'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 Great Gatsby' stars Leonardo DiCaprio (l.), Carey Mulligan (center), and Joel Edgerton (r.).
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Last year, hundreds of people from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Chicago flocked to see "The Great Gatsby" on the big screen. Many of the filmgoers were in their 20s and 30s, eager to catch a glimpse of Jay, Daisy, Nick and Jordan.

Never mind that the film's from the era of their grandparents or great-grandparents. Or that it was in black and white. Or that the actors and actresses, including matinee idol Alan Ladd and a fresh-faced Shelley Winters, are mostly remembered by old-timers.

This obscure version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's book drew crowds because it's a film noir, or at least adjacent to film noir. The Noir City series of annual film festivals, devoted to the rediscovery of classic movies, dug up a copy and sent it on the road. "It's a very important film that had inexplicably disappeared," said film historian and biographer Alan K. Rode.

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But is it any good? Sort of. I saw the film at the Noir City festival in San Francisco, and found it to be more interesting than captivating.

One of my favorite lines from the book ("You look so cool...," Daisy told Gatsby, "you always look so cool") was missing. The Daisy character was miscast, although Jordan was great, if not the skinny minnie I expected. And the book's plot, as you'll learn below, had an addition or two.

With some exceptions, critics don't much like any of the three surviving "Great Gatsby" movies. That goes for the 1949 version, the 1974 film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, and, yes, the new one with Leonardo DiCaprio. The Monitor's Peter Rainer calls the 2013 version "a vast tribute to conspicuous consumption" instead of a "darkling look at the American dream."

There's been one more film version of "Gatsby," a silent movie from 1926. The film is lost, and a strange little trailer that survives suggests its fate might be for the best.

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.

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.

She's multi-faceted, and it's difficult for an actress to wrap themselves around an interpretation.
 
Q: It's perhaps appropriate that Fitzgerald himself, creator of a book that's famously hard to film, didn't have any luck in the screenwriting business. What happened on that front?
 
A: He went to Hollywood and was a complete flop as a screenwriter, completely hopeless. He was a very fragile guy, and he became a massive alcoholic. He was just not in good shape and fell apart as a person.

Screenwriting is a much different and perhaps more torturous than writing a novel.
 
Q: Why do people still identify with noir, whether in classic books or classic movies?
 
A: It's timeless. You have people who are doing the wrong thing, and they know they're doing the wrong thing. But they're compelled to do it anyway.

People end up paying the price one way or another. It's like what Barbara Stanwyck says to Fred MacMurray in "Double Indemnity": "We're going to ride the trolley to the end of the line."
 
Q: That makes "Great Gatsby" sound like a noir, doesn't it?
 
A: I wouldn't list the 1949 movie as a film noir, or the book as a noir novel.

But they're definitely noir-stained.

Want to watch the 1949 version of "The Great Gatsby" for yourself? You can catch the film in several parts on YouTube. Start here.
 
For more on noir fiction, check out my previous Monitor stories in which I interviewed the screenwriter behind HBO's "Mildred Pierce," asked crime fiction authors about their favorite noir books-turned-movies, took a bus tour of James M. Cain's Los Angeles, and talked to Eddie "Czar of Noir" Muller about noir fiction.
 
I also interviewed a book editor about a long-lost Cain novel and explored the debate over what counts as a noir movie.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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