From Gatsby to Gunter Grass: When Being Faithful is a Drawback

Redford and Farrow stare at the camera, straining to read Fitzgerald's prose aloud.
Redford and Farrow stare at the camera, straining to read Fitzgerald’s prose aloud.

The Great Gatsby (1974): The Great American Novel Becomes an Empty Bore

The slim, direct Gatsby is perhaps an atypical choice for Great American Novel, especially compared to its sprawling, allusive competitor, Moby Dick. The novel’s simple but engaging narrative, clearly defined themes, and vivid, iconic characters, make it appear to be a natural for a cinematic adaptation. However, the much-hyped 1974 film, written by Francis Ford Coppola at the height of his powers, is an unimaginative and instantly dated visualization of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inventive text. Original screenwriter Truman Capote lazily transcribed the novel into a “word for word” screenplay. (It is highly ironic that Capote once disparaged Jack Kerouac’s On The Road as “typing, not writing”). However, Coppola’s finished screenplay was equally tedious and half-hearted. This might not be so detrimental to the film’s success if it were directed with verve and filled with excellent performances.

However, the workmanlike direction by the usually inspired Jack Clayton (Room at The Top) and the laughable miscasting make for a staid and often ridiculously melodramatic interpretation of a masterful novel. It is difficult to scoff at a film starring Bruce Dern, Robert Redford, Sam Waterston, and Mia Farrow. Indeed, Waterston especially does an admirable job, albeit in the narrative’s most passive and elusive characterization. However, in the key roles of Gatsby and Daisy, Redford and Farrow make for an awkward, stilted, and borderline-unwatchable duo. Farrow reads from the script in a shrill, hysterical clip, as Redford sleepwalks through a role which may have been a defining one. Their sequences often come across as an 11th grade in-class reading, rather than bravura cinema. Meanwhile, Bruce Dern’s whiny, nasally Tom is a horrific misfire; one can only imagine Nick Nolte or Jack Nicholson playing the role with relish.

The film’s combination of conventional adherence and shoddy cinematic craft make for a film without an audience; it offers nothing new for a reader of Fitzgerald’s novel, and not a single incentive for a newcomer to want to seek out the source material. Nearly 40 years later, Baz Luhrmann “re-imagined” Fitzgerald with an equally reverent screenplay and grandiose MTV-style visuals, a hip-hop soundtrack, and flat, disconnected performances. It proves the point that even the most cinematic novels may be unfilmable.

The Tin Drum: When Condensing Becomes Expansive

The remarkable David Bennett, perfectly embodying the novel's protagonist Oskar.
The remarkable David Bennett, perfectly embodying the novel’s protagonist Oskar.

Unlike The Great Gatsby, Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum seems like it would only be a candidate for the most unwieldy mess of a film. Grass’ masterpiece, one of the most highly regarded European novels of the post-war age, is a remarkably dense work that plays with history, reality, and literary voice. The surreal tale of Oskar, a wise-beyond-his-years German child who refuses to physically grow as World War II rages in the background, is told in a loose, episodic, and often rambling narrative. Oskar is a classic unreliable narrator, as charming and misleading as Humbert Humbert from Lolita (another novel with underwhelming film adaptations). The novel is often drolly witty, and the various episodes could reasonably fill three epic-length movies. The book seems as unfilmable as such notoriously complex novels as The House of the Spirits, Ulysses, and The Sound and The Fury (all of which, unfortunately, were indeed filmed).

When faced with the task of adapting this behemoth to film, “New German Cinema” auteur Volker Schlondorff decided to alienate the book’s many admirers by significantly condensing the book, as well as altering the tone from tongue-in-cheek and whimsical to haunting and wrenching. The result makes for a film, despite its deviations in incident and tonality, that is extraordinarily cinematic, intense, and striking. Although the film contains scattered and effective narration sprinkled throughout, Schlondorff wisely eschews filling the screenplay with endless, overly-literary narration. (This has bogged down countless adaptations over the decades). Instead, Schlondorff cherry-picks the integral episodes, cohering into a cohesive, engrossing narrative.

