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On Malcolm Lowry’s Yearslong, Fruitless Attempt to Adapt Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night for Film

Michael Melgaard on the 455-Page Screenplay That Never Was

In the winter of 1949, after a year-long trip to Europe, Malcolm Lowry and his wife, Margerie, returned to their home, a squatter’s shack on the ocean north of Vancouver. Lowry was two years removed from the publication of Under the Volcano, and its surprise success had made him a literary star. The ensuing pressure of being a public figure and the need to produce something else of value exacerbated his already excessive drinking; by his own count, he was up to two liters of rum a day, “to say nothing of the other drinks at bars.” He had not written anything in two years.

The shack was good for him. Winters were harsh and the routine of making life livable kept him busy. He cut wood, shoveled snow. When spring came, he repaired his pier. His health and temperament improved and by summer he was stable enough that Margerie left him to visit her mother in Los Angeles.

Lowry, alone and lonely, went on a drinking spree that ended with him diving off his pier, unaware that the tide was out. Marjorie returned to Vancouver to find Lowry straight-jacketed in a padded cell in Vancouver General—a combination of pain, sedatives, and delirium tremens brought on by being unable to get a drink in the hospital had led Lowry to have what he called “the most incontrovertible psychic phenomena that has ever occurred on this plane.”

This was another setback for his writing. He was temporarily bedbound and would be required to wear a back brace for the next six months. But Margerie had returned with a welcome distraction. In LA, she had met with Lowry’s former editor, Frank Taylor, who had become a producer at MGM. Taylor knew of the Lowrys’ interest in film and sent them a shelved screenplay for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1934 novel Tender Is the Night, saying development had stalled on it unless someone could come up with a “new twist.” Lowry took that as an invitation.

He wrote Taylor a month later, telling him the existing script “misunderstood the novel and its cinematic opportunities,” and that he would throw together a précis for a new script. Taylor was pleased that Lowry was interested in the project but made it clear that there was no guarantee of payment for the work, writing, “You, of course, must decide whether or not you wish to take this kind of speculative chance.” By the time Lowry received that response, he had already decided it would be easier if he just started a new screenplay from scratch.

For the next eight months, Lowry worked on the screenplay. He would dictate to Margerie, who worked as a combination of editor, sounding board, and co-writer on the project. The rest of his writing was put on hold—he put off his New York book editors, who were asking after his promised follow-up to Under the Volcano, keeping the screenplay secret as his obsessive nature took hold. “[I] become possessed by Tender Is the Night,” he wrote Taylor in the fall as the project grew out of all proportion, eventually becoming a 455-page script that Lowry was convinced would make for “one of the greatest and most moving films of all time.”

*

Fitzgerald wrote the manuscript that would become Tender Is the Night in fits and starts over the course of the decade that followed the release of The Great Gatsby. He struggled with his own drinking, his need to produce short stories to earn money, and his wife Zelda’s mental health collapse. The original conception of the novel—a matricide on the Riviera—was put aside during Zelda’s first treatments. When Fitzgerald returned to it, two years later, he dropped the matricide but reworked what he had written into a new plot inspired by Zelda’s illness and his own struggles with drinking.

As Lowry deconstructed the novel for the screenplay, its flaws became apparent to him.

In its final form, Tender Is the Night is the story of Dick Diver, a brilliant young psychologist whose career stalls after he falls in love with his teenage patient and wealthy heiress, Nicole Warren. They marry and enjoy several years of leisure on the Riviera until their lives are disrupted by the appearance of a teenage movie star, Rosemary Hoyt, who Diver has an affair with. Because the book came out in 1934, it is not so much about a psychologist abusing his powers on young women as it is about how hard all this was on Diver, who suffers a dissipation that comes as Nicole is cured and he finds himself emotionally spent.

Because of the way the book was constructed, it is not entirely cohesive—Fitzgerald salvaged most of the scenes from the matricide version, adapting them to the Diver plot. This salvaged section makes up part one of the book; it goes on too long, and many of the secondary characters held over from the matricide version are only perfunctorily worked into the latter half of the book, which is comprised of material written exclusively for the Diver plot. Dick Diver himself doesn’t quite gel; the character had originally been based on Fitzgerald’s friend and Riviera host, Gerald Murphy; when Fitzgerald changed the plot of the book, he kept the Murphy/Diver of the opening, but based the Diver of the second half on himself.

