Who better to tout the many reasons "Gatsby" is still relevant today than the very people who expose young minds to it year in and year out -- high school English teachers (including my own). Here are seven themes in "The Great Gatsby" that make it an ideal pick for parents and their teens, whether they've already read the book, skimmed the Spark Notes, or have yet to crack the spine.
At the very least, we can rest assured that teachers will be thrilled to have another option besides Robert Redford and Mia Farrow's version to show their kids. "I absolutely loved reading Gatsby with my students and cannot wait for teens today to see this classic come to life onscreen with the cool Baz Luhrmann lens," says Amy Mascott of TeachMama.com. "Nothing was more awesome than watching my students fall hard for Shakespeare in a way that I'm sure they never imagined after we read the play and they saw Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet.'"
?1. The Voice This is the story of Jay Gatsby, but we're experiencing it from the perspective of Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire). My former English teacher, Peggy Hall, encourages teens to "listen to the dialogue. Listen to the narrator, Nick, who keeps trying to understand the big and little picture of life. Who in the heck is this fellow Gatsby?" Another teacher, Perry Lantz, says he's concerned "Baz Luhrmann is going to make us fall in love with Gatsby." That DiCaprio in his dapper suits will make us "so enamored that we become entranced," when, in reality, it's Nick we should be paying attention to: "My students have pointed out that if we're watching it in 3D, it's like the audience turns into Nick Carraway as a collective. We're watching this tragedy unfold and are helpless just like Nick to do anything about it."
2. Ritz and Glitz Luhrmann, more than any other contemporary director, has a theatricality that allows him to convey the heady excess of the Roaring '20s and to visually immerse audiences in "the sheer beauty" of settings and characters: "There's a surface glamour that can be dived into in the movie," Hall says. She also has this message for young moviegoers: "Get over yourself for a bit. Really see another generation, its human predicament of being human at a specific point in historical time. You don't have to be judgmental, just keep your heart open... Then come out of the water. Be better than that, not because life doesn't end happily for Gatsby, but because you CAN be better than that, than your ancestors, your school, your country. You are our hope. Start to grow up -- now."
4. Tainted Love The tragic romance between Gatsby and Daisy will resonate with teens, especially those who enjoy stories about star-crossed lovers. "Gatsby's singularly obsessed, and the students really respond to that kind of obsessive love," says Patty Schevis, an English teacher and guidance counselor. "Daisy's the ultimate possession in his life. He thinks being with her would be complete and total happiness, and he throws all those parties, waiting for her to show up." Schevis adds that parents may want to talk about how Gatsby and Daisy's story is "romantic but unhealthy." And as Luhrmann makes clear, their connection is based on "Gatsby impressing her with all of the things he has" and "Daisy trying to recapture her youth." All those beautiful shirts, bespoke suits and the custom yellow car twinkle in Daisy's eye, but ultimately, it's a "love affair that's doomed from the start."
5. The American Dream Gatsby does everything he can to make himself worthy of Daisy -- fabricating his background, acquiring wealth by any means necessary, focusing on her as the only key to his happiness. Gatsby's desperate need to grasp hold of the American Dream is fodder for discussion about what that dream means -- is it just about money? "Fitzgerald is exposing the farce of the American Dream that we've fallen prey to as a society," says Lantz. "The idea that materialism can fill a void, that Daisy could be possessed like all of those other things -- it's just not possible."
6. Class Notes Maryland teacher Christina Chalmers stresses that the class and status issues in "Gatsby" are still going on, even in high schools. "The social commentary about excess and overindulgence is relevant today. Materialism, divisions between the haves and the have-nots, the rift between those born with money and those striving for more, the isolation of those who feel on the outside -- you still see it in every high school." She also notes that "Gatsby" is a divisive book: "People either love it or hate it, so teenagers should be part of that discussion and figure out what they think of the story."
7. Read It and See It Ultimately, the teachers I spoke to don't care about whether the movie is going to win Oscars, as long as it gets a new generation of students interested in the material. "See the movie. Read the book. Read the book. See the movie," says Hall. Every single one of them plans to see it: "I loved 'Moulin Rouge' and expect great stuff from the Baz."