Why are young people so jazzed about the new film version of "The Great Gatsby?"
Monday night, my husband and I went to the 9:55 showing of "The Great Gatsby," expecting a nearly empty theater. But the place was packed, with young people, no less -- not the audience I'm accustomed to seeing at a movie adaptation of a classic work of literature. Yet here they are, lining up almost as if for a new "Twilight" chapter.
I probably shouldn't have been surprised. My kids have been buzzing about this movie for weeks, in a way that certainly hadn't transpired with recent versions of "Anna Karenina" and "Pride and Prejudice." And there would probably be pickets if anyone produced a film of the dreaded "Great Expectations" (one of my favorite novels, but the nemesis of every high school English student).
"It is rare to see kids get excited about a movie based on a book unless it's more of a young adult book," observed Darren McGarvey, who teaches English and drama at Kettering Fairmont High School. "I've never really seen students want to see a movie based on a classic piece of literature like this before."
For the purists, it may be borderline sacrilege to think of "The Great Gatsby" with Jay-Z as an executive producer, a mix-tape soundtrack with contemporary music, and a thrilling, pulse-racing trailer. But those are all the elements that are attracting a new audience for F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel.
McGarvey believes it has a lot to do with the director Baz Luhrmann, already popular with young audiences for his films "Romeo and Juliet" and "Moulin Rouge." He marveled, "Gatsby's actually cool. Kids were talking about going in groups to see it and some were going on opening night. I love the idea that students are excited about it, but as a teacher I'm a bit upset that all the spoilers will be out there. It's one of my favorite books to teach, and I really like how the book begins to really unfold in chapters 7 to 9, so some of the fun that helps make the book more exciting will be known by all the moviegoers."
Fairmont English teacher Juliet Monbeck said that if any classic novel could inspire this phenomenon, it is "The Great Gatsby."
Monbeck noted, "The kids read many books by many well-respected and admired authors, and the one that gets the biggest 'hey, I didn't hate this' reaction is 'The Great Gatsby.' I think it is a combination of a few things. First, the majority of the book centers around celebrities and the rich acting like complete idiots, getting wasted, and hurting people along the way. A few well-placed comparisons to Lindsay Lohan, Charlie Sheen, Angelina Jolie, and they recognize exactly what is going on and relate it to their Internet and tabloid interests."
Secondly, she said, her students are fascinated by the way Gatsby remakes himself from his poverty-stricken youth as James Gatz: "Make them read Ben Franklin's story and they go to sleep, but have Jay get rich from illicit dealings and there are a world of comparisons to TV shows they all watch -- like 'Breaking Bad' or 'Weeds.' They are even more fascinated by the fact that Gatsby doesn't take part in the debauchery surrounding him. In their minds, this means that he wins. He profits from bootlegging, but doesn't fall victim to its product. I actually have a hard time making the kids realize that he is not a hero. In fact, he's miserable and doesn't actually achieve his goal. The money and the parties don't mean anything to him without Daisy."
It certainly doesn't hurt that Gatsby is portrayed by an incandescent Leonardo DiCaprio. As critic A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review, "It is impossible to look away from him. His charisma has increased as his youthful prettiness has worn and thickened away, and he is beautiful, sad, confident and desperate in exactly the way Gatsby should be."
It is a perfect piece of casting, and DiCaprio is, indeed, Gatsby as I always pictured him. "This generation fell in love with Leo as little girls watching 'Titanic' and Tobey MacGuire was Spider Man, so they automatically love it," Monbeck said.
It could be argued that Luhrmann's movie is too extravagant, too over-the-top, but then again, so was Gatsby, and so was Fitzgerald's novel. "The kids actually understand the symbolism in the story," Monbeck said. "While I, literature person that I am, find his approach heavy-handed and sometimes an insult to my intelligence, for the kids, it is an epiphany. Finally, the kids love Gatsby's unrealistic and obsessive dedication to Daisy (remember, these are the same kids that thought the 200-year-old watching the 17-year-old sleep in 'Twilight' was romantic and not creepy pedophilia) as well as his belief that one can go back and recapture the past."
The film pulled in an impressive $51.1 million during its first weekend -- astonishing for a film based on a literary masterwork. It is sweet cosmic revenge for Fitzgerald, who failed in his own quest to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s.
But the author might be even more pleased by what has been happening at Fairmont High School these past few weeks -- a place where "classic" is no longer synonymous with "cod liver oil." Students stop by Monbeck's office frequently to discuss the differences between the novel and the movie. "For many of them it is the first time they can really do that and it is empowering," she said.
Sacrilege? It may well be. But I have a feeling F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn't mind.
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