Despite many revisions and attempts to make the two Divers one, he didn’t quite pull it off. When Dick behaves in a truly poor way for the first time—a scene in Rome, where he consummates his affair with Rosemary and is suddenly petty, insecure, and bigoted—it seems out of character, the transformation incomplete. The flaws led Edmund Wilson to write of Tender that “the parts of that fascinating novel do not always hang together. The opinion was shared by Fitzgerald himself, who knew he’d made a mess of it by writing the last part “entirely on stimulants,” as he later wrote to his editor Maxwell Perkins, and wished he could have “one more crack at it sober….” In his last years, he worked on detailed notes for restructuring the book in a way he thought would solve some of the faults.

As Lowry deconstructed the novel for the screenplay, its flaws became apparent to him. Even without knowing the context behind Fitzgerald’s writing process, he saw that a bridge was needed between Murphy/Diver and Fitzgerald/Diver. Lowry, as much an autobiographical writer as Fitzgerald, fixed it the best way he knew how: by inserting himself into the script.

*

Through the opening Riviera section of Tender, Lowry’s screenplay stays close to the source material. He foreshadows Nicole’s mental illness and Diver’s eventual decline more heavily and establishes more menace to the lives of the Riviera leisure class than in the original—the alps are “clear and terrible, cutting the suddenly empty sky with lance points and spearheads like uplifted templar’s swords,” the ocean thunders “in Homeric majesty,” the lives of those between them are made to seem small in contrast to the “massiveness of antiquity.” Lowry, writing in a shack between mountains and sea, had begun inserting his own world around Fitzgerald’s, but it’s not until Diver goes to America for his father’s funeral that you really see Lowry run away with the script.

Lowry, as much an autobiographical writer as Fitzgerald, fixed it the best way he knew how: by inserting himself into the script.

In a long sequence unique to the screenplay, Lowry has Diver get stuck in New York. Nicole has relapsed, and her doctors believe his absence would benefit her recovery. He takes a room near Times Square and waits, uncertain if she will ever get better. Lowry had once written that New York “Favours brief and furious outbursts, but not the long haul…it’s a city where it can be remarkably hard… to get on the right side of one’s despair.” He wrote that after a miserable year there—he’d lived in a near slum, separated from his wife, and ended up in Bellevue Hospital. Diver is spared the trip to Bellevue, but not much else from Lowry’s experience. He’s in limbo, unable to go back, unable to move forward. He can’t practice medicine, he suffers from writers’ block. He begins to question the worth of his earlier work (as Lowry did after his first novel, Ultramarine, was poorly received), and begins to think his early promise was a fluke.

And, like Lowry, Diver is haunted by a friend’s death. For Lowry, it was the suicide of his university friend Paul Fitte, which he felt responsible for his entire life. In Diver’s case, it’s the recent death of his hard-drinking musician friend Abe North, whose ghost becomes a constant fixture in Lowry’s script, his music haunting scenes and chasing Diver around New York. After nearly a year (and what would have been a good 45 minutes of the film) of this, he is told that Nicole is close to a cure, and he finds himself on a cross-Atlantic steamer with a writer he knew on the Riviera whose talents are lesser than his own, but who had nonetheless become a bestseller, further compounding his doubt.

By the time Lowry/Diver arrives in Rome and enters the scene where he’s to consummate the affair with Rosemary, there’s no question that he is a shaken man. The affair goes as poorly as in the book, and the bitter Diver goes on a drinking spree which ends with him beaten by police and jailed. In the novel, Diver spends a few days recovering and heads back to Nicole, but Lowry isn’t done with him yet.

The idea never went anywhere, and what Lowry called his “three years’ heartbreak” with the script came to an end.

