Why a Great American Novel Does Not Make for a Great American Movie

great Gatsby
The most recent version of the Great Gatsby featured Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby

Number Five Entertains

Last week I had a chance to view this year’s release of The Great Gatsby. Overall, it is Hollywood’s fifth attempt at making a great movie out of a great book and who knows whether it will be the last. First of all, let me say I did enjoy the movie. I usually don’t go for films that rely heavily on the new digital technology for special effects, but in the case of this Gatsby version, I found that they added to the story by helping visualize turning back the clock to the roaring twenties. The atmospheric effects obtained through digital manipulation were very good, making you feel that you had been transported back into time.

Nick Caraway and Daisy from
Nick Caraway (Tobey Maguire) and Daisy (Carey Mulligan) from the Great Gatsby

Revisiting F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is not the only piece of Fitzgerald’s fiction that has produced as a feature length film. The other cinematic effort comes from a short story that Fitzgerald wrote, called The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The story was first published by Collier’s magazine in 1922 and then was featured in Tales from the Jazz Age, a collcetion of short stories that was published in the same year. Since this weird and fantastic tale revolves a main character, who was born as an old man and died as a baby, it can be easily placed in the catch-all category of speculative fiction. The 2008 movie featured Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in the leading rolls. It did quite well at the box office and has continued to sell as a popular DVD ever since it closed at the movie houses.

Today, this film probably has a larger following than Fitzgerald’s super popular novel, which goes to show that a successful novel does not guarantee a box office smash hit.

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Will The Short Story Survive

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USS_Annapolis after surfacing through three feet of Artic ice, credit: photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Tiffini M. Jones, U.S. Navy

Over at Absolute Write the subject of short stories came up and there was a link to an online site that had an interesting premise as a title, “Why Book Publishers Love Short Stories.” Here’s the link, if you want to go there and share Alan Rinsler’s optimism. Alan is an editorial consultant in New York City and here are a few of  his observations about the current status of publishing vis-a-vis the short story.

There’s a robust market for books of stories,

Literary journals publishing short fiction,

Book publishers take chances on new writers,

Short story collections can sell very well,

The short story as dress rehearsal.

Had enough?  I have and those are just the sub-headings; there’s a lot of comments and opinions still left in the article. My first reaction was this guy’s off his rocker; everybody knows short stories don’t sell, but then just the other day I was in the local independent bookstore, where they list and display all the best selling books for that particular store and the number one book was Olive Kittredge by Elizabeth Strout. And it’s a collection of short stories and it’s been at the top of the list for months.

OK!  First, let me explain a few things. I live on the coast of Maine and that’s where all these stories take place – in Crosby, Maine. But still Ms. Strout is also doing pretty good on the NY Times Bestsellers list and I think she picked up a Pulitzer Prize for fiction too boot. Not bad for a collection of short stories.

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Titantic bow as seen from MIR 1 submersible: credit NOAA

And then there’s Jimmy Buffett’s collection of short stories. That book is called Tales from Margaritaville. And if you think the title has just more than a faint resemblance to a song of a similar name you’re right. Being a famous songwriter didn’t hurt, but seems I remember somewhere that not only did Tales of Margaritaville make it to the top of the NYT Bestseller list, but so did his A Pirate Looks At Fifty. Quite a feat because both books were at the top of the list at the same time. (no it wasn’t a tie, one was fiction and the other was non-fiction). The last somebody fulled a stunt like that was over a hundred years, back at the turn of the century when Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain did the same thing. Now that’s a pretty good accomplishment for a pop star and if you think Buffet’s writing’s a fluke check out his reading list. It’s available if you thumb through the Pirate book.

Don’t forget about the short stories that became a movie. That list includes Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rear Window based on a It Had To Be Murder by John Michael Hayes and the Pit and the Pendelem by Edgar Alan Poe.

So now that I think about it, the short story might be a little more important than one realizes. Even though only a few of the big NY magazines still pay good money for a short, they still  act like a proving ground for mainstream fiction writers.