For my money, Leo makes a better ‘Nick Carraway’ than a ‘Jay Gatsby,’ but…
There was an A&E television production in 2000, but the last attempt at adapting the classic American societal status novel to the big screen was in 1974; it starred Robert Redford and it was a snoozer. Before that, 1947, Alan Ladd put the pomade in his hair and portrayed the dashing ‘Jay Gatsby.’ And let’s not forget the 1926 inaugural effort that starred Warren Baxter and…I’ve never seen it. Never seen the Ladd Gatsby either, come to think of it.
So, are we excited about this new and improved Gatsby?
I was reminded earlier in the week of how difficult it is to adapt a classic novel to the big screen.
It was Monday morning after the Emmys when I saw the Calendar Arts & Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times left behind at our local Starbucks. A stunning photograph of Kate Winslet jumped off the page and grabbed me. In the photograph, Winslet (Emmy winner Best Actress for Mildred Pierce) is caught in a private moment staring at herself in a backstage mirror. Wow, I thought, that single photograph captured the essence of Revolutionary Road better than the tepid $35m effort by her then husband Sam Mendes in his 2008 film adaptation of the Richard Yates novel.
Yates’ 1960 mid-life crisis examination was developed and abandoned several times over the years. Maybe because of the difficulty of translating suburban social collapse without sliding into melodramatic train wreck status.
Ironically, Mendes’ American Beauty (Oscar winner Best Picture 1999) found just the right tone for a similar thematic story. The difference was that in American Beauty, Mendes had a vision for the material. With Revolutionary Road, he plowed through the motions because his wife wanted to play the film’s central character, ‘April Wheeler.’
The result was a film that came off as one very long and tedious argument between a couple doomed from the start.
Here is how Yates set her up in his novel:
“Her name was April Wheeler, and she caused the whispered word “lovely” to roll out over the auditorium the first time she walked across the stage. A little later there were hopeful nudges and whispers of “She’s good,” and there were stately nods of pride among the several people who happened to know that she attended one of the leading dramatic schools in New York less than ten years before. She was twenty-nine, a tall ash blonde with a patrician kind of beauty that no amount of amateur lighting could distort, and she seemed ideally cast in the role.”
The word the reader is left with that hangs over the arc of the novel is “hopeful.” The conflict between ‘April Wheeler’ and her husband ‘Frank,’ played in the film by DiCaprio, only resonates if we the audience once understood their “hope” – society’s hope that a couple like the ‘Wheelers’ would live happily ever after behind their white picket fence, tucked away with their requisite 2.5 children in post WWII American suburbia.
The film chose to portray that “hope” in a brief opening scene (not in the novel) when ‘Frank’ and ‘April’ first meet at a party. Unfortunately, all the scene does is immediately raise the question: Is DiCaprio miscast in this picture? By contrast, Winslet’s ‘April’ is too mature for him. I love Leo, but he just isn’t ready to convincingly portray mid-life crisis.
The L.A. Times photo that caught my eye closely resembles a moment early in Revolutionary Road – both the novel and the film – when ‘April Wheeler’ sits backstage after her theatre troupe has staged a feeble production of The Petrified Forest.
Here is how Yates described the moment in his novel:
“She was alone, sitting very straight at a mirror and removing her make-up. Her eyes were still red and blinking, but she gave him a small replica of her curtain-call smile before turning back to the mirror. “Hi,” she said. “You ready to leave?”
“He closed the door and started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight in a look that he hoped would be full of love and humor and compassion; what he planned to do was bend down and kiss her and say “Listen: you were wonderful.”
Instead he said “Well, I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?”
“I guess not,” she said. “I’ll be ready in a minute.”
He pocketed both hands and curled the tired toes inside his shoes, looking down at them. Would “You were wonderful” have been a better thing to say? Almost anything, it now seemed, would have been a better thing to say than what he’d said. But he would have to think of better things to say later; right now it was all he could do to stand there and think about the double bourbon he would have when they stopped on the way home with the Campbells. He looked at himself in the mirror, tightening his jaw and turning his head a little to one side to give it a leaner, more commanding look, the face he had given himself in mirrors since boyhood and which no photograph had ever quite achieved, until with a start he found that she was watching him. Her own eyes were there in the mirror, trained on his for an uncomfortable moment before she lowered them to stare at the middle button of his coat.”
Again, it’s the “hope” that ‘Frank Wheeler’ carried with him backstage that makes the scene so sad. We know they are doomed in the novel, but Yates is able through his prose to paint a picture of what has been lost in their marriage.
A filmmaker trying to adapt Revolutionary Road would have to have a vision for how to capture that hopeless despair through imagery rather than merely combative dialogue. Mendes did not trust that his audience could interpret the emotion so he inserted an audience member behind DiCaprio’s ‘Frank’ who whispers “Well, she was disappointing.”
Most discouraging to me when watching the film, was that Mendes missed the real moment in the backstage scene that sets the table so beautifully. The moment ‘Frank’ and ‘April’ accidentally lock eyes for that split second in the mirror. To not portray that in the film is to miss the point of the scene.
Director Todd Field had planned on making Revolutionary Road as his follow up to In the Bedroom (2001). Too bad he chose not to. Field would have delivered a far superior interpretation of the novel. In the Bedroom was adapted from a short story written by Andre Dubus. Dubus and Yates were good friends back to their University of Iowa days, and, while their prose styles were distinctly different, they wrote of the same domestic turmoil and social themes. Themes that not only suffer, but become almost unwatchable when dealt with heavy handedly.
Once upon a time authors strived to produce the next “Great American novel.” Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald set the standard, and the standard was high.
Many of today’s authors write with an eye on film adaptation. And for good reason. From the late Michael Crichton to John Grisham to Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling, the words “highly anticipated next novel” no longer carry the umph they once did. Sequels, on the other hand, pre-sell overseas before the filming even begins.
Novels like The Sun Also Rises, Madame Bovary, Franny & Zooey, The Catcher in the Rye, Portnoy’s Complaint, and The Great Gatsby were not written to become films. They soared on their own, each an adventure totally unique to the reader’s singular imagination.
Ayn Rand’s beloved Atlas Shrugged has finally been filmed (directed by Paul Johansson) at a shockingly low-budget with no stars attached (Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford were at one time) and almost no pre-release fanfare or publicity. Early criticism of the film wrote that for the material and its theme of capitalism to pay off it should have been brought up to present day circumstances.
Again, a vision for the source material is crucial.
There are a few recent examples of excellent films adapted from notable novels. Look at two of the Coen Brothers recent films: No Country for Old Men (Oscar winner Best Picture 2007) and True Grit (2010).
But those are exceptions to the rule, and those films worked because the Coens always have a vision for the material they choose to shoot.
Then there’s the obnoxious reality that once a film has announced its casting choice to play a well-known literary character, the reading experience is immediately contaminated.
One of my favorite novels is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Such a funny read. I’ve heard rumors over the years of star attachments that were potentially going in to development for a film adaptation. So glad I had already read the book. It would have been an entirely different reading experience had I been thinking of Jack Black or Will Ferrell as the Gargantuan ‘Ignatius J. Reilly.’
Now, a new generation of readers will be handed Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, and they will undoubtedly say “Cool, isn’t he the guy from Inception?”