Taking the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald from page to screen is a challenge. His narration is tricky to transform to voice-over, and much of his action takes place invisibly, inside his characters' heads. Yet his stories of the Jazz Age and its aftereffects are so brilliantly cinematic that filmmakers keep trying, producing movies that reflect their own times as well as his.
Fitzgerald was prolific, driven by money as much as art. He published more than 160 short stories in addition to his novels during his early success as well as after his popularity declined. He left the film industry abundant material.
He worked in Hollywood twice, contributing to scripts for The Women, Madame Curie and Gone with the Wind. He got little recognition for his work, however; his only on-screen credit came for Three Comrades, the adaptation of a novel by Erich Maria Remarque.
The book many critics name his best, The Great Gatsby, has been filmed several times, and it will soon be in theaters again.
The Great Gatsby
A poignant portrait of an American dreamer, The Great Gatsby tells the story of self-made Gatsby's hopeless pursuit of golden Daisy Buchanan, whose voice is "full of money." As his dream girl, she symbolizes status and success. Gatsby is a criminal, but still an innocent. Trapped in a fantasy, he reinvents himself, in his imagination, as a knight worthy of a great love.
The 1926 silent version of Gatsby has been lost; only a trailer remains. A 1949 adaptation, told in flashback, stars Alan Ladd. His manly, determined Gatsby shows no trace of jazz, but is pure doomed noir.
Robert Redford played Gatsby in 1974 opposite Mia Farrow. Scriptwriters included Vladimir Nabokov, Truman Capote, Francis Ford Coppola and Phillip Roth. Though beautifully filmed and popular, some critics found it shallow. Roger Ebert wrote, "It would take about the same time to read Fitzgerald's novel as to view this movie -- and that's what I'd recommend."
The newest remake stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway. Baz Luhrmann, who directed DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet, wrote the screenplay and directs the film. This Great Gatsby debuts at Christmastime 2012, just in time for the year's Oscar consideration.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
In this vivid fantasy, a baby is born old and lives his life backward, growing younger with the passage of time. The other characters know him as an irritating nonconformist who won't fit in or behave in age-appropriate ways.
His wife says, "If you've made up your mind to be different than everybody else, I don't suppose I can stop you, but I really don't think it's very considerate." The story is a lighthearted farce, yet it leaves a reader pensive.
Onscreen, Brad Pitt plays a Benjamin Button adrift in time. He is sad, lonely, always in sight of death. Utterly alone, he cannot connect to the people around him. He finds love, but only for a moment are he and his woman in the same place at the same time.
Although a strange and lovely movie, it's not the story Fitzgerald wrote. His is a farce about a fish out of water, a nonconformist who is comically out of step with his peers. This character is always banging up against people, upsetting their expectations in school, his family and the military. The cinematic Button is a soul so tragically lost in time that he cannot relate to people enough even to clash with them.
The Last Tycoon
The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western was Fitzgerald's last novel. At 44, he died, leaving it unfinished. Critic Edmund Wilson compiled and edited it. The story was inspired by the life of studio head Irving Thalberg, who died at 37 and also echoes Fitzgerald's own decline and fall.
The 1976 film was adapted by Harold Pinter and directed by Elia Kazan. In it, Robert DeNiro plays a cool and detached tycoon. He's supported by Theresa Russell, Robert Mitchum and Jack Nicholson. New York Times critic Vincent Canby was one who gave it a generally positive review.
Fitzgerald's screen legacy
The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald's second novel, became a silent film. Tender is the Night became a film and a BBC mini-series. Bernice Bobs Her Hair is a sparkling PBS mini-series. Babylon Revisited mutated into The Last Time I Saw Paris, with Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson -- and a happy ending grafted on.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories lend themselves to adaptation with their sharp characterization and seductive nostalgia. Some versions will find an audience, but each production will find it hard to capture the author's literary genius. Regardless of anything else, though, every new version will be sure to tell as much about the year of its release as it does about Fitzgerald's lost heroes of the Jazz Age.