BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – While today F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is universally acclaimed as one of the great American novels, in the author’s lifetime the book was not quickly embraced by the reading public.
As director Baz Luhrmann and his production team were researching Fitzgerald’s life for their lavish screen adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” they couldn’t help being struck by a certain real-life tragedy that hovered over the book.
During a pre-release press conference hosted by Warner Bros. at the Plaza Hotel, Luhrmann and his producer Lucy Fisher talked about Fitzgerald’s struggles with the novel and its rocky path toward classic status.
“One of my assistants is Sam Bromell, and his uncle is in fact Henry Bromell, who made a film called ‘Last Call’ with Jeremy Irons in it. It was about the last days of Fitzgerald in Hollywood,” Luhrmann said. “And in our research we learned that when Fitzgerald was about to die he was going into shops and buying copies of his own book, ‘The Great Gatsby,’ just so there would be a few sales registered at the publishing company.”
“When he died, there were 4,000 copies of the book in print,” said Fisher. “Some little known facts are when it was published – and there’s great correspondence between him and his editor Maxwell Perkins in which Fitzgerald is pouring his heart out and writing for money – he was just hoping that the book would sell.
“It had mixed reviews when it came out, and its two most memorable big fans were T.S. Eliot and Edith Wharton,” she said. “But the public more or less rejected it until Lionel Trilling came along in the 1940s and reclaimed it as the great American novel, at which point it was sent to the soldiers in World War II as a little piece of Americana and then later became read in every high school. So it’s had an interesting history, but literally when he died 4,000 were in print. So he had no idea that it was going to be reclaimed and redeemed the way it was.”
Luhrmann laughed at a speculative question of what Fitzgerald would think about his multi-million dollar film and all the hoopla surrounding it.
“I don’t know what he would think about this film, but the fact that it’s the number one best-selling book in America today, I know he’d feel pretty good about that,” the director said. “When I think that we’re opening here in New York, 20 minutes from where he wrote on Long Island, and we’re also opening at the Cannes Film Festival, 20 minutes from the Promenade de la Coiseette. While he was writing some of the most painful passages in Gatsby, down on the beach where the Palais is, his wife was having an affair with a French officer.
“How could he know that 88 years later his book would be turned into a drama, with a collection of – I’ll say this – the finest actors in the world playing the characters in that book, and in 3-D? How could he know that?”