When the clock strikes midnight this New Year’s, The Great Gatsby and other works copyrighted in 1925 will enter the public domain, becoming freely available for re-publication and — most importantly — puppet-themed adaptation. More than anything in 2021, I need the Muppet version of The Great Gatsby.
Picture this: Kermit in period-specific 1920s dress, playing the mysterious host to a huge party in West Egg. Or Miss Piggy, decked out in flapper regalia, in an abusive relationship with Fozzie Bear as her cruel, philandering husband, Tom Buchanan. There’s obvious aesthetic charms to The Muppets version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel, but beyond that, The Muppets’ takes on classic stories are often better. Writers for Bright Wall/Dark Room and The Guardian have made compelling cases for The Muppet Christmas Carol as the best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ work and I can’t imagine it would be any different for The Great Gatsby.
There’s a real demand for Muppet adaptations and I think the reason is twofold. First, seeing a puppet perform a traditionally human role is inherently funny and second, seeing human emotions in a non-human character allows for new connections to the feelings at the core of these stories: we can often have an easier time finding the humanity in the living toys of Toy Story than in our own neighbors.
The Great Gatsby, Mrs. Dalloway and other works’ availability on January 1st, 2021 is actually an adjustment from when they were originally set to become public domain. Thanks to the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (sometimes called the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act” due to Disney’s lobbying for the bill), many older titles copyrighted between 1923 and 1977 had 20 years added to their copyright terms. It’s fairly recently that we’re seeing those works enter the public domain again; 2019 was the first year a batch of them became available.
So far, major copyright holders like Disney haven’t managed to convince lawmakers to extend copyright even further. Works published before 1978 are generally now protected for a maximum of 95 years. There’s a whole lot of internet activism that might have kept Disney and co from pushing harder; to get the full picture, you should read this Ars Technica piece.
Disney, of course, has a notable copyright coming to its end. The earliest appearances of Mickey Mouse, including the animated short Steamboat Willie, are set to expire in 2024. It’ll be interesting to see how Disney attempts to protect its claim to Mickey ahead of, and after, that deadline.
Unfortunately, Disney also owns The Muppets, and the earliest copyrights on those characters might not expire until 2050 at the earliest. To actually produce my epic puppet tale of disillusionment with the American Dream would require Disney to dip into the same public domain where it seemingly doesn’t want its own characters to wind up. So for now, it’s probably best to celebrate these works in their original forms, before making harebrained (or genius) plans to elevate them with skilled puppetry.