“Poor Scott Fitzgerald.”
That’s how a character in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” described the author of “The Great Gatsby.” It had to do with something Fitzgerald wrote about rich people, but the statement could have been applied to nearly every film and television adaptation of the works and lives of Fitzgerald and his Alabama-born wife, Zelda.
No one ever gets it right, but few get it as painfully wrong as the creators of “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” a new Amazon series that has little to recommend it and is available for streaming on Friday.
Christina Ricci plays Zelda or, more accurately, a character named Zelda Sayre, who shares her name and some basic biography with the actual woman F. Scott Fitzgerald married in 1920.
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After meeting Zelda in 1918, Fitzgerald determined he was going to marry her, but she kept him dangling for a while. At the time, he was on the rebound from the loss of his first great love, Ginevra King, who came from a well-off family. The breakup left Fitzgerald embittered and fed his feelings of inferiority and insecurity. King not only served as the inspiration for several Fitzgerald heroines, including “Gatsby’s” Daisy Buchanan, she was in the author’s mind when he wrote, “Poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”
None of this is in the Amazon series, but the show’s creators, Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin, have done some homework. Like high school students wanting to prove they read the subject of a book report, they lightly pepper their script with factual details about the Fitzgeralds. There may, however, be no context for the details, which renders them pointless. For example, after Scott (David Hoflin) and Zelda are married, he invites some people up to their suite at the Biltmore, including pals from his days at Princeton. There’s a reference to the Triangle Club, of which Fitzgerald was a member, and a passing remark about a couple of Princeton linebackers being attracted to him. It would have been helpful to know that the Triangle Club is famous for featuring a chorus line of men in drag.
Prestwich and Yorkin have also read that after Zelda died in a 1948 fire at the North Carolina mental hospital where she was living, a woman’s slipper found in the ashes was identified as having belonged to her.
The creators also know that Fitzgerald’s first novel was originally titled “The Romantic Egoist” and that, as “This Side of Paradise,” it received strong reviews, with the notable exception of a savage review from Heywood Broun.
Good for them.
The writers fail to create credible characters. Hoflin’s Fitzgerald is harmlessly one-dimensional. Zelda was headstrong and madcap, but “Z’s” Zelda is all over the map. She’s a pouting child and then a pouting wife. She’s awed by her new surroundings when she travels to New York to get married, and she comes across as a subservient child-bride, until she strips naked and walks into the post-wedding bash to tell the drunken hangers-on to vamoose.
It’s possible that an acceptable performance could have patched over some of the inconsistencies in Zelda’s characterization, but Ricci’s performance is abominable. She shows no grasp of the character, seeing Zelda only as a flighty Southern belle out of some old magnolias-and-julep melodrama.
After he died in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald was buried in Rockville Union Cemetery in Maryland. He was denied burial in a Catholic cemetery because his books had been proscribed by the Catholic Church. Zelda was interred there as well after her death.
At the urging of their daughter, Scott and Zelda were reinterred in 1975 across the street in the small graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church.
It is ironic that in the last phase of his life, Fitzgerald toiled as a Hollywood screenwriter. He longed to see his name on the screen when the credits rolled, but he only received a single screen credit in all his time in Hollywood. Since his death, though, his name has popped up with dismaying regularity on large and small screens, in one off-the-mark project after another.
Scott and Zelda were dug up once. Literature, and the Fitzgeralds’ reputations, would be far better served if they were never dug up again.
“Z: The Beginning of Everything” is available for streaming Jan. 27 on Amazon.