Lowry had his own share of beatings and jailings during his time in Mexico, and he suffered deeply from the aftereffects. His Diver, still stuck in Rome, is followed by an Italian detective, watched at every turn. He returns to the same bar again and again, stares at a painting of a shipwreck—while being started at by the detective—and his paranoia grows. He flees from visions, a demon in a painting speaks to him, he develops the shakes. The sequence ends in Paris, and there, with a quiet relish, Lowry assigns Diver the same fate as the Consul in Under the Volcano: Diver, at a bar, shaking so hard that he can’t drink. The kind, unaffected barman approaches and lifts the cup to his lips so he can take his medicine.

Only then Diver is told he can return home; his wife is cured.

The screenplay rejoins the book, though on a condensed timeline, through to the end, where a cured Nicole has her own affair and Diver steps out of the way. Lowry once more inserts himself, or at least a conception of himself, at the end. Where Fitzgerald, taking stock of his waning talents and anticipating his obscurity in Hollywood, has an emotionally bankrupt Diver slowly fade out, Lowry instead gives him one last moment of triumph: his Diver sacrifices a spot on a lifeboat to save others on a sinking ship, and drowns. Lowry, feeling himself on an upswing, thought there was still room for heroics in his life.

*

Lowry’s Tender Is the Night script received high praise from Frank Taylor, who enthusiastically passed it along to MGM while cautiously noting to Lowry he might have trouble getting “a film of this proportion” made. The script made the rounds of Hollywood, ending up with both Christopher Isherwood and James Agee, the former saying, “Quite Simply said, it is a masterpiece….your version [of Tender] was a complete revelation of new meanings and of a greatness which was certainly in the book somewhere, but which you made evident.” Lowry was eager to sell the script; he had suddenly found himself in a bad financial situation, and having spent the previous eight months working on the script, had no new novel or stories to sell.

Still, the script was not a complete waste. Working on it seemed to break Lowry out of a slump.

The script never got close to being made. It was too long, for one, and Lowry allowed his tendency toward heavy-handedness to repeatedly get away from him—one particularly laughable scene has portions of a sign blacked out to spell out EGO, SUPEREGO, and ID to Diver. By the summer of 1950, Lowry was getting desperate for news. He had kept the project hidden from his agent as it took him away from his promised new novel, but in bad financial shape, he had to admit he had a “Great Secret” project against which he needed to borrow money. His agent gave Lowry the loan, but the only word from Hollywood was that Taylor had left MGM.

Hope was revived in January 1951, when Taylor wrote to say he was now at 20th Century Fox, but by March he seemed to have washed his hands of the project, saying the Lowrys should try their luck back at MGM without his help. Remaining desperate for money and with no finished work to sell, in 1952, Lowry half-heartedly offered the script to his publisher in place of a novel. The idea never went anywhere, and what Lowry called his “three years’ heartbreak” with the script came to an end.

Still, the script was not a complete waste. Working on it seemed to break Lowry out of a slump—he wrote to Taylor in the early stages that he had “never felt so creatively exhilarated since writing the better parts of Volcano.” That sense of exhilaration carried him into his next projects: a draft of his short story “Through the Panama” appears on the back of pages of the Tender script, and parts of it closely mirror the passages where Diver crosses the Atlantic; bits of scenes and themes from the script show up in parts of his novel cycle, The Voyage That Never Ends. Unfortunately, eviction in 1954 and the instability that followed would end his creative burst. Lowry died in 1957, leaving Margerie to edit his last works into publishable, if not final, form.

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All references to the Tender is the Night script come from The Cinema of Malcolm Lowry: A Scholarly Edition of Lowry’s ‘Tender is the Night’ by Miguel Mota and Paul Tiessen, UBC press 1990. The Composition of Tender is the Night by Matthew J Bruccoli (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1963) provided the information on the construction of the novel. Biographical information on Lowry came from Pursued by Furies, A Life of Malcolm Lowry, Gordon Bowker (Random House 1993), as well as his collected letters. Further details on Scott Fitzgerald were pulled from A Life In Letters, ed. Matthew J Bruccoli and various biographies.  

Michael Melgaard
Michael Melgaard
Michael Melgaard is the author of the short story collection Pallbearing and the forthcoming novel Not That Kind of Place (2023). His stories have appeared in Best Canadian Stories anthology, as well as Joyland, Bad Nudes, and elsewhere. He is a former book critic for the National Post. He lives in Toronto.





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