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How Do Film Adaptations of Books, Such As ‘The Great Gatsby’, Affect an Author’s Literary Status?

You may have heard there’s a new movie of The Great Gatsby. Directed by Baz Luhrmann in 3D, it’s opening at the Cannes Film Festival with much hoopla. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the mysterious social climber Jay Gatsby, with Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life.

Most surprising is that Bollywood superstar and ’70s action icon Amitabh Bhachhan appears in a minor role as the disreputable Meyer Wolfsheim. Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s slim but glittering novel of the Jazz Age, short and simple enough to become a classroom classic, the new film (just one in a string of film and stage adaptations) is accompanied by tie-in Gatsby Collections at Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s. (Hmm, who might be recruited for a tie-in to a William Faulkner movie? Piggly Wiggly, perhaps?)

This will be the fifth film version of the novel, a story which has been adapted often but never greatly. And this turns my thoughts to the phenomenon of turning novels into movies. Many people assert axiomatically that “the book is always better,” while others have suggested that bad books make good movies and good books make bad movies. Neither rule is ironclad or even very useful, for I’ve never found any pattern between how good is a novel and how good is the movie of the same name. Rather than consider how good is a film adaptation (or how faithful, a separate issue), I’m interested in what difference a movie makes to the continued life of the book.

Fiction Catalog: A Literary Foxtrot

I’ve noticed that successful movies tend to cause novels to remain in print or be considered interesting and worthwhile, while novels unsupported by successful movies tend to disappear. My reason for thinking so is the Fiction Catalog, a standard reference book for libraries. A new cumulative volume every half-decade compiles what a panel of librarians think is useful for general fiction collections. It amounts to a de facto canon based largely upon what circulates.

I collect editions of Fiction Catalog going back to the ’40s, and I suppose it tells you something about me that I spend free time leafing through them and thinking about this process. I’m fascinated by what’s in and what drops out, issue-to-issue. For example, one book that perversely remains listed is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a romantic fantasy by R.A. Dick (aka Josephine Leslie), that’s been out of print for decades and is quite expensive to acquire. Why does it keep its place in Fiction Catalog while most other ’40s novels, including more significant ones, are gone? I believe it’s because the great movie version has remained available on video.

The 15th Edition of Fiction Catalog (2006) also lists Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons. This prolific and acclaimed author wrote many other books, so why are these his only legacy in this reference book? True, the latter title won a Pulitzer Prize, but many other winners aren’t listed. The answer can only be that both yielded enduring movies that are still easily available. In his lifetime, his most popular books were humorous tales of the boy Penrod and his dog Sam. Films were made of these stories, but none of those movies entered the pantheon of immortal classics, although at least one, the Doris Day vehicle On Moonlight Bay, is wonderful.

Then there’s another prolific and popular writer, Robert Nathan, whose delicate time-travel romance Portrait of Jennie became one of the great films of the ’40s. Really, if you haven’t seen this movie, drop everything right now and hop to it; you’ll never see Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones looking better. Sure enough, that novel is listed in Fiction Catalog, but you’ll find none of his others, such as The Bishop’s Wife, which became a more ordinary movie.

What of the bestselling Rafael Sabatini, author of many a rip-roaring swashbuckler? By no coincidence, he’s represented by the two titles that yielded the biggest hits for Hollywood: Captain Blood and Scaramouche.

And so it goes as we leaf through the pages, encountering the source of one classic film after another. A modest selection includes William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, James Leo Herlihy’s Midnight Cowboy (but not All Fall Down, a film that is largely forgotten), Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong, W.R. Burnett’s The Asphalt Jungle, Eugene Burdick’s Fail Safe, Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor and sequels (but not, oddly, The Manchurian Candidate), James Dickey’s Deliverance, Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver, William E. Barrett’s The Lillies of the Field, and Richard Hooker’s MASH.

