'The Great Gatsby': Why is it so hard to adapt for the big screen?
Noir guru Alan Rode ponders the challenges of filming the masterpiece.
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The saga of the book and the movies raise questions about noir, the art of turning books into films, and the censorious world of 1940s Hollywood For answers, I turned to Rode, who will host the annual noir festival next week in Palm Springs, Calif. That's where he presented the 1949 "Gatsby" last year.
Q: The book, a mainstay of American high-school classrooms for decades, wasn't always hugely popular. How did it get rediscovered?
A: By 1942, nobody thought about "The Great Gatsby" or cared about it. Fitzgerald's death in 1940 got a mention, and that was it.
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Then everyone went off to war. One of the things they did was print all of these paperback books, which they called "pocket books." Thousands of them went overseas, and soldiers away from home read "The Great Gatsby." It made them nostalgic for the America they'd seen or heard about when they grew up.
Q: Despite the book's popularity, the 1949 movie almost didn't get made. What was the problem?
A: Hollywood's Production Code made it difficult to film anything that was frank about adultery, sex and so forth. If someone committed a crime, they had to be punished for it.
This came about when Hollywood was deathly afraid that the government would come in and regulate the movie industry. So they said they'd police themselves.
The censors rejected the first draft of the film and four subsequent screenplays. At one point, Joseph Breen, the head censor of Hollywood, told Paramount, Hey, just forget about it, there shouldn't be any thought about making "The Great Gatsby" into a movie. It's too hard because of the sex and adultery.
Q: Were there other issues with the plot?
A: Fitzgerald represented everything that the censors hated: Unpunished murder, illicit sex, extramarital affairs, lots of drinking, and a low morale tone. A culture of unbridled avarice, a bacchanal in Long Island.
The characters carry on, but they're respectable. I think that's what really bothered the powers that be.
To use the analogy of Monopoly, they weren't living on Mediterranean Avenue or Baltic Avenue. They were on Park Place and Broadway, and that didn't set right. It made rich people look immoral and low, grasping and greedy. That added to the offensiveness.
Q: What did the filmmakers do to make the movie acceptable to the censors?
A: They removed a suicide and added a whole scene in the beginning at a graveyard where [Nick and Jordan] sum up how they really liked Jay Gatsby, but this is what happens to people who lead the life that he led.
There had to be this speech that said this is the result of a misspent life. None of this was in the book.
Q: What's a major challenge for filmmakers who want to convert the book to the screen?
A: The character of Daisy is a very difficult part. Her character is ambiguous: she's somebody who's rich, who's staying with somebody who's married that she kind of loves. But she's in love with Jay Gatsby. Yet she can't quite commit to it. You don't know whether she's frivolous or sincere.