It seems, no novel has been adapted to the screen more times than The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work has been filmed five times, and is again, in production. Notable versions include a 1926 silent film starring Warner Baxter and a very young William Powell; a 1949 Golden Age motion picture with Alan Ladd and Shelly Winters; and arguably, the most popular adaptation in 1974, featuring Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Sam Waterston, and a script by Francis Ford Coppola. The upcoming epic will star Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire.
Fitzgerald joined Ernest Hemingway as American authors of novels and short stories, whose works reflected the times known as the Jazz Age. Before the start of their significant careers, works of noted living scribes weren’t considered viable material for the stage and screen. Of course, the great works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Victor Hugo, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack London were often adapted by early screenwriters. And, science fiction translated well on the silent screen (especially H.G. Wells and Jules Verne).
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD ERNEST HEMINGWAY
Influenced by the very-real social commentary of Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway used actual history as a backdrop to their fictional stories. Gertrude Stein dubbed these survivors of World War I (The Great War) as the Lost Generation, which included composer Cole Porter, singer Josephine Baker, dancer Isadora Duncan, and painter Pablo Picasso, among others. John Steinbeck also comes to mind as an American author who developed fiction based on the normal, if dreary, lives of real people. It was T.S. Eliot who first popularized the notion of turning modern fiction into dramatic theatre. Recently, Woody Allen paid homage to these artists of the Lost Generation in his 2012 film, Midnight in Paris.
Eugene O’Neill introduced into American drama a stylistic realism associated with Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg. American theatre was forever changed. Billed as an alternative to light musical comedy revues from folks like Florenz Ziegfeld, O’Neill’s plays included dialogue in a popular vernacular, and involved characters on the fringes of society, where they struggle to maintain their hopes and aspirations, but ultimately slide into despair and disillusionment; plots resonating with Depression-era audiences.
This style of writing led to a development of Broadway thespians, eventually discovered by movie moguls searching for new stars for their talkies of the 1930s. Actors such as Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Paul Muni, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart emerged in realistic cinematic dramas based on the writings of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and O’Neill. Early entries popular among film-goers included A Farewell to Arms, Strange Interludes, and Of Mice and Men.
In the thirties, a European style of filmmaking became popular as Axis aggression swept two continents. Dubbed film noir… writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler were quickly hired by the movie studios to update how gangster-films were put together. Hammett was particularly adept at this gritty nuanced style, since elements of the technique were introduced in the Thin Man series of motion pictures of the 1930s. It came together in 1941 with the production of The Maltese Falcon. A hero with duplicitous motives, menacing dark evening streets, and a femme-fatale, made stars of Alan Ladd, John Garfield, Veronica Lake, Robert Mitchum, William Bendix, etc. Iconic movies, including The Glass Key, Out of the Fog, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Asphalt Jungle still play remarkably well in rich black-and-white cinematography, and a fascinating film noir script.
Meanwhile, new productions were developed from Hemingway, Steinbeck, and O’Neill. For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Grapes of Wrath, and Mourning Becomes Electra were among the works receiving accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences each year. And, these fine motion pictures inspired new generations of authors / playwrights. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller began influencing how actors studied their craft.
The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute trained actors in a technique known as The Method. This teaching style owed much to the Russian director, Stanislavsky, whose book, An Actor Prepares, dealt with the psychology of interpretation in acting. Actors such as Marlon Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe; and early directors as Elia Kazan and Sidney Lumet embraced this theatrical concept.
This acting technique was extraordinarily popular in live television of the 1950s, particularly in anthology dramas of the day. Teleplay writers emerged… Rod Serling and Paddy Chayevsky comes to mind. Rod Steiger, Robert Redford, Lee Remick, Joanne Woodward, George C. Scott, Jack Klugman, Cloris Leachman, among others, were plucked from the small screen to become cinematic stars. And, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Patterns, and Twelve Angry Men were adapted into successful film productions.
Later, Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel also ushered a new-realism that exists in movies today. The Hays Code, established in the 1930s, was a first casuality of this modern-day cinematic revolution. The Motion Picture Ratings were created in 1967 to help families decide which films might be appropriate for their children. Screenwriters now had the dramatic license to tackle the most delicate of issues.
It remains to be seen if F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work still excites theatre-goers. My guess is… if the material is strong and well-adapted… and if the actors hit their marks… ticket sales will be brisk. The Great Gatsby is set for a May 10, 2013 release.