Unlike the bland cinematic techniques of Clayton, Schlondorff fills the screen with enthralling cinematography, an idiosyncratic, effective score, and brilliantly measured performances. The Tin Drum crashes or soars on the strength of its protagonist, and in the tricky casting of Oskar, Schlondorff scored with then-12-year-old David Bennett. Although the goofiness inherent in Oskar’s characterization is muted, Bennett makes up for it with stunning intensity, an infinitely commanding presence, and a remarkable range of emotions. While Grass’ novel purposely kept the rise of Nazism on the back-burner, Schlondorff pushes it slightly toward the foreground without distracting from the overall story arc. The film’s linear and overtly political approach does not taint the original work; it simply makes it more palatable for the cinema, and therefore an ideal adaptation to a unique and challenging medium.

To Kill a Mockingbird: ‘A Children’s Story’ Adapted as a Family Film

Gregory Peck's soulful performance cannot hide the one-dimensional nature of Atticus Finch.
Gregory Peck’s soulful performance cannot hide the one-dimensional nature of Atticus Finch.

Although the widely accepted view is that nearly all novels are better than the films based on them, there have been a few examples of movies that deepen and expand upon the source material to become cinematic masterpieces. Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout turned a simple fable into a richly meditative look at class, civilization, and the elusiveness of communication. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather adapted a trashy, melodramatic mob bestseller into a timeless rumination on family, ethics, and the American Dream. Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, a perennial favorite of high school curriculums, was an epochal sensation upon its publication, and within a mere two years, an Academy Award-winning film was released. The cinematic adaptation, starring an unforgettable Gregory Peck, is widely considered the gold standard for Hollywood renditions of beloved novels.

However, what this perception omits is the fact that Harper Lee’s novel is deeply flawed and ideologically confused. In its atmospheric evocation of the mystery and promise of youth, Lee’s novel is clearly an accomplished work. However, when compared to her more prolific Southern predecessors, Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor among them, it is transparent that Lee’s literature is childlike, sentimental, and lacks a true grip on reality. O’Connor infamously referred to To Kill a Mockingbird as “a children’s story,” and indeed, its outlook on life is as short-sighted as that of a young child. The story presents Atticus Finch as an eternally benevolent lawyer, eager to defend African-Americans during an era of horrific racism. Yet, this trait is the sole defining characteristic of Atticus, rendering him as a one-dimensional “white knight.” The central dramatic conflict in the novel- the framing of a presumably innocent African-American male for rape- is muted by the novel’s inability to turn this character, named Tom Robinson, into anything more than the type of vacant, passive symbol often depicted in Sidney Poitier’s films. The novel’s view on race relations is rife with contradictions, as Lee condemns institutionalized racism while parading in stereotypes, from the Finchs’ maid Calpurnia to an insulting portrait of black churchgoers. This is in striking contrast to the complexity found in Ralph Ellison’s portrayal of a tortured African-American who emigrates from the South to Harlem in 1951’s Invisible Man.

The 1962 film adaptation, directed by Robert Mulligan, clearly wanted to remain faithful to the overwhelmingly popular novel. It would have been braver to move the narrative’s presentation of race to the foreground and to humanize, rather than glorify, the character of Atticus Finch. Instead, the characterization of Tom Robinson is even more one-note, and the stereotypical but multifaceted Calpurnia is reduced to a few lines. The one aspect of Mulligan’s film that nearly all cinema fans remember is Gregory Peck’s performance. It is difficult to imagine a role more suited to Peck’s warm everyman persona than Atticus, but his portrayal fails to bring the character to life. Rather than a flawed and recognizably human Atticus, Peck’s presentation clings to the saintly caricature found in Lee’s novel.

Overall, Mulligan’s adaptation is content to skim the surface, failing to flesh out a frequently superficial novel. The critically and commercially acclaimed film soars in its casting, luminous black and white cinematography, and its ability to capture the unique atmosphere found in Lee’s canonized classic. Where it critically falters, however, is its refusal to expand upon the book’s muddled view of race and reliance on stock characters. As it stands, To Kill a Mockingbird remains a beautiful and stately adaptation of a profoundly tainted work of literature.

Short Cuts: Merging Carver Stories into a Cinematic Poem

Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, the two performers best suited to portray Raymond Carver's creations.
Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin, the two performers best suited to portray Raymond Carver’s creations.

