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Fitzgerald adaptations get mixed results

Literary magic has never quite worked on Hollywood

Before the spring of 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald had traveled extensively abroad, written several plays, three collections of short stories and three novels, including “The Great Gatsby” — not bad for a man still in the flush of his 20s. And yet Fitzgerald was already pining for the lost youth he had scarcely left behind.

He would never again achieve the success of his debut work, “This Side of Paradise.” Later, while essaying the overnight fame to which “Paradise” had catapulted him, when he and young wife Zelda became the toast of New York’s smart set, Fitzgerald recalled “riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be happy again.”

It was a telling revelation, for Fitzgerald — as fragile as one of Keats’ Grecian urns — was experiencing a sense of diminishing returns, and his booze-fueled escapades with Zelda appeared a desperate attempt to ward off the inevitable crash-and-burn. The final chapter of his life, the time he spent in Hollywood, only underscored his sense that “there are no second acts in American lives.”

Of course, the writer might have turned over in his grave if he would have known the kind of fame and adulation his work would receive after of his death, and all the attempts by Hollywood — mostly failed — to translate his work into something that would move film audiences the way his prose inspired readers. Even more startling would be the idea that one of his most insubstantial, and uncharacteristic, of short stories — “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — would be adapted into a love story of epic proportions and touted as a front-runner in the Oscar race.

More than 20 films have been drawn from Fitzgerald’s life and work, and the specter of the writer’s celebrity has always hung over the proceedings. After all, Fitzgerald was a star when the Great American Novel was considered the height of artistic achievement, and the man and the myth have become so intertwined that his stories have taken on a Pirandellian dimension all their own.

Even more elusive than Fitzgerald’s luminous prose was the writer’s own personal aura. “Viewers think any movie from a Fitzgerald work is a biography of Fitzgerald,” said the late Matthew Bruccoli, Fitzgerald biographer and the most significant keeper of the Fitzgerald flame, who died in June. “He was an intensely autobiographical writer.”

Certainly traces of Fitzgerald’s complex persona are revealed in virtually all his heroes, even multiple characters within the same book. In “The Great Gatsby” he’s both the title character — the social striver who will stop at nothing to get the girl — and narrator Nick Carraway, a man of modest means, high ideals and keen powers of observation. And like Monroe Stahr of “The Last Tycoon,” Fitzgerald “saw a new way of measuring our jerky hopes and graceful rogueries and awkward sorrows.”

One producer insisted Scott and Zelda play their fictional alter egos Amory Blaine and Rosalind Connage in a film version of “This Side of Paradise.” The writer was even screen-tested during his first trip to Hollywood in 1927, when he met actress Lois Moran, the inspiration for Rosemary Hoyt in “Tender Is the Night.”

In his efforts to produce a movie version of “Tender” in the ’50s, David O. Selznick harbored concerns that the novel’s appeal by itself would not suffice: “Ninety-nine percent and more of our picture audience will not ‘get’ it unless they see and hear what Fitzgerald knew and lived through,” he wrote in one of his famous memos.

Producer Robert Evans, who has cultivated his own Gatsbyesque mystique, once played Irving Thalberg, the model for Fitzgerald’s “Last Tycoon,” in “Man of a Thousand Faces.” When Thalberg’s widow, Norma Shearer, optioned “Tycoon,” she envisioned Evans as Stahr, but producer Selznick vetoed the idea, saying Evans didn’t “have the chops.”

Evans would later achieve some measure of redemption as a Thalberg-like boy wonder in his own right as production chief at Paramount, where he developed the studio’s third stab at “Gatsby” for then wife Ali MacGraw. But while waiting almost a year for an unfilmable draft from Truman Capote, MacGraw left Evans for Steve McQueen. (Francis Ford Coppola, fresh off his writing Oscars for “The Godfather” and “Patton,” tossed off a “Gatsby” script in three weeks, hewing closely to the novel.)

Reviews were mixed, partly due to an excess of hype (a Time cover story in March of ’74 announced “The Great Gatsby Supersell”). Robert Redford, cast as Gatsby, had the ability to play the dissembler — the fair-haired boy from the wrong side of the tracks — but his performance was stilted. What’s more, Fitzgerald’s essence was all but overshadowed by lavish production values.

