How to Throw a Party Like Gatsby

Compare the classic novel with visual adaptations in order to teach imagery, historical context, and adapting material across mediums.

By Elijah Ammen


1920's themed stamp

This summer, Baz Luhrmann’s long-anticipated adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will be in theaters. While Baz Luhrmann can sometimes be controversial due to the liberties he takes, particularly with his anachronistic soundtracks, his visual style seems very complementary to Fitzgerald’s use of imagery and color. While Gatsby was previously adapted in 1974, starring Robert Redford, this version promises to bring Fitzgerald’s critique of the Roaring Twenties to a contemporary generation. While I am usually wary of updated or modern adaptations, Luhrmann’s attention to detail in his locations and sets, as well as his meticulous attention to the historical context of the Roaring Twenties, gives me hope that this movie will remain true to the spirit of Fitzgerald’s social critique.

Since your chances of throwing together a unit plan on The Great Gatsby in the next few days are pretty slim, many of your students will probably have seen the film by the time you teach the novel. While in an ideal world, you could teach the novel and then show the visual adaptations, there are still ways to use this movie to your advantage.


Historical Context

Any critique of Gatsby is inherently tied to the historical context of modernism and the Roaring Twenties. Create the background knowledge of the time period in order to understand what Fitzgerald was trying to communicate about his era. You can use primary sources from the 1920s and critiques of the American Dream in order to contextualize aspects of the novel, such as the extravagant parties, bootlegging, and other elements of a post-WWI world. Once your class has the background knowledge, they can evaluate book and movie adaptations for historical authenticity as well as social commentary.

Create Your Own Adaptation

Gatsby is a novel that lends itself to theatrical adaptation. The visual style, action, and dialogue all make it easy to reenact key scenes. Creating your own adaptations will help you understand the difficulty translating a novel to a visual medium. Here are some resources to help launch your class performances:

  • Script the Novel: Write scripts for key scenes of the novel and perform the scenes. Allow for personal style and flair, while discussing how Baz Luhrmann added his own twist to his script.
  • Reader's Theater: Use portions of the text with heavy dialogue and assign roles. This particular lesson focuses on conflict between characters, and how rising emotion translates into performances
  • Create a Visual Display: Open up the assignment from performances to other possible visual displays, with this assignment with multiple options for presentations.
  • Point of View: Adapting the novel to a script will require the use of a narrator. Readers need to understand the significance of point of view to the novel, as well as understanding how the character of Nick Carraway influences the way the story is told.

Compare Images and Mediums

Comparing the same work across multiple mediums creates critical consumers of media, rather than passive consumers. While this lesson compares the 1974 adaptation and the novel, it is an easy extension to compare the novel with both adaptations and see how different artistic sensibilities interpreted the same source material. By providing multiple mediums, you don’t allow one image to dominate the mind of the learner, but rather provide an opportunity to evaluate and create an opinion through the lens of literary criticism.

Everything about Fitzgerald’s world is tied to images. Even something as seemingly simple as the colors he uses to describe things plays a significant role in the themes of the story. Your comparisons can range from a simple Venn diagram to presentations with screen shots of the different films contrasted with the text from the story. The level of intensity hinges on your time constraints and class buy-in, but the benefit of comparing multiple mediums is too valuable to pass up.

Fitzgerald’s novel was a critique of the time in which he wrote it. He presented vulnerable, flawed characters who were caught up in social and internal conflict and ultimately brought about their ruin. While our lives might not be full of garden parties, jazz, and clandestine rendezvous, the struggles of Jay Gatsby, Daisy, Tom Buchanan, and Nick Carraway are human struggles that are just as present in 2013 as they were in 1922. By giving learners practice at becoming insightful analyzers of both literature and film, we help them better understand the world they live in, and how to be critical of society rather than be consumed by it.