Why 'The Movie Version' Should Be Forgiven

Graham Roumieu

Last month, The Great Gatsby turned 90 years old. This month, Baz Luhrmann's big-screen adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic turns 2.

For fans of the book, the latter milestone is hardly worth remembering.

In 2013, readers steeled themselves before stepping into theaters to witness Leonardo DiCaprio portray the novel's title character. While visually stunning, the lurid excesses of Luhrmann's Gatsby were a wild departure from Fitzgerald's delicate visions of 1920s New York: fireworks abounded; Fergie and Beyoncé were featured on the soundtrack; Nick Carraway, who so eloquently conveyed the tragic beauty of the American Dream, was played by Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire). Essentially, our fears were confirmed, and we asked ourselves why this flawless jewel of a novel had to exist as anything but just that.

The film did well, though, raking in just shy of $145 million at the box office. Not surprisingly, so did the book. According to Scribner, Gatsby sells, on average, just over 500,000 copies every year. In 2013, it sold 1.9 million. Undoubtedly, sales were buoyed by a new cover featuring DiCaprio grinning smugly amid Luhrmann's graceless, industrial aesthetic. For many, this intrusion is even more offensive than the movie itself, as the incongruity between the celebrity on the cover and the sacred text within seemed too jarring for comfort. The same can be said for Keira Knightley on the cover of Anna Karenina, James Franco on As I Lay Dying and Kristen Stewart on On the Road.

Related: The 10 Types of Book-to-Film Adaptations

Despite negative reviews and a domestic box office take of less than three quarters of a million dollars, Stewart's On the Road resulted in a sizable bump in book sales, according to Penguin Books Marketing Director John Fagan. "People read it anyway," he says. "Whether you see the film or not, you may pick it up because you've always wanted to read it. [The film] makes people think about Kerouac and the Beats, and the whole thing kind of redeems itself into a bigger thing."

Fagan also notes that the sales of titles with covers that tie in the film outpace sales of the traditional cover by a "significant" margin. "The movie definitely pushes it to people who might not read it otherwise," he says.

Few artistic experiences are as personal as connecting with a powerful novel, so it's easy to understand why a mass-market adaptation of our favorite book can feel like a betrayal. The criticisms that result are usually justified in the case of canonical literature, but there's more to consider than just our (admittedly selfish) need to reinforce the authenticity of our experience with the source material. People are being given a new, potentially exciting way to discover an invaluable work of art, a possibility that's far more important than our footing on our intellectual high horses. If it takes Leo winking on a glossy cover to catch someone's eye, then let's start up the presses, because a film adaptation—even an unspeakably bad one—is uniquely capable of shoehorning a classic piece of literature back into the public's consciousness. It's far more anti-intellectual to take that kind opportunity for granted. Here, critical reception is irrelevant.

Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet received mediocre reviews when it was released in 1996, but there's no telling how many teenage girls were turned on to the book—and, in turn, to Shakespeare and, in turn, to whichever rich literary tributary they then chose to follow—solely because a substitute English teacher popped in a VHS of the film, made when DiCaprio was in his '90s heyday.

When the same substitute teacher forgot to cover up the screen during that one fleeting moment when Claire Danes was shirtless and caused the classroom to erupt, it probably steered some teenage boys in the same direction. A moment like that is pretty exciting for a high school freshman. Who knows? There may even be a life-changing book behind it.