Great American Novels & the Attempt at Great Film Adaptations

What is the Great American Novel? This is one of my favorite questions to ask people to get a quick read on their personality, approach towards pop culture, literature, and feelings on America. Based on how informed/passionate/apathetic someone is, asking someone about politics doesn’t always give you a true answer about what they truly think about America, at least as far as its strengths, weaknesses, history, culture, and themes go. No big deal – just some light dinner topics.

When people blank on the question, want to start talking about Harry Potter (which I absolutely love and am usually willing to discuss for hours, but doesn’t qualify because it’s a fantasy series, British, and belongs with Tolkien’s work and Lewis’ Narnia), or mention some other novel written in the last decade or two, I mention three classics I think create the top tier of “Great American Novel” candidates.

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (my personal vote, but that’s for another blog post at another time)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Being such a classic American story capturing the bright sides and all-too-often dark consequences of the pursuit of the American Dream in one of the most extravagant and vibrant time periods in American history, The Great Gatsby has always been a prime candidate for Hollywood. Few have taken it on, but even the big names who have found little success at capturing the full essence (extravagance, tragedy, romance, mystery, historical snapshot depicting universal themes) of Fitzgerald’s tale.

In 1974, Coppola, Redford, Farrow, Dern, and Waterston gave a heckuva effort, but came up pretty short.

In 2000, Paul Rudd and Mira Sorvino made one that isn’t even memorable.

So when Baz Luhrmann, the crazy mad scientist of film who brilliantly captivated our hearts and minds in Strictly Ballroom before he introduced Shakespeare to a new generation of cinema-goers and revitalized the movie musical with Moulin Rouge.  So after his attempt at making an Australian Gone with the Wind with Kidman and Jackman disappointed, we all eagerly waited to see what he would tackle next.

Then news creeped out that he was going to try to make The Great Gatsby (could it be better than the Martin Scorsese/Vincent Chase alternate-Entourage-universe version?!?) once and for all on the big screen. Would Luhrmann’s vision finally capture lightning in a bottle and give us the Gatsby movie we’ve always wanted?

Then the cast began coming together. Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby (is there a better casting choice for the iconic mysterious man epitomizing the Roaring 20’s? I think not…). Tobey Maguire back from the dead and done mourning the reboot of his beloved Spiderman franchise being replaced by Eduardo from The Social Network to play Nick Carraway. Perfect. Isla Fisher, who is always lovely. But then, I got really excited.

The lovely Carey Mulligan. Her breakout film, An Education, is one of my favorite films of the last few years. Her performance was pitch-perfect. A good friend of mine met her and hung with her right after Gatsby finished filming and Mulligan had nothing but phenomenal things to say about what the film would ultimately be.

So the hype and expectations were big. But would Luhrmann’s interpretation be true to Fitzgerald’s tale?

Yesterday, we got our first clues to help us answer the hype and the questions. You can watch it in HD on Apple’s website here. The regular version of the trailer is below:

So what are the initial takeaways?

The mood and look of the trailer appears very Luhrmann. His fingerprints are all over it.  It’s quirky.  It’s modern-looking. It’s clear how he’s hoping to use 3D in his own special way, a technique many of my friends feel will do injustice to Fitzgerald’s story.

As for me, I’m still extremely hopeful. DiCaprio looks like his performance as the mysterious Jay Gatsby will be perfect.  The scenery and scope of the film looks like it will accurately capture the decadence, superficiality, glamor, and roar of the Jazz Age and Roaring Twenties.  The parties look fun. The stars look as if they’ve captured the uncertainty and insecurities underlying the shiny exterior of the 1920s quite well.

Rambling analysis aside, I’m even more excited about the movie. Some can complain that the modern look will take away from the importance of the novel’s setting, but the 1974 film focused on it as a period piece and we see where that got us.  It appears the film we’re going to get is what we’d expect/hope from Luhrmann: a unique spin on an old tale that recaptures our imagination about the characters, themes, and mood of the original story. Something Hollywood has never been able to do. Here’s hoping Luhrmann, Mulligan, DiCaprio, and Maguire pull off what hasn’t been done.

I think they will.

Vote in the poll below and let us know your thoughts on the trailer by making a comment below!

What do you think is “THE Great American Novel”?

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Posted on by Joseph Williams in Featured, Movie Previews, Movies

5 Responses to Great American Novels & the Attempt at Great Film Adaptations

  1. Claire

    I just re-read The Great Gatsby a few weeks ago, in preparation for this debate. It is BY FAR the greatest of the great American novels.

    Joseph, you’ll know that my other favorite is East of Eden by John Steinbeck, but Fitzgerald really captured my imagination as he tells the story of lost 20 and 30 somethings living in the palm of luxury in New York. The movie is going to be amazing… Fitzgerald’s writing is quirky, fast-paced, and whimsical (at times even hard to follow), and I know Luhrmann will bring the story to life for a modern audience. I wish it were out right now.

    I encourage all to reread the novel before going to the movie, though. Fitzgerald deserves the recognition.

  2. Elise

    As much as I don’t want to be “that girl,” I can’t help but be a little skeptical. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Luhrmann’s work, and I’m nervous that he’ll turn an arguably perfect story into nothing more than a visually-appealing rave. I’m sure the movie will gather a strong cult fan base as did Moulin Rouge, but I think only a Downton-esque period piece can satisfy my Gatsby needs.

    However, I agree that Carey Mulligan is a perfect casting choice. The lady is great. And anything that’s good enough for Leo is good enough for me.

    Looking forward to it!

  3. That Guy

    Twilight. Nuff’ said.

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