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Critic's Notebook: 'Gatsby,' 'Gatz' and the fallacy of adaptation

'The Great Gatsby' is a great American novel, and what makes it great defies adaptation, though Elevator Repair Service's 'Gatz' tries.

December 09, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Laurena Allan, left, Scott Shepherd and Annie McNamara in the Elevator Repair Service's "Gatz."
Laurena Allan, left, Scott Shepherd and Annie McNamara in the Elevator… (Gene Pittman / Cal Arts )

We live in a culture of excess. From supersized fast food to billion-dollar presidential campaigns, bigger is always better.

This is hardly a new observation; it's been part of us all along. In his 1960 satire "The Magic Christian," Terry Southern imagines "a gigantic convertible … scaled in the proportions of an ordinary automobile but … tremendous in size — … longer and wider than the largest Greyhound bus."

And then, of course, there is "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald's 87-year-old masterpiece, a novel that takes excess as its essence, unfolding on vast estates, at lavish parties, while never losing sight of the fact that beneath the surface, such fripperies cannot mask an emptiness that is all-pervasive, that all the money, houses, Champagne in the world won't fill.

INTERACTIVE: Tricks to turning pages into frames

What's remarkable about "The Great Gatsby" is that it does this in a neat and tidy 189 pages. It is, in other words, a great American novel as opposed to the Great American Novel — the mythic beast that is another emblem of the excess at our core. You could read it in an afternoon, which may be what first drew the New York theater company Elevator Repair Service to adapt it for the stage show "Gatz." Unfortunately, I found the production problematic for a lot of reasons, beginning with its narrative conceit, in which a man in an office reads the book aloud to his co-workers while waiting for his computer to be fixed.

Surely, one of the charms of "The Great Gatsby" is that it appears to open up so easily, that its conflicts (love, lust, loss, coming of age, the sense that, to borrow a line from Joan Didion, "it had counted after all, every evasion and ever procrastination, every word, all of it") remain so recognizable.

The book takes place in 1922, but it may was well be 2012, so deftly does it sketch out who we are. "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us," Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway tells us in the novel's closing paragraphs. "… He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night."

There it is, the mix of nostalgia and naivete at the heart of our national identity, the belief that, somehow, we should get what we want.

Indeed, the secret of "The Great Gatsby" is that, with the exception of Nick, its characters are children, "careless people," as he says of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

That's my favorite passage in "The Great Gatsby," although by the time "Gatz" got around to it, I was barely holding on.

Talk about mess, about excess: The show makes of "The Great Gatsby" everything Fitzgerald's novel is not. Eight hours long (including two intermissions and a 75-minute dinner break), it frames the book as obsessive epic, relentlessly, ceaselessly complete.

I don't want to dwell on this too much — my interest, after all, is in the novel — but it does make for an interesting set of contrasts, in which faith to the source material becomes its own sort of misreading, one that never sees the forest for the trees.

Partly, I suppose, this has to do with the difficulty of adapting "The Great Gatsby," as director John Collins points out in his program notes. It's never been dramatized well (and I don't hold a lot of hope for the upcoming Baz Luhrmann film either) because like most great novels, it's about much more than its plot.

For all that Fitzgerald means to tell us about the emptiness of wealth and class, it's in the observations — and in that exquisite language — that the book is made. This, to be fair, is what led Elevator Repair Service to reproduce "The Great Gatsby" in its entirety. "The prose is so delicately and expertly constructed," Collins notes, "that even the omission of a single adjective is rhythmically disappointing."

And yet, here we also have the fallacy of the adaptation, for literature is an interior art. This is its power, that only in a book can we enter another person's imagination so directly, animating his or her language even as we are inhabited by it. That's the reason landmark fiction rarely makes good drama; it is already self-contained.

INTERACTIVE: Tricks to turning pages into frames

"The Great Gatsby" is a perfect case-in-point. The most memorable details (the green light, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, Daisy's voice like money) arise from the story but are not part of it, exactly; they stand outside Gatsby's parties or his pursuit of Daisy, which are (let's face it) not so far removed from melodrama.

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