05/08/2013 06:49 pm ET Updated May 09, 2013

'The Great Gatsby' Unadaptable? Why Baz Luhrmann's Movie Seems Programmed To Fail


They "didn't come with soundtracks,” the author Mohsin Hamid recently mused in an essay on why he came to love novels. Readers of them, unlike movie watchers, "got more of the source code -- the abstract symbols we call letters and words -- and assembled more of the story themselves."

As the wide release of Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby" nears, Hamid's metaphor feels almost like a challenge. F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous work is definitive American source code, its symbols lodged in the minds of generations of readers. Can watching a film version of this code, as cracked by someone else, ever match the pleasure of reading the book?

Not as long as it continues to be adapted the way it has been for decades, according to Joseph O'Neill. The novelist, whose slow-burning thriller Netherland drew comparisons to The Great Gatsby when it was published in 2008, is a noted skeptic of the worth of adapting "the greats" perforce. But the idea of visually enacting Fitzgerald's narrative is particularly flawed, he said, because it ignores that its "surprise element is located at the level of sentence."

"We don't know what happens because we can't quite remember how the sentences work," O'Neill told The Huffington Post. "If you take the plot and try to change it into a three-act drama for the purposes of a motion picture, you start having problems."

It's a neat diagnosis of why Luhrmann's adaptation may have followed its predecessors and fallen short of the novel's promise.

Curious, we conducted an informal test. We asked 10 book lovers what they remember of Gatsby. Two recalled the pivotal car crash that crowns the novel's narrative arc. One wasn't sure if the action concludes with a murder or a suicide. All, though, could recite phrasing, particularly the novel's loaded opener (Nick Carraway's father's warning that "all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had") and its luminous last line ("So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.").

This notion of the text's peculiar intractability isn't new. In an otherwise slick profile of Luhrmann's latest release in the New York Times, writer Charles McGrath leads with a knotty caveat: that it's "practically conventional wisdom that Fitzgerald's novel is unfilmable, because its real power comes not from the plot but the prose."

And yet, filmmakers repeatedly take on the dreaded task of translating it. The challenge yields legendary reactions. Before shooting began on the 1949 film version, the story goes that the increasingly anxious director, Elliot Nugent, headed to the tenth-floor fire escape of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. His aim was to jump off, so great was the gap between his opinion of the source material and his faith in his own ability to do it justice. Nugent didn't jump, but he ultimately forfeited to Fitzgerald, releasing a film more gangster flick than dark fairy tale, with a Gatsby who repents and "squares himself" for the sake of his honor at the movie's end.

For other desperate souls, translating can turn into transcribing. Francis Ford Coppola, who wrote the script for the 1974 version starring Robert Redford, recently told Town & Country that he was so "terrified" by the novel's prose-to-dialogue ratio, he resorted to plundering lines from Fitzgerald's short stories to create scenes he felt would establish a love connection between Daisy and Gatsby on screen.

This was the tactic Coppola advised Luhrmann to use, along with his old notes. And Luhrmann has. All through this fresh "Gatsby" press circuit, the Australian director has stressed that his decisions came out of immersing himself in Fitzgerald's writings, including Trimalchio, the little-known, raw predecessor to Gatsby. James L.W. West III, the English professor who unearthed and first published this Ur-text, and whom Luhrmann consulted, said Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby resembles the title character of that early imprint.

"He's more mysterious," West told The Huffington Post, after seeing the movie. "He's less in control of himself than the Gatsby we remember from the novel, and certainly more violent."

But so far, critics aren't finding Fitzgerald in Luhrmann's vision. Early reviews are largely negative, and the predictions for its opening box office performance are dismal. New Yorker critic David Denby ended his complaint -- in which he calls the adaptation more music video than movie -- by proposing a ban, asking that the novel now "be left in peace," as it's "too intricate, too subtle, too tender for the movies."

For those filmmakers who insist on disturbing it, O'Neill suggests studying a model of adaptation made by an older Coppola, this time in the director's chair: "Apocalypse Now," a movie that "thoroughly metabolized a novel and re-imagined it in terms of the moving image."

And, more to the point -- "it didn't make the mistake of calling itself Heart of Darkness."