In contrast to Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Altman’s Short Cuts is easily one of the most inventive and irreverent takes on a literary source material ever filmed. The concept- taking a dozen short stories by the then-recently deceased Raymond Carver and arranging them into one sprawling and non-linear cinematic event- was initially scorned by the writer’s fans and literary purists everywhere. How could the direct, simple character studies of Carver, a writer second to only John Cheever as America’s short fiction maestro, mesh with Altman’s sensibilities? After all, this is the man who made a movie about a bunch of rebellious Korean War medics (MASH), not to mention that strange semi-musical ensemble piece about country music (Nashville). However, Altman’s profound love for taking risks and alienating his audience does not hide the close attention to his characters. From his boldly original take on Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye to his enthralling look at Van Gogh in Vincent and Theo, the wounded, achingly quirky characters in Altman’s films are as fully realized as those in Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Despite the film’s epic running time (188 minutes) and 24 major roles, the combination of melancholy and biting wit, in addition to the convincingly human characters, make it a clear Carver adaptation. Although the characterizations (with the exceptions of Annie Ross as a jazz singer/Greek chorus and Lori Singer as her violinist daughter) all derive from Carver stories, their trajectories are often altered to fit in with the narrative’s overall arc. Purists also sneered at the film’s transplantation of Carver’s work from the rural Pacific Northwest to Los Angeles (although at least it is suburban L.A., keeping with Carver’s preferred locality).

The real message from Altman’s film is that even in the twisted heart of Greater Los Angeles, there are flawed, vulnerable, and oddly endearing individuals who cannot see that their decisions are both foolish and quintessentially human. This element is the epitome of Carver’s fiction, and it is clear that Altman shares a surprisingly large amount of sensibilities with the late writer. Carver was noted for his ability to find warmth in the most cynical situations, while Altman largely was known for spiking humorous scenarios with cyanide-grade pathos. These seemingly disparate outlooks on the world are in fact just different sides of the same coin.

Carver, more than nearly any other modern American writer, was fixated on character, not plot. Altman, with his brilliant casts and chaotic, lifelike “storylines,” was identical in this regard. As fleshed out as Carver’s characterizations on the page are, a filmed adaptation would fail without skilled actors embodying them. In Short Cuts, Altman hit the jackpot, whether the Carver creations are portrayed by A-list stars (Andie MacDowell, Jack Lemmon, Robert Downey Jr.,) character actors (Lili Taylor, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn) or even stunt casting of popular musicians (Tom Waits, Huey Lewis, and Lyle Lovett). Each and every performer nail not only the nuances of Carver’s singular characters, but also Altman’s. It is rare that a filmmaker is able to alter the source material to fit his or her unique vision, while simultaneously honoring and staying true to the original author. With Short Cuts, Altman did just that, and in the process, he created one of his best films and the ideal Carver adaptation.

Although it is perpetually inevitable for a best-selling or influential novel to eventually become adapted for the cinema, it is rare that all fans of the book are satisfied by the result. The actors may look slightly different from the author’s rendering of the characters, one or two major incidents are often omitted, and the setting may be drastically altered. When a book is faithfully adapted from the source material, nearly all fans of the novel are profoundly relieved. Yet, it must be remembered that literature and cinema are disparate mediums. What works on the page does not necessarily translate well to film, and vice versa. Films that slavishly honor the source material often can make for a talky, static, and tedious cinematic experience. However, filmmakers who intend to keep the spirit of the source, while acknowledging that certain elements must be tweaked, often make for the most accomplished cinematic adaptations.

Altman’s Short Cuts and Schlondorff’s The Tin Drum may not be word-for-word transcriptions, yet both films honor the intention of their respective authors while speaking to both directors’ unique visions. Clayton’s The Great Gatsby and Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird are remarkably attuned to the source material, yet in the process they are dead on arrival as celluloid visions. The best adaptations convey the humanity and depth of thought embedded in great works of literature, while at the same time wowing an audience with the immersive experience that only the cinema can provide.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Crispy Creme

    Timely article as I just finished watching The Tin Drum and i deserve a medal for making it over the half way point. The film completely relies on it being confronting, disturbing and at times difficult to watch so that its viewers that like it discard the nonsense of it because it is weird and different. this doesn’t mean its good. in the end its just a series of disturbing events resulting in nothing. Terrible really. Great article though.

