years from Margaret Mitchell to Harper Lee denotes a seismic cultural shift.
Ads used to say “You’ve read the book. Now see the movie!” The opposite scenario is more likely, for surely most of Mitchell’s modern readers came to her book only after watching the movie. In this way, movies tend to shore up and even expand the canon of books that continue to find readers.
I’ve noticed this phenomenon by collecting the many editions of Fiction Catalog, a library reference that lists books considered worth keeping on the shelves. A panel of experts found that they still circulate, and the only explanation I can provide for why some titles continue to be listed while others drop out is that they’re associated with popular movies.
Thus the 15th Edition (2006) still lists The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R.A. Dick (aka Josephine Leslie), out of print for decades and quite expensive. Surely it’s no better than many of its 1940s contemporaries whose listings have vanished, but hey, the lovely movie is still on video. Why is the prolific Booth Tarkington represented only by Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons, or the equally prolific Robert Nathan by Portrait of Jennie? It’s clearly because the movies are magnificent.
Leafing through, we find one classic movie title after another, often the sole representative of its authors’ career: The Exorcist (William Peter Blatty), Midnight Cowboy (James Leo Herlihy), The World of Suzie Wong (Richard Mason), The Asphalt Jungle (W.R. Burnett), Failsafe (Eugene Burdick), Anthony Adverse (Hervey Allen), MASH (Richard Hooker), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (Sloan Wilson). Does anyone really need to read Hooker’s MASH because it was a movie and TV show? No, but apparently people do.
But now let’s get more exclusive, more high-end. Consider the list constructed in 2006 when the New York Times Book Review got 125 literary types to declare the best American work of the last 25 years. The top five were Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Don Delillo’s Underworld, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Updike’s Rabbit quartet, and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Of these, Beloved yielded an interesting movie that tanked, and Rabbit Run a forgettable movie that’s forgotten. Clearly the movies have done nothing for these, although they still might.
And movies have really done nothing for the older canonical titles of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Of three big contenders for Great American Novel– Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby — each have been filmed several times, yet never “greatly”. (John Huston’s Moby Dick is very good on its own terms, though ironically it’s the most unfilmable book of the three). I guess Hollywood supports them in that it keeps trying. The repeated attempts verify their established canonical status but probably do little else for these novels. Except remind a lot of people that they need to get around to them.
According to Wikipedia, there are tie-in Gatsby Collections at Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s. (One wonders who would tie in a Faulkner Collection? Piggly Wiggly?) I feel comfortable predicting that the movie will annoy and disappoint a lot of people, and that it will be interesting. I can’t predict how many units of Fitzgerald will fly off the shelves.