For some of these entries, I can come up with no explanation beyond the existence of a famous movie that anchors their cultural familiarity, and therefore their library shelf-life. I’m not knocking any of these titles, but clearly many equally interesting books (sometimes by the same authors) are omitted that don’t happen to have a great movie attached. Of course, we can also think of great films whose source novels are omitted (e.g., Charles Webb’s The Graduate, Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City), just as we can find inclusions with a mediocre movie (e.g., Ross Lockridge’s Raintree County), while some authors (e.g. Charles Portis, Mario Puzo) have a mix of movie and non-movie titles.

Still, the implication of these listings is that successful movies affect literary longevity. Browsers among shelves I see a title, and something clicks: I remember that movie, it was good, therefore, the book must be interesting. So the book still circulates.

The ideal synergy was achieved with To Kill a Mockingbird, whose equally beloved book and film incarnations reinforce each other in classrooms to this day. The near-contender is the Pulitzer-to-Oscar whiplash of Gone with the Wind — another Southern novel by a woman, though the 20 years between Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee seems to mark a seismic cultural shift.

We Don’t Need No Stinking Movies

Let’s corral evidence for the opposite contention: that a movie adaptation of a book makes no difference in the long-lasting popularity of the book. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review polled 125 writers, critics, and editors (that is, literary types) to name the best American fiction since 1980. The top five were Toni Morrison’s Beloved (15 votes), Don Delillo’s Underworld (11 votes), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (8 votes), John Updike’s Rabbit quartet (8 votes), and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (7 votes). Of these, Beloved yielded a worthy movie that tanked, and Rabbit, Run a forgettable movie that’s forgotten.

The following received multiple votes: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale, Delillo’s White Noise and Libra, McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Raymond Carver’s story collection Where I’m Calling From, Tim O’Brien’s collection The Things They Carried, Norman Rush’s Mating, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Richard Ford’s Independence Day, Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, and Roth’s The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theatre, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. Good on ya, Phil.

Of these, Housekeeping, Jesus’ Son and The Human Stain have good movies, but not many people have seen or heard of them. The only one that had a “big” movie is one of McCarthy’s Border titles (All the Pretty Horses). Ford’s novel isn’t the basis for the alien invasion movie, and I avoid Robert Altman’s Carver movie Short Cuts as problematic. (Fun fact: Although Dunces has so far defeated filming, such that Steven Soderbergh has claimed there’s a curse on the project, there’s an excellent movie of Toole’s much obscurer The Neon Bible. Check it out!)

Other movies may yet be made of these books, but that’s beside the point here. In other words, it’s fair to state that none of these titles depends on movies for what canonical stature they claim. This also tends to be true for older classics, although I feel compelled to state for the record that the silent version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, with Lillian Gish, has a stark visual intensity, and that Faulkner inspired two superb movies amid the dreary ones: Intruder in the Dust (with the excellent Juano Hernandez) and Tomorrow (with Robert Duvall).

The record is relatively unimpressive when we consider such habitual contenders for Great American Novel as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby.

All have been filmed several times, testifying to the persistence of their literary rep, although only Moby Dick comes close to yielding a very fine movie in John Huston’s version scripted by Ray Bradbury–as long as you’re not expecting much beyond the bones: Ahab has one leg, whale smash (spoiler!). It does have a beautiful cameo by Orson Welles, who filmed The Magnificent Ambersons and half-filmed Don Quixote — ah, but we’ll be here all day if we start discussing movies of non-American novels.

It’s ironic that Moby Dick is considered to be the least filmable of the three Great American Novels we mentioned, but Huston was consistently the most sensitive and diverse adaptor of pages to the screen. He tackled everything from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye to Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.

Too bad he never did The Great Gatsby. Jack Clayton’s lavish 1974 version with Robert Redford is generally considered watchable. It’s careful enough to be useful for schools as it depicts flappers doing the Charleston. The 1926 silent version is lost, alas, and the 1949 version with Alan Ladd has been tied up in legal problems for decades–so imagine my astonishment at discovering someone’s put it on Youtube!

A Less Than Great Gatsby

The 1949 film opens with Nick Carraway (Macdonald Carey) and Jordan Baker (Ruth Hussey) standing by Gatsby’s grave 20 years after the events they’re about to recall in flashback. They’re now married, which is very interesting, because the rest of the movie will depict her as unscrupulous and him as a stick-in-the-mud.

