Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

The less-great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby

What happens when you take The Great Gatsby and try to make it more “accessible”?


Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—-

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

becomes this:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.

Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.

Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby’s dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn’t he?

At least, that’s what happened in the “Intermediate” Macmillan Reader edition of The Great Gatsby (full text here). Roger Ebert is not a fan, calling it “an obscenity”:

There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look. […]

What depresses me is what this Macmillan Reader edition says about our American educational system. Any high school student who cannot read The Great Gatsby in the original cannot read. That student has been sold a bill of goods. We know that teachers at the college level complain that many of their students cannot read and write competently. If this is an example of a book they are assigned, can they be blamed?

Now, before you join Ebert in throwing his hissy-fit, I should point out that the Macmillan Readers appear to be geared towards ESL students. In an interview, the book’s adaptor, Margaret Tarner (who has written over 40 of these readers since the ’70s), discusses the value of the books in helping students learn proper English:

Well it helps them to work by themselves. I mean, the teacher can read them in the class, they can do various things together, but basically reading is an individual accomplishment and it teaches them that they can use the skills they’ve learned in reading their own language – they can take those over into English, and they can read about interesting events, interesting things, widen their knowledge and it is essential that the re-write is written in really good English.

Over at The Guardian, writer Alison Flood takes a slightly more measured approach. She argues:

I’m with Ms BookSlut, Jessa Crispin, who read adaptations as a kid and doesn’t feel they “prevented me from reading the real versions once I was ready, nor did it do any brain damage or put me off books. I read them for the story as a kid – murder and intrigue and violence and revolution – and then for the prose later on, when it wasn’t so off-putting.” Like Imogen Russell Williams, I read the Ladybird adaptations of the classics and loved them, coming amazed to the proper versions when I grew older, not put off in any way.

Where do you stand on this? Are editions like the Macmillan Gatsby “obscenities,” or do they serve a legitimate educational purpose? Or (gasp) both?


Literary Partners