When a film or television adaption of a popular novel hits screens, book sales frequently experience a spike, breathing new life into fading titles and allowing more acclaimed pieces to indulge in the brief hysteria brought on by Hollywood’s obsession to recreate—many times unsuccessfully—a beloved bestseller.
But what happens when the piece of literature is one of the great American novels that’s graced bestseller lists for more than eight decades and has been read by millions—whether as required reading at a high school or college, or simply for leisure—before there was any hint of a new film? Are there still people out there clamoring to get their hands on the paperback or e-book?
If the novel is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s nearly century-old The Great Gatsby, set on Long Island, then the answer is a resounding “yes.”
“Historically, when a movie based on a book comes out we usually see a jump in the sales of the book,” Sara Nelson, editorial director of books and Kindle at Amazon.com, said in an email. “However, with The Great Gatsby we’ve seen a much larger jump than we usually see.”
To put Gatsby’s recurring dominance over the book publishing world in perspective, print books sales have quadrupled compared to what they were last April on Amazon.com. Its Kindle sales are also skyrocketing. Amazon’s e-book sales are 10 times what they were this time last year, Nelson said. As of Thursday, The Great Gatsby was the No. 1 selling book on Amazon.com and No. 3 on Kindle’s bestseller list.
Brick and mortar retailers, such as Barnes & Noble and local independent bookstores, can also testify to Gatsby’s renewed hot streak. Apparently, people just can’t get enough of the opulence and lavish lifestyle of the Roaring ’20s that Fitzgerald depicts in the 88-year-old novel.
“This is a perennial bestseller without the movie attention, but the attention has helped sales significantly,” Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble, said in a statement.
Gatsby is doing so well that Huntington’s Book Revue has had to increase the number of copies it sells, said one worker who picked up the phone at the shop.
At The Dolphin Bookshop, a Port Washington staple, the enthusiasm for the new film, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan, is palpable.
“Sales have picked up,” said Dolphin staffer Andrea Kaminsky, who just moments earlier sold the book to a local book club eager to read the novel in anticipation of the film. “It is talked about a little more than usual.”
Long Islanders are also relishing in pre-release celebration of the film because the novel is set in their backyards. The story plays out on LI’s Gold Coast and it is said that a once-ritzy Sands Point mansion that has since been razed was the inspiration for the book. Baz Luhrmann, the movie’s director, is expected to highlight a red carpet event before a pre-release screening in Port Washington next Wednesday. The movie is set to be released Friday, May 10.
“The thought that it’s right here, this is where it happened,” adds to the excitement, said Kaminsky, adding that a customer came into the store and proclaimed, “We’re in Gatsby country!”
Book sellers are also looking to cash in on the movie’s buzz by introducing a redesigned movie tie-in version of the book featuring DiCaprio and other cast members on the cover. It will no doubt add to the book’s already impressive showing on bestseller lists, but not even one of Hollywood’s most decorated actors can compete with the original Gatsby and its iconic cover.
“Currently, the traditional paperback edition of the book is outselling the movie tie-in edition by a wide margin,” Amazon’s Nelson said.
So what is it about Gatsby, widely considered Fitzgerald’s best work, that has made it such an American classic?
“The most obvious thing, it may sound really simplistic, it’s one of the most beautifully written novels in existence,” said Paula Uruburu, professor of literature and film at Hofstra University.
“It captures really the spirit of America at its most giddy moment in the ‘20s,” she continued. “In some ways it’s interesting because it came out at of such a specific period but it’s really timeless because it’s so much about American culture and human nature, too.”
“Gatsby represents the materialism and the idealism of the American dream,” added her colleague, Scott Harshbarger, associate professor of English at Hofstra. “He’s a self-made man who adopts an opulent lifestyle and throws lavish parties all to pursue a romantic ideal conceived in his youth. That the story ends tragically suggests that there is something hollow about the American dream, even though the tragedy itself continues to compel and inspire.”
If the novel’s history of success is any indication, Luhrmann’s film should rake in millions at the box office, simply by riding the book’s coattails.
Uruburu can’t get enough Gatsby. She has taught the novel at Hofstra for more than 20 years and she’s never grown tired of it.
“I never do,” she said with a laugh.