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The latest film version of “The Great Gatsby” opens May 10 in U.S. theatres. Nearly 90 years after it first appeared in print, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Prohibition era novel continues to resonate with American audiences and has some interesting parallels to modern American culture, according to DePaul University film and literary experts.

“I think ‘Gatsby’ continues to be remade because it's a story that speaks to an understandable American experience,” said Paul Booth, assistant professor of media and cinema studies in DePaul’s College of Communication. “It can be tough to identify with, say, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ because it's so specific to a time and place, but ‘Gatsby’ seems almost universal in its enunciation of wealth, privilege, envy and punishment.”

“‘The Great Gatsby’ deals with many of the issues that brought about the recent Wall Street debacle,” according to Hugh Ingrasci, associate professor of English in DePaul’s College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences.

“It reflects our society, in which a minority of Americans owns the majority of the wealth,” Ingrasci said. “This is also detailed in David Mamet’s plays, particularly ‘Glengarry Glen Ross,’ which is about the real estate industry and how the salesmen cut each other to death to get to the top — whoever grosses the most is the king of the heap.”

The trailers for Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming “Gatsby” film take great strides to portray the opulent lifestyle and lavish parties of Jay Gatsby, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio.

“Americans are insecure because we live in a classless society,” Ingrasci said. “This drives Americans to create a class structure by mimicking Europe’s aristocratic caste system. Gatsby owns silk and wool clothes, he has ritzy cars, and he has a made-up, mysterious past to make him seem as though he might be an aristocrat. In his search to become this upper-crust, East Coast aristocrat, he glorifies the wealthy Daisy Buchanan as his dream woman. His fantasy will come true if she can accept him into her upper class circle.”

According to Ingrasci, “The ‘greatness’ of the title refers to the audacity of Gatsby’s dream to make himself over, from a small-town nobody into some kind of mysterious tycoon who wows the jet set on Long Island in the 1920s.”

Among the greats

“I think Gatsby continues to resonate with American pop culture for a number of reasons,” Booth said. “The most obvious one, I think, is that it's still taught in most schools, and as people have been reading less, the books they do read take on more significance.

“There is also the theme of Gatsby — the hijacking of the ‘American Dream’ for a dream of decadence and opulence instead. I think that resonates with people who are struggling financially,” said Booth. “It's about wanting the American Dream of success but also knowing that there's a right way and a very wrong way to go about getting it.”

Ultimately, Ingrasci noted, “Gatsby” is considered a contender for the title of the “great American novel” because it shines a spotlight on the failings of the American Dream of success.

“The novel shows us the distinction between the dream for excellence, which is service for other people and making the world a better place to live, and how it has become a desire to be better than others,” Ingrasci said. “All we really want to be is unequal. The Buchanans in ‘Gatsby’ represent how shallow and unsubstantial the novel’s rich upper crust are, and hence how empty and useless Gatsby’s dream is to be like them. They’re single minded, they’re vain and above all, they’re greedy, and this doesn’t lead to a great America.”

Celebrity-obsessed culture reflected in ‘Gatsby’

“Jay Gatsby is really like a reality TV star,” said Booth. “We want to watch him do ‘rich’ things so we can live vicariously through him, but we also want to watch him get punished for it. So there are cultural reasons, cathartic reasons and emotional reasons to get excited about ‘The Great Gatsby.’”

 “Today, Gatsby would not be the bootlegger that he is in the novel, but an entrepreneurial Internet sensation,” said Ingrasci. “He would want to dazzle the media and become a celebrity so he can reconnect with his teenage dream queen, probably in Hollywood. Now the life that Jay Gatsby lived is what’s celebrated in ‘People’ magazine. Shows like ‘Entertainment Tonight’ promote the idea that celebrities are beautiful people, they are better than us and if you worship them that is going to make you happy.”


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