The Big Read Blog (Archive)


September 18, 2009
Washington, DC


"Hollywood" by Cornballer from Flickr

There's no telling if we'll be disappointed or pleasantly surprised when our favorite books are made into films. It's hard to judge if the success of a literary adaptation  depends more on the skill of the original writer or the skill of the filmmaker. It's probably a little of both, since even when the original writer adapts his or her own work, there's no guarantee that the screenplay will be a success. And even the most talented filmmakers find it difficult to spin straw into gold when the source text isn't that strong to begin with.

Veteran Hollywooder Robert Redford has made a mark for himself---as both an actor and a director--- with literary adaptations such as John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War, Judith Guest's Ordinary People, and, of course, as the title character in the 1974 film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. In this interview excerpt, Redford discusses why he's attracted to novels-turned-movies, and how his love of language led him to the role of Jay Gatsby.

[W]hen I first went into film, I remember hearing the adage that film is not a literary medium, and I have always placed great value on words. Reading was something that took me out of a very lower working class situation, and it was a window to greater possibilities and greater things. So reading was always very, very important to me. And all kinds of reading?-mythology especially. [There's an idea that] film is not a literary medium. And certainly by today?s standards, which are so dependent on action films, high technology, special effects, explosions, and kind of gut-wrenching imagery, there doesn?t seem to be a lot of space for words, particularly intelligent words. And I find that sad. So for me keeping typography alive by keeping language alive is very important, but the real challenge for me was to take that into film and prove that words can be important. Whether it?s A River Runs Through It or Ordinary People, with books that I?ve taken into film I want to try to use the words illustrative of the art of it. And I think Gatsby did that. I think the idea of taking that almost precious elegance, keen observation, the eloquent way he described it was a wonderful challenge to accept. How can you take that beauty of word and description and move it into a visual medium? It was one of the reasons I liked the idea of Gatsby. On a personal level a lot of people would ask me, are you Gatsby and I said no, not at all. But on the other hand where I can relate is I wanted to play the part because I had not done it before?played a desperate man and that was appealing to me, particularly the desperate man caught up in the American Dream or the search for the American Dream.

Hear more from Redford on The Great Gatsby radio show.

Want to know which books from The Big Read library have made it onto film? Browse The Big Read Reader's Guides.


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