The book is always better than the movie. What would you expect an English teacher to write? Yet, some adaptations can become something wonderful in their own right: The Lord of the Rings, The Wonder Boys, Out of Sight, The Princess Bride, Shawshank Redemption….I better stop because those last three disprove my rule. I prefer the movies to the books.
This past week a colleague and I watched Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby with about thirty students (and one Bruins player I would never-ever recognize but who sent the kids into a minor flutter). I did not expect to see the novel perfectly transposed on the screen, so I was not surprised to find that I like Luhrmann’s version of Gatsby and his green light.
First, let’s celebrate the fact that the glittering, bass-bumping film puts teenagers in the seats (without the promise of extra credit). The critics panning the film have probably never worked with teenagers. I have taught this novel 20+ times and am excited to teach it again with this film as a resource. It will certainly help me hook more of my students on one of the greatest American novels.
Baz Luhrmann’s style works well with many of Fitzgerald’s major themes. The director’s kinetic cuts, thumping scores, and lush-and-purposefully-cartoonish color palettes perfectly articulate the grandeur and absurdity of Gatsby’s vision. I spend considerable time in the classroom helping students see the over-the-top nature of Gatsby’s choices. The kids, however, end up imagining party scenes where stiffs in suits sip martinis and swoon stylishly over droll, blue-blooded humor.
A few seconds of the movie’s pool party, however, smashes this misconception and replaces it with a visceral portrayal of the excess Fitzgerald splashes throughout the novel. Inflatable zebras might not have existed in the Roaring Twenties (or maybe they did?), but we should overlook such anachronisms and bathe in the hypnotic extravagance. Very few teenagers would want to be invited to the parties described in the book. (Their loss, of course, as Fitzgerald knew what a good time looks like.) But, almost every person under the age of 35–and plenty of us over that benchmark–would jump at the chance to rage at one of Luhrmann’s blowouts.