Revisiting Gatsby [A&C]
The unforeseen beauty of public domain reworks
The Brown Daily Herald
By AJ Wu
December 6, 2023 | 11:16pm EST
The Great Gatsby entered the public domain in 2021. The air tasted the same. The clocks chimed no differently. The eyes of T.J. Eckleburg remained unblinking. But the world as we—those of us exposed to The Great Gatsby in a high school English class—knew it was forever changed.
Along with its newfound availability on Project Gutenberg, The Great Gatsby’s release into the public domain also came with many creative adaptations. During quarantine, documentary filmmaker Ben Crew embarked on a project to distract himself from the looming chaos of the global pandemic and the 24/7 news cycle covering “what was happening in D.C.” He emerged from lockdown with a 104-page script for a Muppets adaptation of The Great Gatsby. The work—which introduces a magnificent portrayal of Gatsby from our favorite green frog, as well as Nick Carraway’s constant internal monologuing confusing his muppet co-stars—brings delicious charm and extravagant musical numbers to Fitzgerald’s original work. It quickly picked up a dedicated fanbase, which produced a fan-made poster and a Subreddit committed to launching the project.
Gatsby Great The—the text of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby with the words rearranged in alphabetical order by artist Ryland Stalder—is another inspired remix. While it does not make much sense narratively, it does shed light on the novel’s preoccupations—like a giant word cloud, it gets us both a little farther away from the plot and closer to the core of the novel and how it makes us feel and what it inspires us to think about. The alphabetical reading provides new and uncanny strings of words such as “dazed dazzling dead” and “loneliness, lonely lonely Long.” When stripped away of all narrative context, these amusing but thought-provoking strings retain and amplify the emotional core of The Great Gatsby. They describe in a way different from other formats the idea that extravagance is ephemeral and how loneliness becomes unbearably long.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was buried in Rockville, Maryland, where I grew up. His grave is almost visible from the window of my tenth-grade English classroom. When Fitzgerald died at 44, having suffered from alcoholism and a series of three heart attacks, his books were all out of print and he believed himself fated to fade into literary obscurity. He requested “the cheapest funeral” possible and was buried where his father had lived—in Rockville, allegedly because he had made no plans to be buried anywhere else.
While Fitzgerald may have been mostly apathetic about his relationship with Rockville, Rockville is decidedly more eager to claim Fitzgerald. Every fall, my hometown hosts the F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival, a three- to four-day event. The festival offers writing workshops and talks on Fitzgerald scholarship, celebrates literary guests of honor—past honorees include Richard Powers and Barbara Kingsolver—and winners of various sponsored short story contests read from their stories.
Almost immediately after Gatsby’s copyright was lifted, a podcast I’ve been a long-time fan of, Planet Money, released a four-hour episode consisting of a full reading of the novel by their cast of journalists and economists. The episode is simply captioned: “All of it.” I listened, bemused but appreciative of an easily accessible audiobook version. Other forthcoming adaptations of the text include a Broadway musical headed by Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine and a graphic novel first published in Australia in 2007 and now finally releasable in the US over a decade later. Following predecessors such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the novel has also been turned into The Great Gatsby Undead—a ghoulish retelling by Kristen Briggs where Gatsby is a vampire. One of my personal favorites is The Great Gatsby: But Nick Has Scoliosis, which is The Great Gatsby verbatim except for a sentence added in haphazardly every chapter that references Nick having scoliosis.
Not all adaptations, however, are created equal. Nick, a prequel by Michael Farris Smith that fabricates a backstory for the novel’s least interesting character, Nick Carraway, misses the mark entirely on why The Great Gatsby is compelling to begin with. It’s a perfectly fine novel about a World War I soldier, his struggle with PTSD, and a tragic love affair, but I can’t help wondering what the point of its attachment to Gatsby is other than as a substitute for developing characters and stories compelling enough for people to care about on their own. A YA author I can’t stand and have had a private vendetta against since middle school recently released a queer retelling of The Great Gatsby that focuses on a romance between Nick and Gatsby. I was moderately put off and complained to a friend, “You can just write YA! You can just write that! It doesn’t need to be about Nick and Gatsby.” I like a good queer romance but found it a poorly executed choice tonally that stripped away a lot of the weight of the original novel’s messaging about the American Dream, unrequited love, and temporality. It doesn’t add to Gatsby in any direction except laterally.
Muppet Gatsby and Scoliosis Gatsby don’t take themselves nearly as seriously, which may be why I find them so enjoyable while reading other Gatsby retellings makes me wonder if attempting to earnestly follow Fitzgerald is a doomed effort. Imitations of Gatsby that clearly wish to repackage the themes of the original but inevitably fall short only invite comparison to the original novel in a way that is unhelpful and uncharitable to the authors of these retellings.
Halfway through The Great Gatsby, Nick warns Gatsby, “You can’t repeat the past.” To which Gatsby responds incredulously, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” The futility of repeating the past (and rewriting what’s already been written) may be a message that has evaded some Gatsby re-tellers.
I think some of my hesitation to accept certain self-serious Gatsby retellings stems from a reluctance to fully recognize them as substantial and separate them from the likes of fanfiction relegated to AO3 and FanFiction.net. I have, however, had reason to re-evaluate this outlook on a few occasions. One of my more eccentric English teachers was notorious for publishing an overwhelming amount of Shakespeare fanfiction, including a modern Macbeth retelling about two teens, Mackenzie and Beth (their ship name is Macbeth). Sitting in her classes on how stories change in relation to their time and place (and hearing about her heated argument with her publisher about whether Ophelia’s skirt should be longer on the cover of her YA Hamlet novel) was one of the first times I considered that both thematically compliant as well as wildly divergent retellings of classic stories could have merit on their own.
Adaptations of other widely read classics by Shakespeare and Jane Austen are now prevalent to the point that some of the most iconic examples—10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless, West Side Story—have escaped the orbit of the original and left their own lasting cultural impacts. I can only anticipate that as more creators take advantage of The Great Gatsby’s availability, the quality of Gatsby retellings will also continue to stretch towards similar heights.
Ultimately, there’s something pretty lovely about caring about stories and endeavoring to create upon their foundations. The original Jay Gatsby might’ve died with the Roaring Twenties, but Kermit-as-Gatsby (and his numerous brethren) will carry on and change with the times to be what we may or may not need them to be.