Why Fitzgerald Flops on Film

The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald are classics, but no one says that about their film adaptations. Who remembers the 1962 version of "Tender Is the Night," or Robert De Niro as "The Last Tycoon"? In Robert Redford's "The Great Gatsby," Gatsby comes across as an aloof aristocrat pining for a whiny Mia Farrow. The only people watching it today are high-school students too lazy to read.

Fitzgerald himself took a stab at Hollywood, but after his 1938 war picture "Three Comrades" got rewritten, he left. You can see why his writing didn't work on film. He was a master of internal monologue, abstract symbolism and minimalist dialogue. None of those tricks translates well onto the big screen, so the movies of his books feel less like a story than a fancy postcard.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," based on one of his short stories, tries to avoid this trap—by ignoring Fitzgerald. The film shifts the time period 60 years later, renames the love interest Daisy (a "Gatsby" homage) and changes the ending. The only thing that's preserved is the premise of a man who ages backward. "I don't want to disrespect Fitzgerald, because he's twice the writer I could hope to be, but I knew this was written as a whimsy," says screenwriter Eric Roth. "It felt like it wouldn't be disrespectful if I embarked on it in a different way." If you say so, old sport.