With 'Button,' Hollywood trying to rewrite book on Fitzgerald adaptations


As Paramount readies its Christmas Day opening of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the long, difficult relationship between the film industry and F. Scott Fitzgerald again will be put to the test.

"Button," starring Brad Pitt as a man who is born a wizened old infant and gradually ages backward, is based on a 1922 short story by Fitzgerald that long ago captured the imagination of filmmakers — producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy took on the project 18 years ago — but is just now reaching the screen thanks to the latest digital wizardry orchestrated by a team led by director David Fincher.

But if "Benjamin Button" proved a particularly hard nut for Hollywood to crack, it's not unique among Fitzgerald's work. The author might have had a fascination with the movie industry — serving two tours of duty as a screenwriter during the course of his career — but his books, for all their popularity, have not been easy to adapt to the screen.

"The Great Gatsby" — Fitzgerald's most celebrated novel, published in 1925 — has given rise to three films and one TV version without Hollywood ever quite getting it right. The first attempt, a 1926 silent film, has been lost. A 1949 version starred Alan Ladd as the quintessential American striver Jay Gatsby, but Bosley Crowther of the New York Times complained, "Except for a few pictorial tracings of parties and brittle high-life, the flavor of the Prohibition era is barely reflected in this new film."

Paramount's sumptuous 1974 version starring a glamorous Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, his one true love, arrived with a much higher profile. But though the film turned a profit, it ultimately became more about its trendsetting costumes than anything else. Despite the high-profile cast, it was nominated for just two Academy Awards — for Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes and Nelson Riddle's score — winning both.

Hollywood went to the Fitzgerald well again two years later when Elia Kazan directed an adaptation of Fitzgerald's final, uncompleted novel, "The Last Tycoon." A study of a Hollywood mogul, inspired by MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, the book contained much of Fitzgerald's hard-won understanding of Hollywood. But like so many of the screen's efforts to do justice to Fitzgerald, the movie, starring Robert De Niro as the Thalberg figure, captured the surfaces without fully unlocking the emotions. Tellingly, its only Oscar nomination was for art direction.

Over the years, there has been an occasional adaptation, like Joan Micklin Silver's charming TV movie "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," that reflected Fitzgerald's spirit, but most of the adaptations, like 1962's luxe "Tender Is the Night," have turned his plots into romantic melodrama. Given that Fitzgerald died in Hollywood, something of a broken writer, of a heart attack in 1940, it's almost tempting to talk of a lingering curse that hovers over the town's subsequent efforts to do him right.

"Benjamin Button," though, could break that spell. For while the project carries the Fitzgerald name, screenwriter Eric Roth hasn't slavishly followed Fitzgerald's text. In fact, he's thrown out most of the short story's specifics: He's moved the fable from the 19th century to the 20th. Instead of Baltimore, the action has been relocated to New Orleans; that decision was made based on the economics of filming to take advantage of Louisiana's tax incentives, but it provides the film with an evocative sense of place. Roth also created a new love interest for Benjamin, one that is deeper and more haunting than that in the original story. His adaptation jettisons most of Fitzgerald's details, retaining only the author's basic conceit of a life lived in reverse.

"The story itself is a beautiful story for a magazine piece in 1922. I think it is a little farcical for my taste anyway. As I say, I think it was a whimsy," Roth says of his decision to re-imagine the material. "I felt I had permission to put it in a modern vernacular. It's a slightly different story, but the central core of it is the same."

If audiences agree, then Fitzgerald might finally get his due on the big screen. If so, there are other filmmakers waiting in line to take up his mantle. Baz Luhrmann, for example, recently suggested that he'd like to take a crack at his own film version of "Gatsby."

Luhrmann might want to reconsider that idea, though. As "Entourage," HBO's fictional take on Hollywood, ended its current season Sunday night, Martin Scorsese, playing himself, entered the picture, reaching out to Adrian Grenier's Vincent Chase to play Nick Carraway in yet another "Gatsby" remake. If "Entourage" follows through on that plot line next season, we might get one more object lesson on how Hollywood gets Fitzgerald wrong.

Gregg Kilday can be reached at gregg.kilday@THR.com.