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More than a movie: How far will influence of 'Great Gatsby' go?

Published: Thursday, May 9 2013 4:05 p.m. MDT

“‘Gatsby’ is a very mature novel,” Curnutt said. “But when many people read it in 1925 they were like, ‘Oh ... here comes (Fitzgerald) again doing the same old stories about parties and debutantes and rich people and alcohol. They didn’t quite understand the book’s deeper meanings.”

Curnutt expressed great enthusiasm about seeing the new film adaptation — he secured a ticket to his local theater’s first screening — but like the vast majority of Fitzgerald aficionados, he considers the genius of “The Great Gatsby” novel to be the actual writing.

“If you want to crack open that book, you can criticize it on any number of grounds — structurally it has some faults, and I think a lot of the elements of it are melodramatic,” he said. “But I think what makes it so rich and powerful and emotionally resonant for people is the intricacy of the writing. I mean, the prose is really crafted to be almost like jewelry.

“People can get lost in that book, as short as it is. They can just read it for the beauty of the prose.”

Molding 'a new generation'

Alexander Springer teaches English to juniors at Hillcrest High in Midvale, Utah. He elected to include “The Great Gatsby” in this year’s curriculum as a representative work of Modernism.

“I tied it into a unit that I was doing about the American dream, what that means to different people,” Springer said. “The students are trying to figure out who they are and what they want to get out of life; they all have different ideas of what success is at this age. It’s interesting to read through that book, and get the themes of the American dream, and what Gatsby considers the American dream versus what (others) thought of the American dream.”

Before beginning to study the book, Springer showed his students the trailer for the forthcoming movie, and talked to the class about how the director Luhrmann had “read the same book you’re about to read, and he pulled all that vibrant color and action out of it.”

“That actually was helpful, a good discussion to have,” Springer said. “Typically you meet a little bit of a resistance when you say, ‘We’re going to read something from the 1920s,’ because the kids aren’t super excited about that. But having that conversation, I was able to impress upon the students that it’s really up to them — they can get all that color out of a story if they want.”

It’s very conceivable that any new film adaptation of an 87-year-old novel is going to be met with some level of enthusiasm by teenage students assigned to read that book for a class at school. But Springer believes the new movie’s elevated “coolness factor” significantly enhanced his students’ willingness to engage with Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”

“I’m glad that modern filmmakers still see value in the classics,” Springer said. “I like when someone will take an old book — especially one that I’m about to teach — and make it a big pop culture phenomenon. That kind of goes to validate what I’m saying about it: This is a story that’s going to last forever, and the reason it’s going to last forever is because we can really relate to the characters and the themes.

“And that’s the bread and butter of what I do, is to get kids to realize that even back in the 1920s, people were still killing themselves for the girl; they were still trying to make sense of love and life and success. And I think it is important to communicate that to a new generation of kids.”

Harnessing movie momentum

For the enterprising librarian, a robust movie tie-in can be an invaluable tool.

“When a movie comes out, it almost always prompts interest in reading the book and requests for the print version,” said Bill Ott, editor and publisher of Booklist, the American Library Association’s book-review magazine. “So what you’ll see in a lot of libraries is displays created around whatever the new film is. …

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