Filming a Great Gatsby origin story shows our culture is eating itself | Caspar Salmon

The premise of new series Gatz misses the point of the book – it shows we’re stuck regurgitating the same dozen stories

We have reached a new and decisive stage in our civilisation’s ongoing quest to cannibalise itself, with the announcement this week that there is such a thing in production as “a Great Gatsby origin story”. The television series, which is in the early development stages, will go out on YouTube, the great redeemer of content. Consider this the moment when we have begun to eat our own tail.

For anyone following film and television news with even one half-open eye, this is just a natural development for a culture that can only seem to feed on itself, regurgitating apparently endless iterations of the same 10 to 12 stories. Before the year is out, our cinemas will have been graced with Robin Hood 2.0, a new take on Holmes and Watson, a sequel to Creed (but the eighth overall film in the extended Rocky universe) and a follow-up to Mary Poppins, while highly necessary remakes of Rebecca and Little Women are under way.

Over on the television side of things, Sabrina the Teenage Witch has been rebooted, so has Anne of Green Gables (now going by the much more gritty Anne With an E), there’s a film adaptation of Downton Abbey due, and a sequel to Breaking Bad is in the offing. It’s not too far wide of the mark to say that anything with the merest scintilla of brand recognition is being ferreted out for rediscovery. Some of my favourites in this vein include Disney’s now abandoned Miss Marple reboot (in which Marple was to have been rebranded as young and hot) and the CBBC series Leonardo, described as an “action-adventure following the exploits of the teenage Leonardo da Vinci and his friends”. (Typical episode synopsis: “Florence is thrown into a panic by what appears to be a destructive, fire-breathing demon.”)

F Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, the year his masterpiece The Great Gatsby was published.
F Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, the year his masterpiece The Great Gatsby was published. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This general fervour for rejigging existing shows and characters, or “maximising profits from pre-existing IP”, stems in part from the all-conquering successes of superhero/young adult franchises, which have shown that there’s cash to be squeezed from “extended universes” and that content-saturated audiences tend to favour characters whose names that they vaguely recognise. This approach seems to be de rigueur now, right down to revamped characters from children’s stories, such as the all-singing, all-dancing animated Peter Rabbit, who actually bears little to no resemblance to the naughty creature from 1902 who once nearly got stuck under a gate.

Beyond all this, there remains the delectable question of what a Great Gatsby origin story might have in store for us. Let’s not delve too far, for fear of an aneurysm, into the pioneering imbecility of there being an “origin story” about Jay Gatsby, the self-made man whose mysterious past and reconfigured image famously stand for the fraudulence of the American dream. But suffice to say that the whole point of the novel, of which the very narrative construction rests like few other books on the idea that the past is impossible to revisit, is likely to get somewhat trampled by this project.

On to the press release, then, which tells us that Gatz will centre on “a mixed-race Gatsby”. If the idea can sound far-fetched considering race relations and social mobility in America at the time, it apparently has some academic form, first advanced in a paper in 2000 by Dr Carlyle V Thompson, who claimed that The Great Gatsby was a book about passing. (The Guardian quotes the Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli as saying: “Saying that Gatsby is black is utterly implausible. It turns the teaching of literature into a silly game.”) The story of Gatz, then, will be “a retelling of the tale through that very lens, embracing the cultural aspects of the time during the height of the Harlem renaissance”.

Of course, the Harlem renaissance was an extraordinary cultural and artistic flourishing that could yield any number of stories quite distinct from a left‑field interpretation of The Great Gatsby – and since Gatsby is revealed in the book to have been a bootlegger in years gone by, it’s unlikely that the series will shed any new light on the book. But for now it’s to be hoped that the YouTube series will bring a new generation of readers to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. As for those of us who long for more interesting new stories to be developed, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

• Caspar Salmon is a film writer


Caspar Salmon

The GuardianTramp

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