Casting Call: F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night

Michael Fassbender/Photo © Simon James/Shutterstock; Michelle Williams/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock
Michael Fassbender/Photo © Simon James/Shutterstock; Michelle Williams/Photo © Featureflash/Shutterstock

Welcome to Signature's Casting Call, where we exercise our creative muscles by focusing our attention on extraordinary characters from exceptional books - either fiction or nonfiction - and make the case for how we'd cast those roles if given the chance. Note that, here at Signature, we're not casting directors, nor are we producers, agents, or anyone else who has any say in how a film will be cast; we're simply ardent fans of books and movies who can't help ourselves from such musings.

This past week, the much-delayed 3D production of "The Great Gatsby" opened in theaters. Directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan, this is the sixth film or television version (including a 2002 update about hip-hop moguls) of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece -- and yet just one of the few major interpretations of his work. Compared to other authors of his stature, Fitzgerald has been adapted infrequently, perhaps because the hallmarks of his writing -- the lyrical prose, the meticulous craftsmanship, the romantic spirit -- don't translate well to a visual medium. (In fact, the author, who worked for several years in Hollywood, found screenwriting difficult, despite having a finely tuned ear for the rhythms of language.) We think a good adaptation of Fitzgerald, one that does justice to his work, is still out there. Our suggestion? The dramatic, evocative Tender is the Night.

Serialized in 1934 and then published later that year, Tender was the long-awaited follow-up to Gatsby. Based on his relationship with his wife Zelda (with some details borrowed from his friends Sara and Gerald Murphy), the novel begins at a crossroads -- though they don't know it yet -- in the marriage of psychiatrist Dick Diver and his former patient, the heiress Nicole Warren. Leaders of expatriate society on the French Riviera, they look every inch the perfect couple -- glamorous, charming, and carefree -- an image that collapses with Dick's attraction to a Hollywood ingénue and Nicole's minor breakdown. As Dick tumbles into alcoholism and violence, Nicole recovers, at last becoming the stronger partner in the relationship. Far darker than its predecessors, Tender is an exquisitely written, richly emotional novel; a self-described "confession of faith," it was Fitzgerald's favorite of his own books.

Fitzgerald himself prepared a film treatment for Tender in 1934 (reprinted in Matthew J. Bruccoli's definitive biography Some Sort of Epic Grandeur) with casting suggestions (Marlene Dietrich as Nicole is awesomely bizarre), but nothing came of it. Two unsuccessful adaptations appeared later: a 1962 film with Jason Robards and Jennifer Jones and a 1985 television miniseries with Peter Strauss and Mary Steenburgen. Rumors of a new version from One Day writer David Nicholls circulated in 2010, naming Matt Damon and Keira Knightley as possible stars, but the project appears to have fallen by the wayside.

The novel's tragic hero, Dick Diver is a promising young psychiatrist who, after marrying his lovestruck patient, enjoys a life of leisure, gradually neglecting his work at a Swiss clinic (a position bought with Nicole's money). As seen through the awed eyes of other characters, Dick is a magnetic figure with "the power of raising a fascinated and uncritical love," but who, in private, betrays restlessness in paradise. Ewan McGregor would be a great pick, but we think Michael Fassbender, closer to the right age, is especially convincing as a self-destructive man who combines charm and danger. (Not to mention, he's also played Carl Jung.)

The role of Nicole Diver is a complex one, requiring an actress to embody an elusive yet haunting presence throughout the story while aging from seventeen to thirty. Often described as "hard" yet "lovely," she appears sophisticated and controlled, but Fitzgerald reveals her vulnerabilities in unguarded moments. This is a part meant for the effortlessly glamorous Michelle Williams, who, in films from "Brokeback Mountain" to "Blue Valentine," has played women capable of tensile strength and great emotion in the same moment.

A blonde seventeen-year-old starlet fresh off her first movie, the smash hit "Daddy's Girl," Rosemary Hoyt has arrived in Europe with her mother to recover from pneumonia. Naïve and idealistic, she immediately falls in with the Divers, carefully maneuvering closer to Dick without understanding the consequences. Hollywood would probably want Emma Watson, a very good choice, but we'll go with the American Elle Fanning, a former child actress just graduating to interesting roles in indie films.

A member of the Divers' inner circle, Tommy Barban illustrates the international nature of their world. Part American, part French, "of Latin aspect," and educated in England, he's a soldier who has fought for eight countries. Described as restless, fierce, and urbane, Tommy is drawn toward Nicole, becoming a reassuring presence in her life. We'd like to reunite Michelle Williams with her "Mammoth" co-star Gael García Bernal, who, especially in his native Mexican cinema, offers hard-edged performances with a core of sensitivity.

Now that we've cast our version of Tender is the Night, let us know your thoughts on this or any other Fitzgerald adaptations below.