Variety Editor-in-Chief Peter Bart, who was Evans’ right-hand man at Paramount and later produced “Islands in the Stream” (1977) from the Hemingway novel, says Hemingway and Fitzgerald pose a trap. “If you rewrite them too greatly, people who loved the books will rise up in arms. You want to capture their great sense of setting, but you have to tamper with them because they’re not structured (for film). What’s seducing about the work is the quality of the prose, and that you can’t translate to film.”

“Tycoon,” based on Fitzgerald’s last (unfinished) novel, could be considered a textbook example of Bart’s point. The film — despite a pedigree that included producer Sam Spiegel, director Elia Kazan, a young Robert De Niro and an adaptation by Harold Pinter — was at the time seen by many as the last nail in the coffin of Fitzgerald adaptations.

In her review for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote: “Though the dreamy crushes of Fitzgerald’s doomed heroes are very appealing on the page, they don’t come across on the screen.” While “Gatsby” grossed $20.6 million domestic ($85.6 million in today’s dollars), not bad for a $6.5 million film, “Tycoon” expired short of $2 million.

Selznick, a Fitzgerald fanatic, would never achieve his goal of producing “Tender” or “Tycoon,” but he did recruit Fitzgerald into his stable of writers who toiled on “Gone With the Wind.” Although Selznick held Fitzgerald the novelist in high regard, he called his early screen treatments “awful” and ultimately discarded his contributions. Nevertheless, at $1,250 a week, Fitzgerald was treated like royalty, even if the emperor had no clothes.

“(Hollywood) respected him,” said Gore Vidal. “The notion that these vulgarians had no idea what a Faberge egg had been laid amongst them was nonsense. They knew perfectly well he was a marvelous writer, that he was having a terrible time with alcohol and a crazy wife. And they overlooked his lousy work until finally it just became impossible.”

Bruccoli dispelled the notion that Fitzgerald was just another burned-out writer who came to Hollywood to earn a quick buck.

“The evidence indicates that MGM treated him wonderfully,” said Bruccoli in 2005. “He went out there (in 1937) deeply in debt, washed up, and MGM gave him 1,000 a week — that’s like $10,000 a week today — the first six months and then they raised it to $1,250 the next year. That 18 months on the MGM payroll enabled Fitzgerald to pay off his debts, provide for his family and regain some self-respect.

“But English professors who have tenure have delighted in embellishing the false impression of ‘Fitzgerald the hack.’ They keep bringing up Pat Hobby, Fitzgerald’s comic figure, who is a drunken, illiterate writer in Hollywood, as a self-portrait of Fitzgerald. In no way do they resemble each other.”

But the quality of Fitzgerald’s screenwriting is dubious. Budd Schulberg, with whom Fitzgerald was paired on “Winter Carnival,” said he read two scripts: “Three Comrades” (the only film for which Fitzgerald received a screen credit) and Fitzgerald’s own version of his short story “Babylon Revisited.” “I thought he handled the dialogue pretty well,” says Schulberg. “It was a little bit more flowery than movies we’re used to, and a little more literate, you might even say.”

Bruccoli added that Fitzgerald “wrote scripts as though he were writing a novel. There would be lots and lots of description and brilliant stylistic tricks that couldn’t be photographed. This is why every movie made from Fitzgerald’s work to date has been somewhere between disappointing and catastrophically bad, because you can’t photograph Fitzgerald’s style; the camera doesn’t see that.”

Vidal was more blunt: “Fitzgerald had no talent for screenwriting, or dramatic writing of any kind.”

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald remains a staple of high school and college lit courses, and is one of Scribner & Sons’ bestselling backlisted authors.

But whether or not Fitzgerald’s name carries the same cachet with today’s audiences has yet to be determined. “I’m sure if you stopped 1,000 people leaving the movies next Friday night and asked them, ‘Have you read ‘Tender Is the Night?’ they’d say, ‘No,'” says Bart. “(Writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway) are very dicey as contemporary subjects. I think it’s dangerous turf — always attractive, but dangerous turf.”

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