Lost in Translation: Pitfall Predictions for Big Screen Adaptations

Posted on Thu, Jun 28 2012 7:08 am by Rebecca Schultz

When I first heard that two of my favorite American novels, The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald) and On the Road (Jack Kerouac), were being adapted for mainstream cinema, I was elated. I mean, what girl hasn’t dreamt about attending one of Jay Gatsby’s lavish 1920s New York parties or driving across a 1950s American highway with Sal and Dean, windows down and the wind in your hair, endlessly searching for “it”? And when I realized that Jay was being played by the timelessly handsome Leonardo DiCaprio (one of my leading all-time celebrity crushes), I almost started to hyperventilate. Don’t worry; this embarrassing overreaction didn’t last long. I quickly realized that the real reason I love both of these novels, even in how generationally different they are, is because of the way they’re written. Fitzgerald and Kerouac were both innovative geniuses in terms of their narrative styles, and as the release dates of each film creep closer, my concerns of what will be lost in translation continue to rise.

The Great Gatsby
There’s no doubt in my mind that this film, directed and adapted by Baz Luhrmann (Australia, Moulin Rouge) and already gossiped about in 2013 Oscar buzz, is going to be nothing short of visually breathtaking. The recently released trailer alone displays beautiful cinematography, flashing through scenes of one of Gatsby’s legendary prohibition-era parties, with hundreds of women dressed entirely in flapper-chic, and dozens of men with slick hair and perfectly tailored suits. And sure, the plot seems like it could be feasibly adaptable. Nick, a small-towner from the Midwest moves to New York and, thanks to his wealth and status obsessed neighbor, learns about what it means to live and die in order to fulfill the American Dream. And while I still remember reading and learning this in 10th grade, what really resonated with me was the simple, yet unforgettable prose he lent to narrator Nick Carraway that made Gatsby and his lifestyle both desirable and extremely intimidating at the same time. Take this description of Gatsby:

He smiled understandingly--much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced--or seemed to face--the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Reading this passage still gives me chills. Is Leonardo DiCaprio’s smile going to be reassuring enough to live up to the power it has on Tobey Maguire’s (Nick’s) conscious? I guess I’ll have to wait until Christmas to find out.

On the Road
I’ll be honest in saying that I have significantly less faith in screenwriter Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) and director Walter Salles (Paris Je T’aime, The Motorcycle Diaries) than I do in Luhrmann in making the transition from language to image. And ok, I admit that I’m completely against the idea of the usually dark-haired and sinister Twilight star Kristin Stewart playing the young, vivacious, blond-haired Mary Lou, but I’ll try not to let that bias detract from what I’m really trying to say. In fairness, I will admit that Rivera has a much more difficult job in terms of adapting the plot for mainstream cinema than Luhrmann. The most enthralling aspect of On the Road, which to me is even more riveting than any visual depiction of the drug and sex fueled lifestyle of the Beat Generation, is the way the words move on the page. Kerouac writes in a way that isn’t always linear or narratively coherent, and his scattered and spastic style is the most accurate summary of what the 1950s Beat Generation was all about—experimentation. And even though it’s a known fact that Kerouac wanted On the Road to be a movie (he wrote Marlon Brando in 1957 asking him to both buy the rights and play Dean, if he let Kerouac plays Sal) I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Kerouac would approve of strangers (both to him and to his generation) attempting to show the world what his America was like. On the Road was released at the Cannes film festival earlier this year, and its stateside release date keeps getting pushed back. A promising sign? Only time will tell.

Rebecca Schultz is the Loft’s Marketing and Communications Intern. No matter how skeptical she may be about these adaptations, she assures you she’ll do her best to watch them without an anti-Kristen Stewart biased mindset.