Adapting to challenges
Indeed, it's not just literary pedigree that may make a book "unfilmable." Moviemakers may be wary of subject matter, technological challenges, even the mood. A talked-about book might only sell 50,000 copies; a movie has to sell millions of tickets.
So there's a reason Hollywood took the tragic ending of "The Natural" and turned it into a scene of feel-good fireworks. Who, besides a bunch of hubris-fascinated English majors, wants to see the book's (spoiler!) fallen, weeping Roy Hobbs "excluded from the game and all his records forever destroyed"?
Those challenges need not be a death sentence at the box office or with critics, however. "The Natural" had a successful run. John Ford's version of "The Grapes of Wrath" eliminated a symbolic suckling scene, toned down the politics, changed the ending and became a classic. McCarthy's brutal "No Country for Old Men" is full of horrific violence (not to mention the author's distinctive terse writing). Yet the Coen brothers managed to make an Oscar winner out of the material, helped in no small way by Javier Bardem's chilling performance as Anton Chigurh.
"Midnight Cowboy," "The English Patient," "The Lord of the Rings," "Life of Pi" -- all had their issues, whether cultural, literary or technological, and all ended up successful and award-winning films.
The key is that everybody has to be on the same page (pardon the pun), says screenwriter Karol Hoeffner, who's adapted works by authors such as Danielle Steel .
"For the best adaptations, you have a partnership," says Hoeffner, who teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Moviemaking is a team effort, and if the screenwriter, director and producer are at loggerheads, the final product will suffer, she says.
And you have to follow your own muse, she adds. Hoeffner's original work, including books for young adults, is far different from Steel's romances, and she knew she'd have to make Steel's melodramatic dialogue more film-friendly.
"But," she says, "I was convinced I could tell the story."
Which brings us back to "Gatsby."
Luhrmann has the creative partnerships: Pal Craig Pearce wrote the screenplay and Luhrmann's wife, Catherine Martin, tackled the production design. He's tried a different angle, getting at "Gatsby's" famous distance by making Nick Carraway's character -- now in a sanitarium -- the novelist.
And, not unimportantly, he has the marketing muscle.
After all, a primary reason Hollywood keeps adapting certain novels is the built-in sales factor. "Gatsby" is on countless high school reading lists and sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year. There's a curious audience already waiting.
In addition, the book is being backed by a marketing blitz that would make Fitzgerald, a former advertising man, proud. Brooks Brothers, Tiffany, hotels, even an ice-cream manufacturer have climbed aboard the "Gatsby" bandwagon.
Will all that appeal to a summer movie audience generally filled with teenagers?
It's certainly shrewd, says Mary Simonson, a film and media studies professor at Colgate University.
"As I watched the trailer, I thought, 'This is for 16-year-olds,' " she says. "All of this is about gearing this toward high school and college students who may not have any notion of who Fitzgerald was or what the book actually was.
"They're not going to care too much about whether this is a well-done adaptation," she adds. "They're going to care about whether it's a Hollywood blockbuster."