Whenever someone tells me that such-and-such book is ‘unfilmable’, I always wonder if they’re ignorant or just naïve. Hollywood can film absolutely anything, and judging by the impressive slate of recent adaptations, it seems pretty clear that Hollywood will film anything that remotely resembles a money-maker. (Whether the movie turns out to be a good one is a different question entirely, as bad movies can be filmed just like any other.)
It’s been a pretty ambitious time for adapters, if you take the time to list the sources they’ve been putting to screen, with varying degrees of success: Anna Karenina, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, among others. Upcoming versions of World War Z, Ender’s Game and Percy Jackson will also soon be available for your viewing pleasure.
But to a certain extent, adapters just can’t win. There will always be some executive decision that will enrage fans, and even if you try to be very faithful to the source, you might still be criticized for not making necessary changes to fit the story to film (sorry, Watchmen). Of course, people still bother with adaptations because these films generate a lot of advance curiosity simply by their nature. There’s also the less cynical explanation: the eternal human optimism that maybe this time, it’ll turn out just right.
It’s not impossible. There are definitely some great adaptations: Shawshank Redemption, The Lord of the Rings (I’ll forgive the Faramir issue), To Kill a Mockingbird, and so on. Some films, like Psycho and The Godfather, are so good that they’re better than their source material. Others, like Kubrick’s Lolita, are probably better seen as interesting interpretations of a difficult book, works in their own right, rather than just outright film versions. These quality adaptations manage to capture the essence of the original while being unafraid of making the changes necessary to put a novel on the screen. And the fans (usually) rejoice.
However, as we all know, there are also some absolutely terrible movie adaptations. I still remember going to see the film version of The Golden Compass and being so disappointed by its complete evisceration of everything I found fascinating about the original. And there are worse examples out there. Mostly, it all goes back to Hollywood thinking that the movie needs to be more ‘family-friendly,’ toy-oriented, or whatever else in order to expand the audience.
The big question of the present is: which way will Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby swing? Critical opinion is divided. While I’m not a fan of Luhrmann’s movies, I have to admit that the worst thing an adaptation of Gatsby could be is stultifying, and that is definitely not Luhrmann’s style. He seems to be respectful of the source material, but bold enough to innovate when necessary, which is an encouraging sign. On the other hand, many people (myself included) love Gatsby for the beauty and subtlety of Fitzgerald’s prose. This aspect probably won’t be so well represented by Lurhmann’s glitzy vision.
But there’s no denying that Gatsby is ripe for Hollywood treatment, especially given the forgettable results of previous attempts. It’s an American icon, a staple of our high school English curricula, etc. etc. This is all cultural capital that Luhrmann and others have unabashedly taken advantage of- Tiffany and Co., Brooks Brothers, and others have jumped on the Jazz Age bandwagon through ubiquitous advertising. Fitzgerald was an ad-man himself, so he might have been all right with this cottage industry. As for me, all I can think of this that extraordinarily bizarre moment when Daisy is reduced to tears by Gatsby’s shirts. Wasn’t that not supposed to be a desirable moment in the book?
Oh well, the clothes really do look good. And the book lives on, as it always will.
HuffPost conversation about movie adaptations
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