Amidst lots of hype, a delayed release, The Great Gatsby debuts, FINALLY. Besides being directed by one of my all time favorites, Baz Lurhmann, the cast is amazing: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire. I’m predicting, now, this will be Leo’s ticket to Oscar, also long overdue.
I’ve been teaching this novel to junior high school students for years. There are not too many American literature novels that I love and none that I love to teach more than Gatsby, written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a timeless classic that defined the Jazz Age and makes us all question love and the American Dream. The language of the novel is challenging, and the subject matter difficult for high school aged students to relate to, but it’s a classic and I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least expose them to it. So, since I heard about the remake of this film (done earlier with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow in 1974 and again with Toby Stephens and Mira Sorvino in 2000, neither of which I liked), I’ve been conjuring up excitement and anticipation in my students that mirrors my own. I even went so far as to invite them to join me with the promise of doling out some extra credit. But even without the dangling extra-credit carrot, I do believe most students are excited about it. They’ve seen the trailers. Some, who I have as seniors who did not read it as juniors, have even asked to borrow the novel to read before they see it on screen.
Just as I approach any adaptation of a novel, I am cautiously optimistic that it will somehow enrich all of the beautiful imagination the words on the pages have conjured up in my mind. This adaptation of Gatsby did not disappoint. With twenty six junior high school students in attendance, myself and my former student teacher, we sat in the theater wide-eyed and immediately entranced by the soundtrack. One cannot speak of this adaptation without addressing the modern-day flair given to old school jazz through Jay Z, Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, Florence & the Machine… just to name a few. I was literally swaying in my seat. Further, the cinematography, propels the viewer into the scene (and I didn’t even see it in 3D); Lurhmann is masterful at making the viewer feel like part of the experience and, like Nick Carraway, a voyeur.
Among my favorite scenes was the party scene in New York, set in a high rise amidst the Valley of Ashes. There is a sax player sitting out on the balcony doing his thing while Lurhmann takes us on a ride of windows popping out at the audience to show us exactly what’s going on inside. Nick Carraway, after an exhausting journey of alcohol and drugs and sex, like he’s never been accustomed, as he admits, delivers one of his famous lines,
Another of my favorite scenes is when Daisy is on the floor below Gatsby sitting on his bed while they are caught in the midst of laughter as Jay is throwing down an array of colored, silk shirts upon her from the balcony of a closet above. It’s a scene of innocence and opulence all at the same time until Daisy’s laughter turns to tears and we feel her regret at every having let Gatsby go. The thing about this scene, that I must have read a hundred times, is that, in this moment, Lurhmann brings it to life for me. Previously, I’d rushed through description after description of the shirts, but in seeing it, the idea of what might have been resonates within me.
The Great Gatsby Featurette
The ever present green light, looming, on Daisy’s dock. The 3D eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, watching. The orgiastic parties of music, libations, dancers, confetti…celebration and sin. The stark contrast in Nick’s humble cottage as compared to Gatsby’s grandiose mansion, polarizing the two men. The seediness of the Valley of Ashes mirroring Myrtle and George, the darkness within them. The hope that sparkles in Gatsby’s eyes when he delivers the lines:
The film is like a majestic tapestry culminating the symbols and themes and characters that Fitzgerald so poignantly put into words.
In my experience, viewing an adaptation as a substitute for the original never works because it always falls short of the imagination. But in viewing an adaptation as it’s own work, a representation of the original, a viewer opens himself up to a whole new experience.
As the credits rolled away, I sat for a moment, overwhelmed, for I’d been completely satisfied. Out in the lobby, I was met by twenty six students who, wide-eyed and expressive, couldn’t wait to share how much they’d enjoyed the film. I remembered how they’d grumbled when we’d begun reading it in class. “It’s too hard,” “It’s old,” were among the early rumblings I heard. But when we heard it would be a film, there was a shift, suddenly the fact that it was relevant enough to put on screen called attention to it’s worthiness as a piece of literature. So, if this is my window into the classics, for these kids, I’m going to take it.