L ess than a year after “The Great Gatsby” was published in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald was paid $16,666 for the film rights. “Come and see it all!” beckons the trailer for the silent film. “And enjoy the entertainment thrill of your life!”
It is the only movie adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” — five in all, including the latest, from Baz Luhrmann — that was made at a time when bobbed hair was still the height of fashion.
No known copies of the original 1926 movie exist today. It’s probably just as well. Fitzgerald apparently hated it. An oft-cited letter from wife Zelda left little to the imagination: “We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”
Doesn’t that sum up every disappointing experience watching a favorite book transmuted into something unrecognizable on screen? And yet, it can be thrilling when an adaptation really does capture something essential about an author’s work. Some movies are just better than their books.
With the latest version of “Gatsby” upon us, we polled some of today’s top authors — novelists and non-fiction writers alike — about Hollywood’s track record with book-to-movie adaptations.
To avoid putting anyone in a potentially awkward situation, we asked that each author talk about movies based on works other than their own.
His novels include “Mystic River,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “Shutter Island,” each of which have been adapted into feature films.
Favorite: “‘Jaws’ and ‘The Godfather’ both achieve the near-impossible in that they’re better than the books they’re based on. ‘Jaws,’ in particular, is so much richer, the characters so much better drawn, and the tension so much more taut.
Least favorite: “I can’t stand ‘Clockers,’ because the book is such a masterpiece and the film is so far off the mark. It’s the ham-handed work of an increasingly unsubtle filmmaker (Spike Lee) who had zero grasp of the tone and subject matter of the book he was adapting.”