Adapt or try: Gatsby on stage, the canon in comics

The adaptation of a book into another medium is a deceptively tricky thing to do well. Make sure every last letter survives the transposition and you could be accused of lacking ambition or imagination. Condense too much and you risk alienating the readers who will no doubt make up a large portion of your audience. Two adaptations (of sorts) have made the news this week, however, that each occupy the extreme ends of this spectrum, and neither could be accused of lacking in ambition.

First up is Gatz, a complete and unabridged theatrical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which every word recounted in the first person narration of Nick Carraway is performed verbatim by actor Scott Shepherd and a cast of twelve others over a period of almost eight hours, including breaks along the way after every few chapters.

Though the framing device of the performance – office worker begins reading aloud from book in office, reality and fiction begin to merge – allows for the presence of the text on stage, Shepherd claims to know the whole thing by heart. Let me reiterate that: the man has memorised an entire novel. Gatsby‘s pretty slim, yeah, but that certainly beats the generations of English Lit students who only remember the bit about boats beating against the tide, and maybe that line that Dylan lifted for “Summer Days”, if they’re that way inclined. Having already played to rave reviews around the world over the past few years, it comes to London in June.

As far removed from Gatz as it’s possible to get in terms of scale, if not ambition, is New York press Seven Stories’ forthcoming effort to cram adaptations of 189 titles from the western literary canon (with some select Asian titles thrown in too) into a three volume graphic novel running a total of 1,344 pages, with no single work running longer than sixteen. Bona fide legends in the field Robert Crumb and Will Eisner are amongst the illustrators contributing (and we can all be grateful that Crumb ended up adapting James Boswell and not, say, Lolita, which is also in there).

Several of the texts selected for inclusion have previously been seen as unadaptable to other media – Cormac McCarthy’s notorious, gorgeous, savage Blood Meridian, for example, has so far outfoxed film directors as diverse as Ridley Scott, Todd Field and the sentient performance art installation known to us mere mortals only as ‘James Franco’, as to speak his true name would cause madness – so it’ll be interesting to see how they’ll cope with the transition to a format that is still technically their own (i.e. print) but is also radically different. You can find out for yourself throughout the year, starting with the April publication of volume one.