F. Scott Fitzgerald never fit in in Hollywood, where he came to write screenplays and ended up dying of a heart attack at 44. Maybe it’s fitting that Hollywood has such a tough time figuring out how to adapt his work.
This month, for Amazon canceled two projects by the “Great Gatsby” author: “Z: The Beginning of Everything” and “The Last Tycoon.” The Matt Bomer-starring “Tycoon” was Fitzgerald’s final novel, inspired by 1930s Hollywood. “Z” starred Christina Ricci as the author’s wife, Zelda Fitzgerald.
“There is a depth to Fitzgerald that Hollywood finds difficult to address,” David S. Brown, Elizabethtown College professor of history and author of “Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” told TheWrap. “Amazon’s version of ‘The Last Tycoon’ focused on fashionable cliches about the Hollywood Dream without taking seriously Fitzgerald‘s broader questioning of a Hollywood culture that itself operated off of cliches.”
A 1974 “Great Gatsby” adaptation starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow disappointed at the box office. It won two Oscars — for music and costume design — but mixed reviews. It has a 39 on Rotten Tomatoes. The 2013 Baz Luhrman “Gatsby” adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, fared slightly better. It also earned two Oscars, for art direction and costume design, and did decently at the box office while scoring a 48 on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Oscar wins suggest that filmmakers are better at getting the feel of Fitzgerald than addressing his deeper themes. The author reflected his distaste for Hollywood in is short stories about Pat Hobby, an alcoholic, down-on-his-luck screenwriter.
“I suppose there is a consistency in Hollywood’s never quite getting Fitzgerald right,” Brown continued. “He loathed the place. As an artist, he rebelled against its rigid ‘team of writers’ approach and struggled as a drinker to play up to its sober expectations.”
The problem seems specific to Fitzgerald, because other TV literary adaptations are thriving. At the Emmy Awards Sunday, the night’s biggest winners included “The Handmaid’s Tale,” based on the novel by Margaret Atwood, and “Big Little Lies,” based on the novel by Liane Moriarty.
Neil Landau, author of “TV Outside the Box” and head of UCLA’s Writing for Television program, told TheWrap that Amazon may be pursuing a synergistic strategy of trying to find hit shows while also goosing book sales — since it did, after all, start as an online bookseller. He noted that the service’s other shows including the Michael Connelly adaptation “Bosch,” and the Philip K. Dick-inspired “Man in the High Castle.”
But those series may be more relatable in modern times. Landau suggested a so-called “Trump Effect” and wondered whether having a president who eschews leisure reading, combined with the nation’s current sensationalized news cycle, is leading the public to see certain literary period dramas as passé.
“F. Scott and Zelda seem tame,” Landau said. “Dystopias are in. Literary fiction is, apparently, out … at least for now.”