It’s a brave director who steps up to the challenge of putting a classic piece of literature on the big screen. Regardless of its success or critical acclaim, there will always be a small band of anoraks filling up internet forums bemoaning the absence of Tom Bombadil, arguing that this Jane Eyre is far too pretty and commenting that Bridget Jones was never really that fat anyway.

The latest director to put his balls on the block is Baz Luhrmann, who releases his version of The Great Gatsby in December onto a public of literary fans ready to draw blood. It will be the seventh attempt to film F. Scott Fitzgerald’s decadent tale of love and loss in Long Island, a story that many believe to be unfilmable due to the fact that, beside the odd hit and run accident and ill-fated swimming pool dip, not that much happens. The beauty of the book is all in the sub-text, something that has been notoriously difficult to capture on the screen.

Just ask Sam Goldwyn, Billy Wilder and Marlon Brando, all of whom tried and failed to stage the quintessential rites de passage, J.D. Sallinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, citing an inability to catch hold of protagonist Holden Caulfield as he embarks on his lost weekend in 1950s New York. Sallinger himself blocked a number of attempts to adapt the book for film, fearing the damaging effects of a director not sensitive to the narrative. With Sallinger’s death and with renewed interest from Steven Speilberg and Harvey Weinstein, it is possible that an adaptation is on the cards. For an example of how damaging an insensitive adaptation can be, though, see Marek Kanievska’s truly abysmal 1987 Less Than Zero, which manages to take Bret Easton Ellis’s debut story of lost youth and apathy – this time in LA – and turn it into a passion-filled thriller which does little more than provide Brat Pack hunk Andrew McCarthy with opportunities to flick his coiffed bonce around.

While on the subject of Ellis, speculation is rife that this will be the year that filming will finally begin on his 1998 novel Glamorama, which is unfilmable for very different reasons. In keeping with the violence and dark satire of Ellis’s ’90s work, the story of international terrorism infiltrating the modelling world (the obvious similarities with Zoolander prompted legal action) has scared off many directors, but not Roger Avary. Despite Ellis stating in 2010, “I think the days of being able to make that movie are over”, last year he announced to his Twitter followers: “Just finished reading Roger Avary’s adaptation of Glamorama which he will direct next year. Hilarious, horrific, sad. He’s a mad genius.” Of course, Avary is an old hand at Ellis adaptations, having written and directed The Rules of Attraction in 2002 and Glitterati three years later, the intended connective tissue between The Rules of Attraction and Glamorama, which has never been released due to it being “ethically questionable”, to quote Avary.

So, bearing in mind all the pitfalls he faces and all those waiting to criticise, how will Luhrmann do? With a cast full of the beautiful and the talented – including Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire aptly cast as the wide-eyed Nick Carraway undergoing his initiation into 1920s high society – it seems as if aesthetically he can’t fail. Yet, Luhrmann is best known for his red curtain trilogy, dramatic extravaganzas very much out of keeping with the subtleties of Fitzgerald’s writing. And the fact that Luhrmann has decided to film in 3D has raised eyebrows to say the least. An epic like The Hobbit in 3D makes sense, but The Great Gatsby? While Wim Wenders showed how moving and poignant 3D can be with his astounding Pina, the worry is that Luhrmann will sacrifice style for substance, and spectacle for subtlety.

By Philippa Burt

Originally published in issue 35 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. February 2012.