  2. Fitzgerald expects you to read his book with “just trust me” attitude and imagine things to fill his gaps. That might make you happy as infatuated reader but maybe not as a watcher…?

  3. Personally, I thought Coppola did quite exceptional job by adding some dynamics, moving plot resolution down for more dramatic effect and adding some sorely missing characterization.

    • Vincent Simpson

      One can only be sorry that Coppola didn’t get to direct it as well.

  4. I love movies that intertwine multiple stories and connect everything together with a nice big bow.

  5. felix andrew

    “Short Cuts” is one of my all-time favorite movies. Essentially soap-opera material!

  6. I have never watched a Robert Altman movie, so i were going into this without any knowledge of what were about to see, it turned out to be an awesome film about the values in Americans life.

  7. EasonWelsh

    Gatsby 1974 is one of my sentimental favourites, despite being very anaemic. Pretty and lovely, but anaemic. I guess I was happy to just see the story, the characters and the scenes on film, beautiful and beautiful sounding, but devoid of emotion.

    I resolved not to criticise films unless I offer some pointers for improvement so here goes:

    In retrospect, Mia is IMHO a good Daisy ( although not one whose looks alone would inspire such an obsession in Gatsby) and , if Gatsby had to be good looking ( its not said to be so in the book) , then Redford was an obvious choice. But the role called for somewhat of a loser made good, who gets everything he wanted but the girl of his youthful dreams. If that dynamic or motivation is not there, the story loses its raison d’etre (notwithstanding all the subtext about the jazz age, American Dream etc) . You have Hollywood love god Redford pining over Mia Farrow? uh-uh.

  8. Great piece. If you think Carver would be difficult to bring to the screen, see the excellent Jindabyne.

  9. To Kill A Mockingbird was fairly engaging considering it was a movie that was shot in the 1960s.

  10. Yu Enos

    The Tin Drum has been on my list of movies to look out for for a while.

    • nettles

      This is probably one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen though at times it seemed as though I was watching a big budgeted Hollywood epic. Soon though I was reminded that this was NOT your typical American film. No sirree.

  11. I can merely remember in ninth grade when this To Kill A Mockingbird first caught my attention. This was the first time my teachers had addressed the issue of discrimination and we were able to, as a class, openly discuss about it. I was excited to see that this intriguing tale came to life in a movie!

  12. makimaine

    I like how half the movie To Kill A Mockingbird, it establishes the different characters, and the remaining half deals with the case and town’s attitude.

  13. Sumpter

    I was talking about Tin Drum this morning with a friend. It is one of his favorites; he said he could remember even small details like the heart-shaped crack in the wineglass that Oskar makes for Roswitha.

  14. Watched the Gatsby adaptation as part of an essay I’m doing for a Film Construction Theory class, and holy hell, it captured absolutely none of the emotion, action, symbolism, etc. that made the book as famous as it is.

  15. Nicole

    “Yet, it must be remembered that literature and cinema are disparate mediums. What works on the page does not necessarily translate well to film, and vice versa. Films that slavishly honor the source material often can make for a talky, static, and tedious cinematic experience.”

    Many times when a film is “slavishly [honest to] the source material” it is because the screenwriter didn’t do his job correctly. Perhaps he had a personal attachment to the material (as is often the case). The director, on the other hand, is responsible for visually translating the screenplay, not the book. Can you imagine if Peter Jackson were to remain true to the entirety of the LOTR novels? Goodness, we’d STILL be in theaters!

    “However, filmmakers who intend to keep the spirit of the source, while acknowledging that certain elements must be tweaked, often make for the most accomplished cinematic adaptations.”

    This is how film making ought to take place. Much like when the literature itself is studied, you shouldn’t focus all energies on specific lines or dialogues, but rather overall themes. You’ll remember more, and it will thus be more pervasive in one’s own life. Keeping the “spirit” allows for adaption to contemporary styles whose familiarity will help audiences become more engaged in the messages portrayed by the story.

  16. Gatbsy focused on cinematography rather than plot points, so I wouldn’t say that it was very ‘faithful’ at all to the source material. It was unique and great in its own way.

