Adapting a novel into a film is a tricky business. Even trickier if that book is one that might lay claim to the title of “Great American Novel,” as is The Great Gatsby. Arriving in theaters this weekend in 3D and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular Jay Gatsby (isn’t it the role he was born to play?) and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby (2013) sees Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) bring his flash and hyperkinetic style to the wild parties of West Egg in the Roaring Twenties. It’s easy to see where this could go wrong: Gatsby is a staple of high school American lit, a book that seemingly everyone has an opinion on. Its stature means that any adaptation is going to be placed under intense scrutiny from critics and fans.
This isn’t the first time Gatsby has been adapted, and likely won’t be the last. The 1974 adaptation starring Robert Redford has been accused of being a lifeless, if faithful, take on the novel. “Lifeless” is certainly one criticism that is unlikely to be leveled at Luhrmann’s film, but its success with critics seems to be mixed. What is it that makes a good adaptation? Simply turning a book into a screenplay word-for-word isn’t quite right, but make the link to the adapted work too tenuous and the question becomes “What’s the point?” Why is it that books are so hard to adapt to the satisfaction of critics and audiences?
I’ll take a stab at answering that question, but I want to ask a couple of questions about the goals of adaptation and the promises that an adaptation makes to its various audiences. The first thing to get out of the way is that hoary old notion that “the book is always better.” If the purpose of revisiting a work in another medium is to merely to recreate the experience of reading the book, why bother? In my opinion, fidelity is a dubious rationale for an adaptation. Filmmakers should, as good readers of the source, bring something new to the table and make connections in the new context that cinema offers, transforming the work to cinema’s specific capabilities. Or a filmmaker can take a novel as a point of departure, borrowing some aspects and adding others.
Of course fans of novels are notoriously difficult to please. It seems that they are happiest with the most literal minded adaptations. The Harry Potter franchise is a good example: the fans were quite happy with Chris Columbus’s faithful first two films, while taking issue with some of the ways Alfonso Cuarón adapted the source material in the third film (it’s the lowest-grossing film of the franchise). But Columbus’ films dragged at times in their slavishness, while Cuarón injected a new vision and arguably captured the emotional tenor of the novel better. An adaptation must make the best use of the medium. The inherently visual nature of cinema isn’t always suited to loads of exposition.
If a film adaptation is merely an extension of the novel and has no life of its own, those who come to it as a film first and foremost may see it as a failure. Fans of a novel on the other hand want the experience of seeing their favorite characters and scenes recreated on the big screen. It’s a fine balance for a filmmaker to achieve. Perhaps it’s not so much that turning books into movies doesn’t work, but that with audiences of films and fans of books coming to an adaptation with cross-purposes and conflicting agendas, it is impossible to please everyone.