The Book Was Better: The Great Gatsby, Lolita, & What It Takes to Adapt a Book into a Movie
A huge step of the life-cycle of a successful book is when it becomes a film. The most compelling and popular stories will sooner-rather-than-later make it to the silver screen. Some of these adaptations (The Godfather for example) make great and important films. Most of them make solid, entertaining films.
I’m not very versed in film criticism, but I believe the easiest way to test the success or failure of an adaptation from page to screen is the phrase, “the book was better.” How many times do you hear this? It’s been said about Harry Potter; it’s been said about the Watchmen; it’s been said about The Da Vinci Code, it’s been said about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. It’s the general consensus that most adaptations, while good, fall short of their source. The more famous the book is, the harder it is going to be to make an adaptation that can stand-alone from it, which means Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby might be somewhat doomed-from-the-start. (At least by my standards.) So let me make something clear, I’m not accusing any of these films of being bad movies. Some are, but the rest are usually good, well-made films. The phrase “the book was better” does not mark an adaptations failure because it says anything about the quality of the movie, rather it marks the movie’s inability to stand on its own as a film, separated from the source material.
I realize that creating a film that outshines its source is a hard, and sometimes impossible, task. But I also believe it is a filmmaker’s job goes beyond translator. I charge filmmakers to make adaptations that, while not out-shining or disrespecting their sources, defy comparison. When filmmakers choose to adapt books, they takes the power to tell story with their voices, their cameras, and their artistic spirits. The way a filmmaker decides to imbue his adaptation with his voice does not necessarily mean completely overhauling the plot, but usually a big change is necessary. I think The Great Gatsby is one of those cases.
There are two reasons audiences usually like the books better. The first is that it is impossible to fit an entire novel into two (or even three) hours and therefore, scenes are deleted, sub-plots are dropped, and favorite side-characters become unimportant extras, for
the simple reason that the movie cannot cover the same narrative space that the book does. The second (and more affecting Gatsby) is, writing allows for internality that film cannot achieve without crushing levels of narration. How can you put something like,
“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into aesthetic contemplation he neither understood or desired, face to face for the last time in history with something to commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
onto a screen? You can have a time-lapse of the history of the continent all the way up to the building of Gatsby’s house while DiCaprio watches. But how are you going to get a transitory enchanted moment where man must have held his breath? And if you do, how are you going to get all of every moment like this visually represented? The only answer is, you can’t. There are parts of books that fundamentally can only exist in the written word, and if a filmmaker makes a movie that does not accomplish the same level of depth the book had without those untranslatable moments, the audience is left feeling the lack. And if he tries to push all of them into the film, the audience will feel suffocated.
The best way to avoid both of these problems when attempting to adapt something as colossal as Gatsby, is to change the narrative of the film. In his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1962, Stanley Kubrick did just that. The tagline of film is, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” This tagline says it all. It pokes at the MPAA restrictions forced upon the film —Nabokov’s novel is so mature that the idea of translating the somehow sympathetic narrative of a murderer and pedophile onto the strictly regulated screen seemed impossible. By addressing this, it also immediately calls out the idea of a book as impossible to adapt, and by phrasing the question in the past tense (“how did…?”) it immediately presumes that it has succeeded. And Kubrick really did make a movie out of Lolita.
Kubrick’s Lolita is not a movie you can watch instead of doing your homework. The film’s Wikipedia page has over 2,600 words dedicated to the differences between Kubrick’s film and Nabokov’s book. One of the most interesting and biggest changing Kubrick made was vastly expanding the role of Quilty, the principal antagonist of the book. When Kubrick read Lolita he said he could see “just beneath the surface of the story was this strong secondary narrative,” and his film is just as much an exploration of what he saw in Quilty as it is a retelling of Nobokov’s story. Kubrick respects Nabokov’s novel, but does not let his reverence of the original work get in the way of his art. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say I liked the film better than the book, but it is bold, defies comparison, and, ultimately, gives us a new way to read the original story.
Will Luhrmann’s Gatsby do the same? My guess is not. But I’ve only seen 2 minutes and 30 seconds of the same clips over and over. What do you guys think?
What’s your favorite movie adaptation of a book? (Hint: Mine’s The Godfather, followed by The Princess Bride, Lolita, and Clueless.)
What book are you dying to see adapted into a movie? (I’d love to see what a good director can do with something absurdist like The Eyre Affair.)
What book do you never want to see as a movie? (On The Road… and yes, I know.)