Dumbing Down ‘Gatsby’

By Anthony Rebora — July 11, 2011 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Film critic Roger Ebert is fuming mad about a “retold,” intermediate reader version of The Great Gatsby published by MacMillan. The book employs greatly simplified prose, comes in at less than half the length of the original, and seriously muddles the ending. For Ebert, the whole project amounts to literary and educational malpractice:

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.

Informed by commenters that the book is intended largely for English-language learners, Ebert softens his stance a little but still wonders why educators would want to mess with the integrity of whole, original novels:

[M]y question would be: Why not have ESL learners begin with Young Adult novels? Why not write books with a simplified vocabulary? Why eviscerate Fitzgerald? Why give a false impression of Jay Gatsby?

But book blogger Jessica Crispin thinks Ebert is overreacting. She argues that students shouldn’t necessarily be deprived of a “universal” storyline just because the prose is over their heads. Besides, she says, this sort of thing has been going on for decades, with little known harm done to aspiring readers. She recalls reading young readers’ adaptations of Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities when she was a kid:

I don't think either 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.

I think there are good points on both sides here. The reader in me really wants to side with Ebert (especially since, just by coincidence, I actually recently re-read Gatsby and was struck anew by how rich it is), but I could certainly see constructive uses of adaptations. Would be interested in what you language arts and ELL teachers think. Others, too, of course.

Update (July 11, 5:00 p.m.): Reader DA, a high school English teacher who finds the re-written Gatsby “absolutely mortifying,” informs me that, for those looking for a better option, there is a young adult novel tilted “Jake, Reinvented” that’s based loosely on Gatsby. It’s about high school students and has a contemporary setting. According to the author, the plot revolves around “popularity, social status, and, especially, wild, wild parties"—which is a pretty good short-hand synopsis of the themes of Gatsby. DA says he has had students read the “remake” as preparation for plunging into the real Gatsby. It helps them see that the “story is universal” and get past their aversion to the 90-year old setting of the original.

Incidentally, we have yet to hear from any teacher who thinks having kids read only the simplifed version of Gatsby (or other literary work) is a good idea. Several have pointed out that a novel is made up more of more than it’s storyline. As one tweeted:

I agree with Ebert's review. The essence of #Gatsby is revealed in Nick's narrative & this would be compromised w/o his voice.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.