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‘The Great Gatsby’ prequel must be approached with caution

Name the top 10, even the top five, American novels and F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will certainly feature. A tragic tale about love, illusion and the failure of the American Dream, it’s an iconic piece of work detailing how individual desires so differ from reality. Featured on American and British academic courses for decades, the combination of exceptional literary prose, insightful characters and riveting context make the novel required reading. 

Though numerous film adaptations were made, the text always belonged to Fitzgerald. The characters were his own and that was how it would always be. Until January 1 2021. With US copyright expiring on that date, the book can be freely adapted for the first time. Author Michael Farris Smith, according to the Guardian, has already announced his prequel Nick to be published on January 5 in the US and February 25 in the UK.

Can this prequel bring anything extra to the novel? It has a lot to live up to. Fitzgerald died in 1940; we can never know his opinion about how the characters developed or the intricacies of their lives before the story began. Given the original novel was published in 1925, Fitzgerald had ample opportunity to construct a prequel or sequel. 

I fear this book will, like many of the film adaptations, incorrectly portray Nick Carraway

Farris Smith already suffers from not knowing what the source author narratively desired. Similarly, his prose and writing style are likely to be different to Fitzgerald. This is not to say it will be poor quality but it will certainly be different. The characters and ideas were created by Fitzgerald, indeed, many argue that Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan are a reflection of himself and Zelda Fitzgerald. It is, to say the least, tricky for someone else to match that. 

The prequel will apparently see Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, step ‘“into the spotlight,” with the novel detailing his life before meeting Jay Gatsby. Is this really necessary? We learn a great amount about Nick’s life during the main text. Of course, he is an unreliable, selective narrator that only reveals certain details. But all books do: one of the brilliant things about Fitzgerald’s prose was his ability to be concise while writing in an enriched manner. 

The prequel will also see Nick be “charged with alcohol and heartbreak” and “flounder” as a result of trench warfare during the First World War. These initial descriptions by the publishers don’t leave me optimistic. I fear this book will, like many of the film adaptations, incorrectly portray Nick Carraway. As the academic Sarah Churchwell argues, Nick is often presented as a “dopey loser” following the Buchanans around. In reality, Nick is a “sophisticated, smart and ironic” stockbroker. He is the cool character that others are desperate to befriend. This prequel suggests it will only highlight his vulnerabilities.

The cynical part of me would suggest publishers are using the financial success of The Great Gatsby… to promote an extra novel that doesn’t need to be written

The one redeeming feature of Farris Smith’s prequel promotion is “the decade of uncertainty” when turning 30 and the contradiction between “what we discover in life and the abandon of those same discoveries.” These concepts could make a fascinating book. Why then does it need to be a prequel to The Great Gatsby? The cynical part of me would suggest publishers are using the financial success of The Great Gatsby, which has sold over 25 million copies, to promote an extra novel that doesn’t need to be written. Many novels are classics because they work as set pieces for their time, rather than constantly facing new adaptations. 

When the novel is released, it won’t be at the top of my ‘to be read’ list. My intense A-level studies meant my focus turned only to stories within the novel rather than the experiences they could have led. While fan fiction is always written, deep academic analysis of The Great Gatsby has always turned to the main story. This prequel somewhat reminds me of Go Set a Watchman, the sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether she gave consent to its publication was always unclear, but the sequel itself was of no comparison to the groundbreaking classic. While only publication day will reveal the truth, I fear Farris Smith’s The Great Gatsby prequel could follow the same fate.

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