Macmillan Publishers has released a new version of The Great Gatsby, “retold” in half as many pages and with a greatly simplified vocabulary of about 1,600 words. The book is admittedly meant for ESL students, but the writing is nothing short of a travesty.
Like many of you, I first read The Great Gatsby in high school. It wasn’t the easiest read for a 16-year-old, but oh, the prose! Even when I missed the symbolism, I remember being profoundly impressed by Fitzgerald’s moving, lyrical prose, the tragic striving of his Gatsby unfolding like a song. At about the same time, I also read The Little Prince in my French class, a much more difficult exercise for a non-native speaker, though the prose, at least on the surface, was far simpler. I hated it at times, how few words I understood, how different this native French sounded from the carefully constructed sentences in my textbook. But I read it, and with the careful guidance of our teacher, I came to love it. Three copies now grace my shelf, and none of them are in English.
I shudder to imagine what an “intermediate” version of that beautiful book might look like. Though I surely missed a great deal that first time I read The Little Prince, with my worse-than-intermediate French skills and the help of a good teacher, I could nonetheless glimpse the beauty and depth of the story and understand some, if not all, of the nuances that run through it. I could even appreciate the delicate tenderness of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s prose, the love and heartache it conveyed. If nothing else, I cannot understate the confidence I gained from reading my first full non-English book.
A novel is much more than the story it tells, and this is especially true with Fitzgerald. Roger Ebert has posted comparisons of Fitzgerald’s original writing with the retelling on his blog, and it’s painfully apparent how much is lost. It is not merely watered down; it is sugar-coated, as well.
And that is the real tragedy, which speaks to something far deeper than a badly rewritten book. Whatever the language, teaching great literature requires care, attention and time. Those are not words that I would use to describe the U.S. public education system as a whole. The Great Gatsby retold speaks to an education system that has become institutionally lazy, one that would rather give students answers than teach them the skills to discover their own. One that teaches memorization rather than creativity. And one that gives students a simplified story rather than take the time to teach the full book, or, if they aren’t ready for the full book, chooses another book for which they are.
Canned teaching materials are a poor substitute for effective teaching. Here is a list of other “retold” great works that made my jaw drop. But spoon-feeding is not limited to ESL students. There were many times when, in my high school English classes, we would begin to study a great work and then, rather than finish reading it, just watch the movie. We had more worksheets than discussions. And far too much of our learning revolved around Scantron tests. Scantrons, in a literature class! And these were the advanced classes.
I’ll leave you with the “retold” ending of the intermediate reader. For comparison, read the original ending here.
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?