  17. I never thought about To Kill a Mockingbird as a children’s novel. I still think that it serves as a great attempt to tackle racism, if only skimming the surface. Even if it is a children’s novel, what’s wrong with that? By reading through the perspective of a child, we get a youthful, honest point of view that encompasses all the curiosity and bluntness of children, making it relatable to everyone.

  18. Thank you for this great set of reflections on fidelity in film adaptations. “Faithfulness” is a old-fashioned idea that clearly still has resonance. But to whom or what is the adaptation faithful? The author, the character(s), the narrator, the plot, the affect on the reader/audience, or the medium of novel/film?

  19. ahjmaria

    Interesting article. Very broad topic here reduced to a few examples but many good points. I totally agree that you have to look at film and literature as completely different things. And if you love a book, its going to be hard to love a movie version of it unless you let go of what you loved and just experience what your being shown.

    I really liked the American Psycho movie but its so much different than the book. If I wanted the book on screen it certainly did not deliver that. But as a movie it was good. Ive never read Gone Girl but the movie was awesome, I expect the book is as well. I wonder if seeing the movie first effects our abilities to like both film and book. I know it seems impossible for people to be happy with a movie if they read the novel first.

    As far as Great Gatsby, I;ve always wanted to re read it. Read it in high school and thought it was so boring. But my teacher was all about it, and I thought she was a tool, so I’ve always felt like I read it with blinders on. But maybe not. I read some other novels by Gatsby and although I liked them better they were still pretty boring. I found his life alot more interesting than his writing. Still, with how much acclaim its gotten, i feel like I probably should try it again, you never really know how much your pre conceived notions and walls can change how you feel about any art piece. Still, seen both movie version, and both were terrible.

    When Leo can’t make your movie good thats a bad sign. Was it screenplay? Or does this story just not have all that much going on? I guess you Gatsby lovers would know. And I’d love to hear about it.

    Really loved that gem you pulled of Truman Capote dissing Kerouac. another guy I could just never get into. Thought on the road again was really disappointing, at least the first 2 chapters I read before deciding, this is just way to cool for me. I’m way to lazy to put that thought into reading stuff. Beat necks just don’t vibe for me brahs.

  20. I think you make some valid points, but I have to disagree with a lot of this article. I don’t think that it’s fair to deem a book as “unfilmable” just because others have failed thus far. I agree that both adaptations of The Great Gatsby are disappointing, but I think that one of the great charms of the novel is that it is such a visual work that should translate easily to film. In fact, I recall learning that Fitzgerald was a great fan of film, which had a tremendous impact on his writing. On that note, I often think that movies moving away from the novel too much is the greatest flaw. I didn’t think that the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird was a very accurate representation of the book at all! I thought that it took out many of the greatest parts of the book, such as putting the focus on Atticus rather than Scout. I wanted to see the story through the eyes of a child in the way that I did as I read the book, and, sadly, that didn’t happen. I felt that the movie dumbed down many themes to fit the cookie-cutter Hollywood movie of the time.
    The point I’m trying to make is that I personally believe that many novels haven’t worked in film due to the people working on the film, usually because they move in a different direction than the book. I think that no book is “unfilmable”, but rather that some directors and screenwriters are unsuited to the task of lifting a classic from the page for a film audience. In that sense, I thought your conclusion was quite accurate.

  21. If one is going to see a film of “The Great Gatsby,” the 1949 adaptation is the one to see. Fans of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel who only know Jay Gatsby on screen as Robert Redford or Leonardo DiCaprio may be surprised by how faithful the generally underrated Alan Ladd is to the author’s original conception in this rarely seen adaptation. The performance may be one of Ladd’s most personal and deeply felt. Like the film’s title character, Ladd had risen from the depths of poverty and often terribly felt out of place after making it to the top. Some of the changes from the original plot can be startling, particularly the development of Gatsby’s bootlegging, which adds noir-ish elements to the film. But Ladd, Shelley Winters (as doomed jazz baby Myrtle), Howard Da Silva (as her jealous husband) and Elisha Cook, Jr. (as Gatsby’s right-hand man, a role added to the film) are perfect in capturing the Jazz Age and its excesses.

  22. This would explain why a new version of The Great Gatsby was remade only a few years ago.

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