Apr/May 2009

Second, Third, and Even More Acts

Fitzgerald didn't believe in second acts for American lives, but his work gets several in adaptation.

Bilge Ebiri


This past holiday season, F. Scott Fitzgerald went from being considered a curse on Hollywood to the flavor of the month practically overnight. For decades, adaptations of Fitzgerald's fiction were seen as surefire failures, but that all seemed to change with the release of David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the announcement that two new films were in the works: The Great Gatsby, to be directed by Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), and something called The Beautiful and the Damned, which will be either an adaptation of Fitzgerald's ambitious second novel or a biopic of the author and his wife, Zelda Sayre, to be directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil) and starring Keira Knightley. Also around this time, the season finale of the HBO show Entourage ended with its movie-star hero getting cast to play Nick Carraway in a Martin Scorsese adaptation of Gatsby.

Whether the curse has truly been lifted is, of course, up for debate. In an open memo to Luhrmann, Variety editor in chief Peter Bart breathlessly advised the director to reconsider his Gatsby adaptation, calling the novel "an expensive trap" and citing his own experiences as a Paramount executive during the production of Jack Clayton's reviled 1974 version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, from a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola. "The folks who shot Benjamin Button were smart enough to veer sharply away from the Fitzgerald short story," Bart noted in his memo, while citing Pauline Kael's pan of Elia Kazan and Harold Pinter's 1976 adaptation of The Last Tycoon, in which she lamented that "the dreamy crushes of Fitzgerald's doomed heroes . . . don't come across on the screen." (Kazan himself agreed, writing some years later that he "felt like kicking [the film's] hero in the ass.") Clayton's film was blasted for, among other things, failing to produce any sparks between Redford's Jay Gatsby and Farrow's Daisy Buchanan.

But the problem might have to do less with the chemistry of movie stars and more with a film culture that insists on seeing Fitzgerald's stories as swooning romances in the first place. Clayton's version originated as a vehicle for Paramount honcho Robert Evans's wife, Ali MacGraw, fresh off the success of Love Story. (She lost the part when she ran off with Steve McQueen.) But well before then, in 1962, moviegoers had been treated to Henry King's glossy adaptation of Tender Is the Night, in which Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones loved and lost and loved again to the strains of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's title song ("Should tomorrow find us disenchanted / We have shared the love that few have known"). Few seemed to notice that Fitzgerald's bleak marital psychodrama had been turned into a chintzy Hollywood melodrama. Perhaps because they had seen worse: Richard Brooks's The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) ridiculously reimagined "Babylon Revisited," a melancholy reflection on alcoholism and disillusionment, as a tempestuous love story between Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.

To be fair, Fitzgerald has been better served by television. A 1976 PBS version of "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" by Joan Micklin Silver is still considered by many to be the best adaptation of his work. Its only real competition is a pitch-perfect, Dennis Potter–scripted BBC miniseries of Tender Is the Night from 1985.

All that said, Clayton's Gatsby is better than the nasty reviews suggest. The director had a real feel for the nuances of social hierarchy and the resentments it bred (his debut feature was the angry 1959 corporate drama Room at the Top), and the film, for all its impeccably adorned surfaces, gets Fitzgerald's subtly bitter portrait of the leisure class exactly right. Some complained about a Brit directing such a quintessentially American tale, but Clayton was certainly better versed in the novel than the American executives around him who tried desperately to get the fifty-year-old Marlon Brando to play Gatsby. But this director, too, fell into the love trap; he once called Gatsby and Daisy's relationship "the absolute essence of the word romance." Will future cinematic chroniclers of Fitzgerald's writing be able to resist the siren song of l'amour fou?

Informer Transformer

Ive always believed that film is a director's medium," says Bret Easton Ellis, which might come as a surprise to those who see Gregor Jordan's film The Informers. It is, after all, based on Ellis's 1994 book (either a novel or a short-story collection, depending on how you look at it), and this is the first time the author has been credited as a screenwriter on an adaptation of his work, sharing the bill with Nicholas Jarecki. "Once the movie's been cast and the director has his vision of how this screenplay should be turned into a film, you really learn that it's out of your hands," he observes. "Even if you become a little nervous or wary of certain choices being made, you have to let it go, because you're not directing it or putting up the money for it."

One might expect the introspective author to have gleaned new insights into his work from having to revisit these stories—after all, he wrote some of them in his late teens, around the same time as his debut novel, Less than Zero (1985), published when he was twenty-one. Instead, the forty-four-year-old Ellis says he approached the work in a practical, methodical way. "It was almost a mathematical exercise," he says of structuring the script. "Nick Jarecki and I just holed up in a room for three weeks trying to figure it all out. I didn't feel like I was revisiting the stories so much as just trying to find a way to make them work for a different medium. I wasn't reading them again, thinking, 'Oh, God, this was me at a different period in my life,' or anything like that."

It was Jarecki who approached Ellis about turning The Informers into a film. It turned out to be quite a challenge: The book comprises thirteen occasionally interlocking stories, mostly focused on the rich, idle youth of Los Angeles in the early '80s, the same spiritually barren, sex-, drugs-, and apathy-soaked terrain of Less than Zero. The initial idea was to do an absurdist, lighthearted, and expansive satire. "It's hard to tell now, but it was supposed to be like criminals and vampires and girls and young people," Ellis recalls. Although Jarecki originally planned to direct, the more experienced Australian filmmaker Gregor Jordan (Buffalo Soldiers, Ned Kelly) came on board once financing crystallized. The 150-page script then began to take on darker, more portentous overtones, on its way to becoming a ninety-four-minute film.

Perhaps the greatest change to the script came with the excision of a story line involving vampires, based on "The Secrets of Summer" from the original collection. "Ultimately, there were budgetary concerns," Ellis says, "as well as concerns about how violent and sexual it was." He admits, though, to feeling that absence: "Nick and I had agreed that it needed to be in there. To lose it made the film much more serious for me, which isn't what I had in mind at all."

The author also recalls a certain disorientation on watching the final cut: "There were things I recognized, and a lot that I missed. But it's the director's version of the script, and that's just how it is." He has learned over the years to be fairly detached about adaptations and admits to warming somewhat over the years to Marek Kanievska's compromised 1987 version of Less than Zero: "It's not a successful adaptation, but it's aged well. It has strengths that have nothing to do with the book: It's visually ravishing, and it has Robert Downey Jr." (For those keeping score, Ellis's favorite film made from one of his books is Roger Avary's 2002 The Rules of Attraction.) That Zen attitude may serve him well when his 2005 novel, Lunar Park, now in preproduction, hits screens, since its protagonist happens to be a successful novelist named Bret Easton Ellis. "I will not be playing Bret Easton Ellis," he laughs. "I can barely play him in real life, I certainly can't do it in a movie!"

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