The actual story is dotted with fabricated flashbacks, as if this is Citizen Kane, with one flashback even narrated by a man at a piano. The ivory-tickler is the minor character of Klipspringer (little Elisha Cook Jr., refugee from a thousand noirs), entrusted with the burden of explaining not only Gatsby’s motives but even symbolism. He has the gall to point out that the large optometrist’s sign looks like God watching us.

The flashbacks tell us more about Gatsby than Fitzgerald ever knew, beginning with a screaming sequence of gangsters firing at each from moving cars. One of them is Gatsby, shooting a man in a karmic forecast of the film’s end. Others cover an elaborate apprenticeship under the invented characters of a Mephistophelian millionaire and his wife, the beginning of Gatsby’s love for Daisy, and his disappointment as a returning veteran of WWI. It’s a lot of backstory.

Alan Ladd is interestingly earnest as well as handsome as Gatsby, while Betty Field is interestingly vacuous and wishy-washy as Daisy. Also interesting are the supporting trio of Daisy’s unpleasant and philandering husband Tom (Barry Sullivan), the hapless Wilson (Howard Da Silva), and his no-good wife Myrtle (Shelley Winters in yet another of her repertoire of Women Who Must Be Killed). The book’s two violent scenes are handled in a surprisingly direct manner. Gatsby’s shooting is shockingly graphic for 1949, and Nick is now a witness to the event. Less well-handled is the car accident, which uses what seems to be unconvincing animation and image-pasting for its blunt effect. The surprise here is that they actually tried to depict this without a discreet looking away.

The casual corruption of the Buchanans and their milieu is very much part of the film, although Gatsby’s victimization as part of its collateral damage is partly obscured by the flashbacks to his own history. The last we see of the Buchanans, Daisy swears she’ll leave Tom if anything happens to Gatsby. So does she? We never know. At their graveside dialogue, Nick and Jordan never say anything like “Remember how Daisy divorced Tom and went to jail and he married his secretary?” or “Remember how they went to Europe and became alcoholics in Spain?” or “Who’d have guessed Tom would become a Senator?”

This is produced and co-written by Richard Maibaum, a successful playwright turned Hollywood producer and writer whose other scripts include Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, which can be read as a vaguely Gatsby-esque analysis of the American Dream as nightmare, and most of the James Bond movies through License to Kill which embody the fantasy of living the manly life. His co-writer is Cyril Hume, whose credits include Tarzan the Ape Man and Forbidden Planet.

Director Elliott Nugent here uses an interesting, economical approach to staging across space and gliding his camera towards the actors in busy scenes, reminiscent of Edmund Goulding without being as elaborate. Primarily a comedy director, his big successes as a director were The Male Animal, based on his own hit play, the Danny Kaye film Up in Arms, and the Bob Hope vehicles The Cat and the Canary and My Favorite Brunette.

I repeat that this movie is fascinating, and it might even seem better if Youtube’s visual quality weren’t so bad, for there’s nothing wrong with the print. As for the 1974 version, it’s been freshly issued on Blu-Ray to polish up the lovingly designed visual dazzle that remains its primary attraction along with Nelson Riddle’s Oscar-winning score. It’s always interesting to see Bruce Dern, Karen Black, and Mia Farrow, and Howard Da Silva (Wilson in 1949) shows up in a minor role. Film buffs will forever wonder what it might have been like if writer Francis Ford Coppola had also directed it.

Now comes Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby, which I predict will annoy and disappoint lots of people until future critics find it interesting. Whatever happens with the film, it’s safe to say the novel’s place on college reading lists and library shelves will continue obliviously, and the film will even move a few more units of Fitzgerald, or cause some more e-reader downloads.

After this survey, I’m forced to conclude that the titles nearest the top of the canon inspire movies more than movies inspire the canon, but it’s in the vast middle area of mainstream bestsellers and prize-winners that excellent movies have a measurable impact on literary lifespans. Authors, if you can’t be sure of spitting out a great novel, at least move heaven and earth to sell your work to Hollywood. If they don’t mess it up, your actuarial tables increase by a good third.