Filming Fiction: 'Gatsby', 'Catcher' and the Novelistic Novel

The Great Gatsby, 2012 © Warner Bros. Pictures

As I watched the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s highly-anticipated adaptation of The Great Gatsby last week I felt curiosity more than anything; curiosity, then uncertainty, then a tiny bit of disinterest. And as I watched it a few more times I grew a bit more excited, a bit more willing to pursue the idea of Gatsby on the screen, Gatsby through the eyes of a director and a writer and an actor – people other than Nick Carraway (the novel’s narrator) and Fitzgerald (you already know him). For me, this adaptation hits home in a unique way, as if the story of Gatsby, Daisy, West Egg and East Egg, of the bay and the lights and the parties and the "moths among the whispering and the champagne and the stars" are all being plucked from the pages for the very first time. As much as I’m a fan of the novel, I haven’t acquainted myself with the previous adaptations too often; Gatsby to me has always been a world made of style and emotion and lost souls stamped on the stark vastness of paper pages. I thought about that – why have I never seen Robert Redford as Gatsby, isn’t it one of the cinematic portrayals everyone calls on now and then? – and I realized, I keep The Great Gatsby solidified on paper and bound by a book because that’s where I’m most at home with the story. That’s where it’s most comfortable for me. When we fall in love with a novel we have a tendency to get a little overtly sentimental and we do silly things, like locking it away in the library of our minds – the library of books – because we think taking the story and the characters and the feeling from the book and putting it all on the screen will bring about a result of incompleteness so acute that we’ll simply never recover. Thinking through all of this – and some of it was my feeling, but some of it was also considering how passionate others are about such books – it got me thinking about the rather infamous letter J.D. Salinger wrote in which he, in his way, explains why he refuses to sell the rights to The Catcher in the Rye. I think a lot of what he wrote reflects on some of my feelings about The Great Gatsby and how, seeing it on the screen, I feel like I’m letting go of a certain magic that comes from words, words, words, and the indescribable magic of a book. These are, as Salinger said, the novelistic novels.

"I keep saying this and nobody seems to agree, but The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade 'scenes' – only a fool would deny that – but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons – in a word, his thoughts. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique. True, if the separation is forcibly made, there is enough material left over for something called Exciting (or maybe just Interesting) Evening in the Theater. But I find that idea if not odious, at least odious enough to keep me from selling the rights." - J.D. Salinger in a letter to a producer; July 19, 1957

The Great Gatsby, Toby Stephens My first experience seeing Gatsby on the screen.

Along my path of wanting-to-be-a-writer I thought, a very long time ago, that I might like to write films. I think I even started one. I don’t know if it survived the years, but during that time I thought about how so much of what we see in the cinema is an adaptation – if not of a book, then of another movie or a true story. I thought it was unoriginal, still do to a degree, but I realized one writer (if he’s passionate about what he’s doing) has no easier job than the next writer. I can only imagine how much more goes into adapting a book for the screen than the methodical task of fitting an entire book’s centric plot into two hours of film time. Writers, I certainly hope, appreciate the writing of others. In its turn, The Great Gatsby has seemed to do alright for itself in its adaptations. (I should add that Gatsby rings true of the traits of a novelistic novel, to me, in the imagery drawn so distinctly from its narrative, which is why I felt it related to what Salinger had to say.) Catcher has yet to see a successful attempt (the only film adaptation we have of Salinger's work is “My Foolish Heart”, which was a botched-up retelling of the short story Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut). I wonder, if (or when) Catcher makes its cinematic debut, will it do alright for itself in the way that Gatsby has – with those of us silly sentimentalists still clinging to the pages of a book – or will Salinger be proven right in his defense of its need to remain a work of literature? Is there really such a thing as a strictly novelistic novel, or is that another sentiment manifested by the ones who refuse to let go of the words on the page?

What are your thoughts on the latest reimagining of Fitzgerald's classic? Of course, I know the novel isn't universally adored (what novel is?) so here's another question for you -- if you detested your experience with the book, are you still planning to see the adaptation? And one more, because I'm curious: does anybody else have what they would call a Novelistic Novel, one that they can just never quite see being reinterpreted in another medium?