Once upon a time, director Howard Hawks told his pal,
Ernest Hemingway, that he could make a good film
out of his worst novel. Hemingway, a man of towering
ego, claimed he didn’t have “a worst novel,” but
after a lot of jousting, he named “To Have and Have
In fact, Hawks didn’t simply make a good film out of
a bad novel,and it was a profoundly bad novel, he
made a classic with help from the great novelist
William Faulkner, a fine screenwriter Jules Furthman,
singer-songwriter Hoagy Carmichael and, of course,
Bogart and Bacall. The Hawks version used very little
of the book.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “ The Great Gatsby,” is The
One and Only Great American Novel. It was published
in the 1920s and has never been surpassed – on paper
or film. It has been filmed six times – never en-
tirely successfully. In 1926, a silent movie of a
stage play, starring Warner Baxter, Lois Wilson and
William Powell, was made. According to Wikopedia,
reviews suggest that it may have been the most faith-
ful adaptation, but all that exists today is the
In 1949, Elliott Nugent made the first Gatsby talkie,
with Alan Ladd, Betty Field and Shelley Winters.
For copyright reasons, it is not “readily available
now,” but I saw it some years ago, and it was adequate.
In 1974, Jack Clayton directed Francis Ford Coppola’s
Gatsby script with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Sam
Waterston, and Bruce Dern. It got very mixed reviews,
but was as close as anyone has come to faithfully trans-
lating the book into a film.
In 2000, Robert Markowitz directed a TV verson with Toby
Stevens, Paul Rudd and Mia Sorvino.
And now Baz Luhrmann’s version, with Leonardo DiCaprio,
Toby Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is set to open on May
10. Its release has been delayed a year – not a good sign.
Sony Pictures withdrew some time ago, citing an explod-
ing budget – not a good sign either. .
Luhrman came to fame with a rowdy, over-ripe spectacle,
“Moulin Rouge,” then he did a version of “Romeo and
Juliet” with DiCaprio and Clare Danes, and managed to
bury Shakespeare. He followed that with “Australia,”
According to a story in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times,
when Luhrmann “decided to bring ‘Gatsby’ to the screen
he and his creative team went on the filmmaking equiva-
ent of an anthropological dig. The goal: unearth what
was left unsaid in Fitzgerald’s slender tale of Jay
Gatsby, a millionaire bootlegger, and his unrequited
love for a married socialite…
What was “left unsaid?” Nothing. Fitzgerald said pre-
cisely what he meant to say. The Times story, by John
Horn, went on to say, “… Luhrmann recognized the danger
of missing ‘Gatsby’s’ emotional forest for all of the
novel’s expositional trees. So he, co-screenwriter
Craig Pearce and a cast headed by Leonardo DiCaprio
(who plays Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy) and Tobey
Maguire (narrator Nick Carraway) looked for clues
wherever they could be found — and then came to their
own storytelling conclusions….”
“Their own story-telling conclusions?” It’s impossible
to imagine that anyone would be more interested in the
conclusions than Fitzgerald’s conclusions.
The Times noted, “When the source material left some
questions unanswered, Luhrmann followed his own hunches.
A case in point: The novel suggests that Gatsby, a former
soldier, penned a heartbreaking letter to Daisy on her
wedding day. The book never reveals the contents, but its
impact on Daisy is profound.
When The Great American Novel leaves “some questions un-
answered,” only a fool or an egomaniac would “follow
his own hunches.”
The Times writer actually buys Luhrmann’s bizarre logic.
“Luhrmann and his team decided that the missive was
Gatsby’s confession of undying love in a relationship
doomed by his poverty and set out his thoughts to Daisy
‘You see my uniform hid the truth that I was poor,’
the letter reads in the film’s imagination, its lines
meticulously inked with a turn-of-the-century fountain
pen on vintage paper (in handwriting that mimicked
Fitzgerald’s, no less).
“The full note never appears on screen, but the fact
that Luhrmann felt compelled to create it in such detail
speaks to the director’s attention to detail and the
intricacies of his creative embellishments.” No, it
doesn’t. It speaks to the director’s need to put his
own fingerprints on The Great American Novel, and,
in the doing, destroy it.
According to the Times story, Luhrmann said, “I have
one duty — to the best of my ability to captain the
storytelling team, and to tell and reveal the story…
I set out to reveal ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but I also
set out to do a movie of it…”
No! It is not his duty to “reveal” the story, it is his
sole duty when filming The Great American Novel to
render it faithfully on film. Nothing more. Nothing
less. The story’s there. All of it.
The Times story continues, “While Gatsby’s famous bashes
are even more excessive in Luhrmann’s imagination than
in the novel, with fireworks choreographed to Gershwin’s
‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ the director said he labored to keep
the story intimate and immersive.”
Fireworks choreographed to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue?”
That’s sounds more like a showoff than a showman. .
DeCaprio now seems to play nothing but icons. Scorcese
miscast him as Howard Hughes. Luhrmann miscast him as
Romeo. Clint Eastwood miscast him as J. Edgar Hoover.
And now Luhrmann has miscast him again – as Gatsby.
Hughes, Romeo, Hoover and Gatsby haven’t even a vague
resemblance to each other and DiCaprio doesn’t look
like any of them. Indeed, these days he looks more
like the vaguely familiar man at the next table in
the Border Grill than himself.
Luhrmann told the Times that criticism is inevitable
whenever you touch a hallowed text, be it by Shakes-
peare or Fitzgerald. “If you go near anything, you
are going to be tarred and feathered,” he said.
Wrong again. To take on The Great American Novel, a
wholly hallowed text, and attempt to put your brand
on it is a fool’s game. It can only end badly.
A while ago, the New York Times reported that “The
Great Gatsby” was being used in certain college courses
as a manual for success. I wondered what Fitzgerald
would think of the news.
He would smile wryly, I thought, but he wouldn’t be
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic
future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded
us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run
faster, stretch out our arms further…and one fine morning —-
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back
ceaselessly into the past.”
–F. Scott Fitzgerald, THE GREAT GATSBY (1925), final two