New Great Gatsby, On the Road Adaptations Revive an Old Debate: Can Great Books Make Great Movies?

Two of the great­est Amer­i­can nov­els of the 20th century–F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gats­by and Jack Ker­ouac’s On the Road–are head­ed for the big screen lat­er this year, and lit­er­ary fans are brac­ing for the worst.

Or at least that’s very much the case with Baz Luhrman­n’s 3‑D ver­sion of The Great Gats­by, star­ring Leonar­do DiCaprio as Jay Gats­by, Carey Mul­li­gan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as nar­ra­tor Nick Car­raway. The trail­er was released ear­li­er this week (see above) and the Inter­net has been buzzing. A head­line writer at the New York Dai­ly News observed that the new adap­ta­tion by the Aus­tralian film­mak­er who brought us Moulin Rouge! “won’t be your high school teacher’s F. Scott Fitzger­ald.” Over at the Wall Street Jour­nal’s “Speakeasy” blog, Lyne­ka Lit­tle described the music in the trail­er (by those Jazz Age lumi­nar­ies Kanye West, Jay‑Z and Jack White) as “awful­ly con­tem­po­rary.” But when it comes to the per­fect choice of words, the prize must go to actor James Urba­ni­ak, who said yes­ter­day on Twit­ter, “The Great Gats­by 3D: Borne back cease­less­ly into your face.”

Lit­er­ary purists are a bit more hope­ful when it comes to the first-ever film of Ker­ouac’s On the Road. In The New York Times yes­ter­day, Steve Chagol­lan described the painstak­ing research con­duct­ed by direc­tor Wal­ter Salles, best known for his 2004 film about Che Gue­vara, The Motor­cy­cle Diaries. The Brazil­ian direc­tor retraced Ker­ouac’s jour­neys across North Amer­i­ca and inter­viewed schol­ars and sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion. “I was well aware that my pas­sion for the book was not suf­fi­cient to jus­ti­fy launch­ing into an adap­ta­tion straight away,” Salles told the Times. “In fact, mak­ing the fea­ture film ceased to be my main con­cern at the time. Under­stand­ing and get­ting to know these peo­ple bet­ter became my main goal.” Still, as Chagol­lan put it, Beat afi­ciona­dos will be watch­ing the film very close­ly, “cer­tain to cast an unfor­giv­ing eye.”

There’s an old say­ing: Good books make bad movies, and vice ver­sa. But is it true? It’s not dif­fi­cult to come up with the names of a few good books that have been made into mem­o­rable movies. Phillip Noyce’s adap­ta­tion of Gra­ham Greene’s The Qui­et Amer­i­can comes to mind. So does Blake Edward­s’s film of Tru­man Capote’s Break­fast at Tiffany’s and Stan­ley Kubrick­’s film of Antho­ny Burgess’s A Clock­work Orange. It’s even pos­si­ble to think of a great film made from a lit­er­ary mas­ter­piece, as in the case of Kubrick­’s adap­ta­tion of Vladimir Nabokov’s Loli­ta. Kubrick expressed his thoughts on trans­lat­ing books into films in a 1960–1961 essay, “Words and Movies”:

It’s some­times said that a great nov­el makes a less promis­ing basis for a film than a nov­el which is mere­ly good. I don’t think that adapt­ing great nov­els presents any spe­cial prob­lems which are not involved in adapt­ing good nov­els or mediocre nov­els; except that you will be more heav­i­ly crit­i­cised if the film is bad, and you may be even if it’s good. I think almost any nov­el can be suc­cess­ful­ly adapt­ed, pro­vid­ed it is not one whose aes­thet­ic integri­ty is lost along with its length. For exam­ple, the kind of nov­el in which a great deal and vari­ety of action is absolute­ly essen­tial to the sto­ry, so that it los­es much of its point when you sub­tract heav­i­ly from the num­ber of events or their devel­op­ment. Peo­ple have asked me how it is pos­si­ble to make a film out of Loli­ta when so much of the qual­i­ty of the book depends on Nabokov’s prose style. But to take the prose style as any more than just a part of a great book is sim­ply mis­un­der­stand­ing just what a great book is. Of course, the qual­i­ty of the writ­ing is one of the ele­ments that make a nov­el great. But this qual­i­ty is a result of the qual­i­ty of the writer’s obses­sion with his sub­ject, with a theme and a con­cept and a view of life and an under­stand­ing of char­ac­ter. Style is what an artist uses to fas­ci­nate the behold­er in order to con­vey to him his feel­ings and emo­tions and thoughts. These are what have to be drama­tised, not the style. The drama­tis­ing has to find a style of its own, as it will do if it real­ly grasps the con­tent. And in doing this it will bring out anoth­er side of the struc­ture which has gone into the nov­el. It may or may not be as good as the nov­el; some­times it may in cer­tain ways be even bet­ter.

What do you think? Are you look­ing for­ward to see­ing the new Great Gats­by and On the Road films? And can you think of a great book that has been made into an equal­ly great–or even greater–movie?

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