Baz Luhrmann’s long awaited screen adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby finally opens in May, and I, for one, am thrilled. The first time I watched his William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet in 1996 is seared in my memory as a formative aha moment, as they say—and no, this moment did not have anything to do with discovering the dreaminess of a young Leonardo DiCaprio, although that thought certainly did occur to me. This aha moment was the confirmation of what I had already begun to suspect at the ripe old age of fourteen; classical literature does not have to be boring!
Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet was fast paced and in your face, nothing like the sleepily romantic Zeffirelli version we watched in my nineth-grade classroom, and it taught me two lessons that have stuck with me throughout my studies and subsequent career in arts education. First, you can play with the classics—dust them off, give them a new spin, make them exciting; and second, you must make sure that you honor the original author.
While my enthusiasm for the Verona Beach setting has since faded to a nostalgic fondness, Luhrmann’s commitment to lush, contemporary visuals—Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo and Claire Danes’ Juliet watching each other through an exotic fish tank is just brilliantly beautiful—while remaining mostly true to Shakespeare’s original text remains hugely influential.
It is because of this experience that I am so excited about watching The Great Gatsby—not just because Leonardo DiCaprio is still dreamy. Fitzgerald, like Shakespeare, is foisted on high school students all the time, with quite often disastrous, literature-hating-for-life results.
Teachers, please take note: telling a student that a classic is readable and interesting by virtue of being a classic is not enough. And that is what is so great about Baz Luhrmann taking on what has been put forth as “the Great American Novel.” His films are a sensory feast, and his imagining of Gatsby may just be the perfect way to bring to life the spectacle of the roaring twenties and the rich, detailed imagery of Fitzgerald’s writing.
Purists may find Luhrmann’s over-the-top theatricality a mismatch for Fitzgerald’s more subtle approach to storytelling. But I disagree. Nick Calloway is dazzled by Gatsby and all his world has to offer. What better way could there be to discover this world than to be dazzled ourselves?
(Photo Source: WarnerBros.com)
Monica Weigel is education coordinator at Park Avenue Armory in New York and author of "
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