Gatsby: the Prequel

by wjw on August 19, 2010

I just watched the first few episodes of Season Six of Entourage, which features the premiere of Vinnie Chase’s new movie, The Great Gatsby, directed by Martin Scorsese.  I am unclear whether Vinnie is playing Gatsby or Nick Carraway.  (I sure as hell can’t see him as Gatsby.)

In fact I can’t really see anyone as Gatsby.  The book has already been made into at least two unsuccessful films, and I doubt the wisdom of re-making it yet another time.  The book is so dependent on such ephemeral elements as mood, symbolism, style, and Nick’s voice, that I can’t envision it turned successfully into as concrete a medium as film.  Yeah, you can film the plot, which is what the film adaptations have done, but the plot is the least interesting thing about the book.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a movie out of Gatsby.  You just have to start earlier in the story than Fitzgerald does.

At the beginning of the novel, Jay Gatsby is a mysterious millionaire with an obscure background and a crush on a woman from across the bay.  We learn during the course of the narrative that Jay Gatsby is in fact Jimmie Gatz, a semi-retired bootlegger.

See, now that’s where you start your movie.   The Rise of Jimmie Gatz is about an ambitious gangster who machine-guns his way to success, all because his girl rejected him.  You can have tommy guns, explosions, chases, and— hey!— Martin Scorsese-style ultraviolence!   Preferably with axes, baseball bats, and saws!   Jimmy Gatz wades in blood up to his spats, all to get the girl, only to find that she’s married to some useless blowhard.  (See, that’s irony!  Audiences will get from this that crime doesn’t pay!)

You could prequel a lot of the classics this way.   Becoming Scarlet could tell of the deathless love between Hester Prynne and the Reverend Dimmesdale.  (I’m totally seeing Katie Holmes and Michael Sera here.)  Before the Screw Turns could feature the twisted relationship between Peter Quint and Miss Jessel, with perverted sex, black magic, suicide, and human sacrifice.  Angle of the Blade tells the story of Izaak Walton’s disillusionment with the endless bloody fighting in the English Civil War, until and at the end he’s standing like Conan on a heap of corpses, and then he throws away his sword in disgust and goes fishing.  Becoming Satan is the prequel to Paradise Lost, featuring Lucifer’s rebellion against our heavenly father.  (Blood!  Slaughter!  Demons fried by lightning!)  Dante and Beatrice tells the story of, well, Dante and Beatrice, with lots of sex, nudity, and lush violins, until she dies of a disease that only makes her more beautiful, and Dante staggers off alone into a dark wood.

I think we can make a fortune at this!  Someone put in a call to Miramax!

Sean Craven August 19, 2010 at 12:16 pm

You know what’s scary about this? If you weren’t joking, it wouldn’t be a joke. This could work, really, and you could play it off any old way you wanted to. Now, if I were you I’d consider doing the novel as a breakout literary work — there’s a tradition of this kind of thing in lit fic, novels written from the perspective of Captain Ahab’s Aunt Ephigenia and so on, so it’s probably easiest to market it there. Then sell the movie rights to Michael Bay. Then start working on the next one, and then you’re the dude who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

That was intended to be a prophecy of doom, but it kind of sounds like a career path.

That said, I’ve been mooching around the house for something to read lately, and I now have an unfortunate suspicion that what I’m really in the mood for is Angle of the Blade.

Kathy Hedges August 19, 2010 at 3:22 pm

This is fantastic! I think this should be an anthology, with each prequel written by a different writer.

Ralf The Dog. August 19, 2010 at 10:18 pm

I thought the movie version of Great Gatsby was Leaving Las Vegas. If I remember, the difference is, On was a slow depressing book where a person slowly destroys themselves with drugs drinking and stuff while the other book has a prostitute tossed into the equation. It has been a very long time, so I may be missing something.

Bruce Arthurs August 20, 2010 at 12:08 am

Umm, the prequel to “Turn Of The Screw” has already been done, fairly close to what you describe: The Nightcomers, starring Marlon Brando as Quint.

wjw August 20, 2010 at 3:56 am

I did know that there was a prequel to Turn of the Screw, but I thought it was a play, not a movie.

The Fitzgerald novel most closely resembling Leaving Las Vegas is Tender is the Night, which features the principal character drinking himself into— not death exactly, but certainly helplessness. Gatsby, on the other hand, gets shot in the back by an auto mechanic.

Carrie V. August 20, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Steven Brust did “To Reign in Hell,” which is basically your prequel to Paradise Lost. Not a film, but I’m sure he’d sell the book rights to ya.

wjw August 20, 2010 at 8:55 pm

Actually Milton already wrote it. There’s a big chunk of Paradise Lost that’s a flashback to the War in Heaven. It’s kind of cool, since it features the pike-and-saber tactics of the English Civil War translated to three dimensions (because angels can fly, of course).

mastadge August 21, 2010 at 1:19 am

I bet Gatsby could be successfully filmed. Just get a sensualist rather than a formalist director. What could Wong Kar-wai or Terrence Malick or Warner Herzog do with Gatsby?

Shash August 21, 2010 at 2:53 am

Go for it. Or, try putting a different spin on it and add the currently popular vampires. Take a look at the numbers for “Pride and Predjuice and Zombies.” It’s already developed a cult audience.

Kathy Hedges August 21, 2010 at 4:49 pm

I want to see “Moby Dick: The Prequel.” All about that violent encounter between Ahab and the whale, in which Ahab lost his leg.

DensityDuck August 23, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Kathy Hedges: You could make it as a reality TV show.

Heck, with the proper writing, you could turn “Deadliest Catch” into “Moby Dick”. I’m pretty sure that someone on the Time Bandit could be convinced to have his leg ripped off by a giant enemy crab on national TV.

PS prequels? Heck, how about bridge movies? “Spartan Ideals”, a romcom set between 300 and Troy.

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