November 21, 2013

Another Fitzgerald adaptation, but this time it’s not Gatsby

by

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1921

F. Scott Fitzgerald is hardly uncharted territory for screen adaptations; 1925’s The Great Gatsby has alone been made into no fewer than 5 movies, most recently in 2013. Now, HBO is turning to one of Fitzgerald’s lesser known works (aren’t they all lesser known?), adapting The Last Tycoon as a series.

The Last Tycoon, a story of Hollywood studio politics, was the last of Fitzgerald’s work, and was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1940. According to The Hollywood Reporter, “The drama, from Sony Pictures Television, is described as a new take on the Roman a clef inspired by the real life of film producer Irving Thalberg. The story follows Monroe Stahr (based on Thalberg) and his rise to power in old Hollywood and his conflicts with Pat Brady (based on studio topper Louis B. Mayer).”

The Huffington Post’s Jesse Kornbluth has called The Last Tycoon the “anti-Gatsby” and praised the novel as tackling more serious issues. He also believes that Fitzgerald had a better handle on the inner workings of Hollywood than he did the the Long Island rich.

The issues in “Tycoon” are deeper than the noisy concerns of “Gatsby.” Like Gatsby, Stahr has lost a woman, but in his case, she was his wife, and she died. He meets, fleetingly, a young woman who reminds him of her, and he seeks her out, but she doesn’t, as in “Gatsby,’ become his single-minded obsession. He has bigger challenges. Like the rise of a union, the Writers Guild. Like an epic conflict with the owner of the studio. And, most of all, the unending challenge of creating culture that can be transformed into commerce: “Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded.”

This New York Times review from 1941 also praised the unfinished story, with J. Donald Adams writing that it surely would have been his finest novel:

So, too, is “The Last Tycoon” an ambitious book, but, uncompleted though it is, one would be blind indeed not to see that it would have been Fitzgerald’s best novel and a very fine one. Even in this truncated form it not only makes absorbing reading; it is the best piece of creative writing that we have about one phase of American life-Hollywood and the movies. Both in the unfinished draft and in the sheaf of Fitzgerald’s notes which Mr. Wilson has appended to the story it is plainly to be seen how firm was his grasp of his material, how much he had deepened and grown as an observer of life. His sudden death, we see now, was as tragic as that of Thomas Wolfe.

As Mr. Wilson observes in his all too brief forward, Monroe Stahr, the movie big shot about whom the story is centered, is Fitzgerald’s most fully conceived character. “Amory Blaine and Antony Patch [‘This Side of Paradise’ and ‘The Beautiful and Damned’] were romantic projections of the author; Gatsby and Dick Diver were conceived more or less objectively, but not very profoundly explored. Monroe Stahr is really crafted from within at the same time that he is criticized by an intelligence that has now become sure of itself and knows how to assign him to his proper place in a large scheme of things.”

HBO has had success and acclaim with period pieces (Mildred Pierce, Band of Brothers), long-running series (The Sopranos, The Wire, Game of Thrones), and long-running period dramas (Boardwalk Empire, Deadwood, Rome). The Last Tycoon has been adapted for the movies once, in 1975, with a script written by Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter and a stellar cast including Robert DeNiro, Tony Curtis, Jeanne Moreau, and Jack Nicholson. Despite their involvement, the movie got mixed reviews.

The new HBO series will be written, produced, and directed by Billy Ray, whose work includes the scripts for “Captain Phillips” and “The Hunger Games.”

 

Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.

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