It’s evident why 16-year-olds throughout America’s classrooms continue to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic “The Great Gatsby” nearly a century after it was written. The slim novel is packed with meaningful symbols surrounding themes of class, excess, pretense and loneliness, which are as applicable today as ever. Director Baz Luhrmann’s new movie version does a great job bringing the essence of this timeless tale to the big screen.
We see the roaring 1920s of Post World War I through narrator Nick Carraway’s eyes. Tobey Maguire is cast perfectly as the wide-eyed, impressionable, everyman who is, in essence, the viewer. Carraway rents a house next door to the mysterious, exceedingly wealthy, golden Jay Gatsby (played perfectly by Leonardo DiCaprio). He attends lavish, over-the-top parties at Gatsby’s and it brings to mind what it must be like today when regular folks become rich or famous overnight and must deal with the temptations having access to anything and everything must bring. The modern soundtrack Luhrmann uses will draw these parallels for young people even more so.
Gatsby and Nick live on the fictional West Egg side of Long Island, a place where people with “new money” come to indulge, facing the East Egg side of stuffy, aristocratic, “old money” where Nick’s cousin and Gatsby’s long lost lover Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan live. Today this can be talked about in the context of how teens view social status at school and on a larger scale, social class in general.
It’s when the wealthy go into the industrial part of town we see that the common people living there, like George and Myrtle Wilson, can’t hide behind any grandeur because there is none. Everything about them is gritty — down to the grease and soot of their surroundings. Because they can’t hide behind pretense, they cannot be superficial. At one point, George Wilson shows he’s the most human character in the story when the true depths of his feelings come bursting forth. Luhrmann recreates this scene so well. No one else in the entire story shows raw emotion except when Gatsby, in one scene, is haunted by memories of his humble past.
One of the pivotal symbols in the book is the large, bespectacled pair of eyes on a billboard, a reminder that nothing can be hidden — everything will eventually be seen by God.
Despite the excess and pretense, loneliness is at this story’s core. In the age of “look at me” and Facebook, what better time to talk about this with teenagers? Chief among the lonely characters is Jay Gatsby. He has parties to fill his home with noise and people so that sadness will stay away. One character even says, “Large parties are more intimate. With small parties, there is no privacy.” The language in the novel is so rich and I love the way Luhrmann brings key lines from the book to the big screen. The Redford version was good for its time just as the DiCaprio remake is fitting today.
The blinking green light at the end of Daisy’s pier is a symbol throughout the novel and is played up by Luhrmann so it can’t be ignored. It is a silent, “come hither” teasing of what Gatsby thinks will fill his life with meaning.
Everything about Gatsby’s life is concocted to fight his impermeable sadness. On the outside, he looks to have it all and because of his flaw of thinking money can buy happiness, as well as thinking the past can be relived, Gatsby is one of literature’s most memorable tragic heroes. When I taught “The Great Gatsby” I always enjoyed sharing the poem “Richard Cory” by Edwin Arlington Robinson, written in 1897, with my students to draw comparisons:
Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich — yes, richer than a king —
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.
So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
Despite the buzz that some people don’t like this movie, I absolutely loved it. Then again, if I didn’t study the book by teaching it several years in a row when I was a high school English teacher, I am not sure how I’d view the film as a stand-alone. So I am biased. From the casting of characters, to how every symbol is magnified down to the weather, it is obvious that Baz Luhrmann understands the important aspects of the book too.
I recommend “The Great Gatsby” to anyone who has studied the novel, so only for teens in 11th grade or older (Juniors typically study American Literature that year and “The Great Gatsby” is still a core book).