I used to like Roger Ebert, back when I was a teenager and he was a prolific, conversational movie reviewer, always challenging the highbrow pretensions of Gene Siskel. In time, I came to see Ebert, like Peter Gammons these days, as a sick, old man whose view of the world was curdled by his illness and his political bile – not just that their political opinions come from people I respected in other fields (I can live with that), not just that they’re wrong, but the combination of ignorance and aggressive, often bigoted vitriol coming from people I don’t especially care to read for their politics in the first place. I may forgive them some of this as being the sickness talking, but that doesn’t make it go down any easier. And in time, in Ebert’s case, with the benefit of hindsight I came to realize that he’d never really been that good a judge of movies in the first place.
All that said, I agree wholeheartedly with this column by Ebert about the literary atrocity inherent in rewriting The Great Gatsby. Yes, very old literature like Shakespeare can sometimes be usefully abridged or translated for modern schoolkids, but there is no earthly reason to think that anyone who can’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 20th century American prose has any business reading any version of the book. As Ebert – who is still a fine writer, after all – puts it:
Any high school student who cannot read The Great Gatsby in the original cannot read. That student has been sold a bill of goods. We know that teachers at the college level complain that many of their students cannot read and write competently. If this is an example of a book they are assigned, can they be blamed?
In a note at the end, Ebert suggests that the dumbed-down version of the book may be targeted to an ESL audience, which makes it less alarming, but still a fairly misguided concept.