I haven’t seen The Great Gatsby yet, but I can tell already that it just doesn’t add up. The production seems to have missed the point—it’s not about the glitz and glamor and pop songs—it’s about the death of dreams and the danger of being a complete and total sellout, ironically enough.
Here are 10 other literary adaptations that were kind of out of control.
His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass (2007)
When you adapt a children’s fantasy novel about goin’ off to kill God, you kind of have to tone that down for the multiplex audiences, and put a lot of polar bears on the promo materials.
The Great Gatsby (1974)
It’s happened before! Gatsby (Robert Redford) is a leering douchebag who is still in love with Daisy, and we can’t understand why, because Mia Farrow plays her as a hysteric gasbag. And while Luhrmann’s adaptation seems to favor color and sparkles, this movie is just a sea of white and a celebration of nostalgia—ironic for a book known for its color symbolism and refusal to romanticize the past.
Most people read this as an exercise in linguistics—technically, it’s the first long thing written in a language that is mostly recognizable as English. But it’s also a classic epic poem in which a hero must slay a beast. It’s basically a dumb action movie, so I guess adapting it in that way sort of makes sense, but as Seamus Heaney’s adaptation proves, there’s a lot more human feeling going on below those superficial notions. But mostly the English stuff.
Gulliver’s Travels (2010)
Part of what makes a great novel a great novel is how fluidly they can be updated or presented in new interpretations—a good story about human themes transcends format. That said, the usually winning style of Jack Black did not quite work on Gulliver’s Travels.
Fast Food Nation (2006)
We all of us read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation with deep fear and slight superiority in 2001 and 2002. We now knew about the corporate machine and totally gross processes that made fast food possible. But then Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me became a big hit, and Richard Linklater adapted the nonfiction Fast Food Nation into a narrative film set in the worlds depicted by Fast Food Nation. Not a bad film at all, just a unique approach to the source material.
The thinking-man’s comic book—or graphic novel, in one of the few truly applicable uses of that term—Watchmen was a tremendous, complicated, time-skipping masterpiece by Alan Moore. He said it was unfilmable. And after watching action film director Zack Snyder’s movie adaptation, I’m inclined to agree. Watchmen is not a comic book movie—it’s a movie about how war and the ’80s reflected how human beings are despicable creatures with no hope for redemption.
The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
Satire is box office poison, so it makes sense why all of the yuppie-skewering stuff was toned down or totally cut out when Tom Wolfe’s novel came to the big screen, but then this movie was also box office poison.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Hey, did you know that the Mad Hatter is a main character in Alice in Wonderland? He is when you’ve got Johnny Depp attached to play him.
Fever Pitch (2005)
Somehow, someway, Nick Hornsby’s most intimate book—an esoteric memoir about his love/hate relationship with the Arsenal soccer team—became a a movie about a Boston guy’s lifelong obsession with the Boston Red Sox, which I believe are a baseball team.
The Human Stain (2003)
Philip Roth’s novel is about race, university politics, and the ugly space in between where they meet. The film adaptation is a slight romantic thriller involving crazy ex-husbands, Nicole Kidman miscast as an illiterate maid, and Anthony Hopkins miscast as a light-skinned African-American professor. The book was about racial insensitivity; the movie defines it.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Perhaps the most famous Hollywoodification of all time. The movie was the birth of the manic-pixie-dream-girl-crush-object what that made Audrey Hepburn a timeless icon of style, grace, and charisma. In the book, she’s not charming, she’s damaged, broken, and doomed. There is no happy romantic ending—Holly Golightly’s life sucks and she doesn’t end up with the narrator because he’s gay.