Before Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby adaptation hit theatres this weekend, we wondered whether—through all the gauze, confetti, Jay-Z, and 3D—this was actually going to be a film that approached the book the way our high school English teachers did: with a lot of talk about Fitzgerald’s use of symbolism.
You know, how the green light symbolizes the American Dream and the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg are the eyes of God.
Turns out, there was a lot of all that. So we decided, for a second watching, to take an actual high school English teacher as our movie date. Kyle Mullins teaches ninth and twelfth grade at Regis High School, a well-regarded Catholic school for boys in New York City.
Though he doesn’t currently teach Gatsby—Regis includes the book in its sophomore curriculum—he is something of a Gatsby scholar: Mullins taught the book to undergraduates when he was a grad student at Boston College, and presented a conference paper exploring “queer transmission and sexuality” in the book.
Though it was hard to tell in the darkened theatre—and through two layers of glasses—we noticed him giggle a couple of times. (Once when a party guest marvels of Gatsby: “He’s certainly richer than God.”) Afterwards we ducked into a Barnes & Noble to quiz him about his thoughts.
This Is Actually a Pretty Good High School Gatsby…
To be sure, The Great Gatsby movie does not hide from its source material’s most famous passages: Fitzgerald’s words are literally printed on the screen, and a late montage is something like a book report in 3D.
And while Mullins had some problems with the adaptation, he actually thought that Luhrmann did a nice job with the aspects of the book taught in actual English classes.
“As an interpretation I think he really nailed the high school angle of it,” Mullins told us, as we sat, appropriately, in the bookstore’s fiction section. “The symbolism was really overt. It bothered me being someone who studied it more seriously to see it be so blunt. Especially that scene at the end when Gatsby literally says, ‘I was so empty inside,’ and the degree to which it makes it so clear that he was doing this all for Daisy. It just lacks subtlety, I guess, but that’s the way we teach it to sophomores in high school.”
…Except When It Wasn’t
There were elements of certain scenes that got very much lost in the transition from book to screen.
Most notably: In the scene where Nick and Gatsby pass the car of African Americans partying on a bridge, Mullins wished that Luhrmann had included the moment in the book when, importantly, a hearse passes them first.
“To cut the hearse out of that really simplifies the fact that African Americans are in that scene,” he said. Also, the character of Jordan Baker, he said, was “very underutilized.”
The Framing Device Is ‘Kind of Unfair’
Mullins really wasn’t keen on how Luhrmann and his collaborator Craig Pearce had Nick narrating and writing the story from a sanitarium. “I really didn’t like it,” Mullins said.
But he tried to make sense of Luhrmann’s intentions: “I’m already kind of rationalizing it in the sense that he wants to be very clear that Nick is not a reliable narrator. Especially in showing the chart [with Nick’s symptoms], it’s not just that he’s alcoholic but he’s prone to fits of rage and an insomniac. So it’s really raising questions about his mental stability, in a way that I think is kind of unfair. We don’t quite get that from the novel.”
Mullins added that Luhrmann’s use of mist and snow in those scenes made him wonder whether Luhrmann was implying that the whole story was just borne out of Nick’s imagination. Later, however, Mullins, remarked that he “loved” the moment of Nick looking out the window and seeing himself.
Luhrmann’s use of text on screen can seem cheesy, but Mullins focused on something else: he got the punctuation wrong. “It doesn’t preserve the punctuation,” he said.
Take the famous last scene, for example. Mullins explained that the film left out the double em-dash in the final lines of the book. “You lose so much complexity there,” he said.
3D Actually Makes Sense
While the 3D certainly makes the visual elements of the film look vibrant, Mullins had an academic perspective on it.
“It draws us in in a very intentional way,” he said, and that actually mirrors the text. “In that last paragraph the way that Nick switches into that first person plural. In the end we’re implicated in it and in the film we’re implicated in the entire thing.”
Would He Show It To High School Students?
Yes! “Definitely,” Mullins said. “I think after having read the book it really opens up a great conversation with what’s lost when you are changing mediums and what’s gained.”
What’s gained? “You get the music. Even though this isn’t jazz that Fitzgerald’s writing about, you get the sense of how the music is infused in a lot of those scenes. You get a sense of what those parties are like.”
He said the kids are probably “imagining a rave when they read that now.” Mullins even gave us what is essentially an essay prompt about the final scene: “How is this different when you read it? What emotion does that conjure up when you’re reading it and how does that change when you’re seeing it simultaneously represented on the screen and narrated.”
Yes, You Can See the Movie Without Having Read the Book (Sort of)
Mullins told us that he asked students in his ninth grade class—which hasn’t had Gatsby in their curriculum yet—whether they were going to see the movie, and many of them said yes.
So what does a kid get from the movie without having read the book?
While obviously he wants kids to read the book, he explained, “if they are going to just go see the movie, and they are never going to pick up the book, I think they are getting a pretty good representation of it. I really do. I think Luhrmann really does do justice to what Fitzgerald intended with the story.”
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