A rewritten "Great Gatsby" that grates

A rewritten "Great Gatsby" that grates July 9, 2011

Last summer, I decided to revisit one of my favorite books, “The Great Gatsby.” I almost read it in one sitting.  The sheer music of it was as captivating as I remember, and the lines just flowed.  F. Scott Fitzgerald captured something elusive and haunting and real in that book; there’s a mystery and delicacy to it that somehow eluded the filmmakers in their overblown version from the 1970’s that featured Robert Redford and lots of pretty shirts.

I was smitten by the book when I first read it in high school.  In an ironic twist, when my wife and I were married at old St. Mary’s Church in Rockville, Maryland in 1986, we were surprised to learn that two of those in attendance would be Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  They are buried in the churchyard right outside the chapel, just a few feet from where we exchanged our vows.  In fact, the gravestone is marked with the famous words that close “The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past…”

Well, it seems someone has decided that all that elegant prose was just too much for a young audience.

Roger Ebert gives us a look at a revised version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic — and it’s just awful:

I learn that the Margaret Tarner “retelling” employs an Intermediate Level vocabulary of “about 1,600 basic words.” Upper Level students can feast on 2,200 basic words.

There are so many things I want to say about this that even an Upper Level vocabulary may prove inadequate.

The first is: There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

He goes on, with extensive quotes, but here’s a sample.

Fitzgerald’s famous conclusion of the book:

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

The revision (or “retelling”) :

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby’s dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn’t he?

Robert Ebert rightly condemns this as an “obscenity.”  Read the rest, if you can stomach it.

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21 responses to “A rewritten "Great Gatsby" that grates”

  1. A truly great novel, one of my favorites. The rewrite is horrid. Fitzgerald was one of the master’s of beautiful prose. You cannot improve on it.

  2. The retold version is the sort of thing that would make one want to AVOID the original book. It makes an incredibly nuanced story seem didactic and revolting. If you were forced to read the dumbed-down version, you would have a bad taste in your mouth whenever you next heard the title mentioned.

    This is what we end up with when our curriculum is turned into just a set of things that students can be tested on in a quick, cost-efficient manner. Literature as simplistic plot summary. History as a set of names and dates to memorize.

  3. Awful. Is this what is meant by “dumbing down?” It’s no wonder that that new translation of the Roman Missal, in some circles, is seen as being “out of touch” if one is restricted to a vocabulary of 1600 words … But I digress … Now, where are my Tums?

  4. I heartily dislike the rewriting of a great master of words or music. As a young piano student I complained when the teacher would give me the edited “easy” version of a piece I knew was much more complex than what sat before me. I was seven. There was a reason for her actions. In the case of high school students, I read _The Great Gatsby_ at age 16 and became a lifelong lover of truly great literature.

    As you said, ick.

  5. I think obscenity is too mild a word. Come one Roger, tell us what you really are thinking. Use those old Anglo Saxon words of revilement.

  6. F. Scott Fitzgerald probably is turning over in his grave. If this “dumbing down” trend continues, in a few generations, we will be a nation of semi-literates.

  7. If you just want something quick and dirty to pretend like you read something that you didn’t, Cliff Notes is better than this. Good grief.

  8. I saw the Redford version. Eh, so so. I don’t know the novel that well though, it always seemed so melancholic to me? I’m sure I missed something.

  9. The revision isn’t merely dumbed down. It doesn’t just use simpler wording to convey the thoughts of the original. The bit you quote expresses ideas that aren’t in the original.

  10. This sounds similar to those who want to rewrite (and some have) Huck Finn etc. Ridiculous. This implies that today’s children aren’t smart enough to understand books written “a long time ago?”

  11. I don’t remember when I first read “The Great Gatsby,” but I fell in love with Fitzgerald’s writing then and there. I thought one of the side benefits of reading literature was that it increases your vocabulary. I know that my written and spoken vocabulary grew steadily as I read books with delicious words.

    Pretty soon there won’t be 2000, or 1000, word lists. I mean, lol and u r my bff, and roflmao: who needs words?

  12. Regina: we ARE a nation of simi-literates. Actually, that is probably rather optimistic.

  13. naturgesetz is right — this is more than a dumbing down — this is putting an entirely different meaning to the original plot line.

  14. I recently taught the beginning of Gatsby to several classes of 11th grade, generally college-bound English students. Time constraints were such that we only got through 3 chapters (1/3 of the novel), but they were thoroughly confused by what they had read, and sadly, many of them were unwilling to keep working, to read the text closely, to figure out what actually was going on. While it is impossible to say what would have happened if I had 2 more weeks to finish the novel with them, our instant gratification society I’m sure plays a part. I’d like to hope my students and all of us are more than semi-literate, but as tenacity and perseverance become extinct qualities in people, we’re going to be stuck with a curriculum of abridgements.

  15. Apparently, the re-written version is a text that’s used for people learning English as a second language. But, as Ebert points out, why change Gatsby? Why not have the ESL students read something whole and complete that is easier? There are many excellent juvenile and young adult novels that would not be too “childish” for an ESL adult.
    As a children’s librarian I sometimes have parents that come in wanting their child to read something like Treasure Island or Ivanhoe. They ask, “but don’t you have it in an easier version?” I want to tell them that it is what it is. Books aren’t shoes that you just pick the size that fits you.

  16. I kept hoping this was a joke. (Well, it is a joke, but not an intended one.)

    There are so many places to point the finger, but I think chief among them is a general lowering of expectations in every part of our lives. The same young people who can’t be expected to deal with the nuances of racial language in Twain or give Fitzgerald (or anyone else) a close reading are also not expected to be able to defer their gratification regarding anything from acquiring the latest digital gadget to satisfying their hormonal urges, be responsible for earning (or at least substantially contributing to) their keep, or endure discipline for anything other than sports (and then, only for the elite athlete). That’s not true of everyone, but it is the prevailing societal stance, which makes for things like a whole store full of people nearly bursting into applause when a friend’s young daughter–who has been held to a counterculturally high standard, and whose head has not exploded because of it–said Thank you to a sales clerk.

    OK, I know part of this is because I’m 60 and a curmudgeon, but please! We read Classic Comics for ease of plot as children, but that never stopped us from wrestling with, and being transformed by, literature in its original language. Ah well. In the future, someone like me will be pining for the fleshpots of the 20-teens, when blogs still had words.

  17. My father used to say not to judge people, so when I sold bonds in New York I didn’t judge myself or others. I helped a pleasant rich guy, maybe a hood, hook up again with my cousin Daisy. I don’t think they did much but Daisy’s husband was suspicious and it came to a bad end when the nice rich guy was killed. He had a great smile though and an American kind of yearning.

  18. The Great Gatsby was one of my favourite books when I was in my late teens/early 20s. I think the rewrite is sad but I won’t hasten to pass judgement. What was the PURPOSE of the rewrite?

    My son, who is dyslexic, didn’t learn to read until he was about 12 years old. He’s also extraordinarily gifted. One of the difficulties we had was that he couldn’t tolerate the standard “readers” inflicted on kids (See Spot, run. Oh, Jane! etc.) because they were too boring for him. We then discovered that a whole pile of “classics” have been “translated” into easy reading books for challenged readers. These books — terribly written though they were — saved my son’s life! At last, there was some easy work that he could tolerate. I wonder if this was the purpose of the Great Gatsby rewrite

  19. What a tragedy for anyone who is forced to read this “revision”. The poetry of these authors is part of the reason we read them

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