Help me design my English syllabus.
August 12, 2018 2:59 AM   Subscribe

Teaching a comparative essay to year 10 (so about 15 yo) students in Australia. We have Gatsby and we'd like to keep it. We had Citizen Kane but the pairing is a little too much for the time we have to teach it, and the task. Suggestions for alternative films?

Criteria: there should be a clear thematic link with one or more themes in The Great Gatsby. We would prefer it to be 'worthy' in that it teaches the students something important about life, literature or cinema. But it would preferably be a bit more accessible/straightforward than Kane.

I thought of All the Money in the World which is right in some respects but seems a bit devoid of substance/merit other than a fairly obvious message about money which Gatsby does already kind of cover, but more subtly. Kane explored these ideas but was also really clever cinematically and had a few other things to say too...

Ideas? Bonus points for not being too US-specific in the ideas.
posted by jojobobo to Education (10 answers total)
What specific themes are you looking to discuss?
posted by fso at 4:00 AM on August 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

Outside recommendation: what about 500 Days of Summer? It has similarities to Gatsby in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's pursuit of an unattainable woman, and in whom he wraps up all his potential for happiness. It is not nearly as complex thematically as Gatsby, but I think that simplicity would allow you to focus more on teaching students the tools of film analysis that you could use later in the year for more complex films. The movie has a nonlinear narrative and (if I remember right) some good if blunt use of music and color to convey mood.

For me the most interesting part of the movie is the unreliable narrator. When I taught Gatsby many of my students had trouble understanding the complexities behind Gatsby and Daisy's relationship and tried to slot it into a neat romantic narrative. I think you could do something really neat with the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, which the movie subverts really well (and helps us understand Daisy!). Your students will hopefully like the complexity at the end, when Gordon-Levitt falls in love again: did he learn anything and grow as a character, or is he an immature asshole about to make the same mistakes all over? Is it healthy to leverage all your happiness on whether you have a significant other? What are the consequences of fetishizing your girlfriend so much that there's no room for her as a person? Should Gordon-Levitt have seen the breakup coming (and should Gatsby have been so blindsided that Daisy chose Tom)? Also Gordon-Levitt literally just did an interview where he says his character is not a hero and people misunderstood the film; was Gatsby a hero? Is the reader meant to feel his death is an injustice? How does men's self-centeredness impact the women around them (#JusticeForMyrtle, whose death my students usually shrugged at)?

Ok I've convinced myself. 500 Days of Summer is a great choice. It will be relevant to students' lives, more accessible than Citizen Kane, and will give students some insights they can take with them when they return to Gatsby. Also it will hopefully make them more self aware about relationships in general, which every 15 year old needs. I'm excited at the curriculum.
posted by lilac girl at 4:46 AM on August 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

Which version of The Great Gatsby are you planning to show?
posted by 92_elements at 5:17 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

We are doing the novel, not the film of gatsby, sorry. Any thematic overlap is fine. The point is to make a thematic comparison- about what it doesnt much matter.
posted by jojobobo at 2:49 PM on August 12, 2018

You could show Cabaret, in that it's a story of excess and longing but set in Weimar-era Berlin--interwar, but more toward the WWII end.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 4:21 PM on August 12, 2018

I [former Eng teacher in Australia] get really frustrated with how our English classrooms foreground stories about women that are written by men, or erase women altogether. Could you think of a film that centralises a woman's experience of unrequited love/scheming to get back an old love ? Off the top of my head, Legally Blonde. How does the representation of nostalgia shift when the locus of narrative control is in a woman's hands? What attitudes are offset by holding up two texts to scrutiny against each other. What happens to the gender tropes between serious, edifying literature (which had an origin in the movie making machinery) and a film that looks at women's reactions, cares etc closely?
posted by honey-barbara at 4:44 PM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wall Street (1987) comes to mind. Common themes of greed, wealth, excessive lifestyles, misplaced trust and ethics among others.

With an older group I'd maybe
suggest Cinderella Man as that is set in the depression in New York and remember seeing Paul Giamatti do something and my head went "Oh that's Gatsby!". But on reflection I don't think it's worth it.
posted by 92_elements at 1:37 AM on August 13, 2018

Would Vanity Fair work? I think you could get a lot of substance out of Becky Sharp and Jay Gatsby-- undesirable origins, seeking out wealth and social status, how far they'll go to get it, what happens when it falls apart.

In terms of "life lesson" themes, you could discuss image vs. reality (strong ties to "personal branding" and social media presentation), pursuit of wealth and status, loyalty/betrayal, forgiveness and second chances... etc.
posted by scarnato at 12:57 PM on August 13, 2018

What about Almost Famous? You can draw parallels between Daisy and the lead groupie Pennie Lane (Kate Hudson). There are also parallels between the opulence of Gatsby and the not as opulent but decadent in its own way life of a famous musical group. There's also the disillusionment/loss of innocence angle that you could use to tie together both works.

With that being said, Almost Famous does have an R rating, so you'd definitely want to pre-screen it to make sure it's not too racy for your age grouping. It's been years since I watched it, though I was probably around 15 when I first saw it.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:27 PM on August 13, 2018

I teach Gatsby, albeit in Year 12 in Queensland. I often get a chance to parallel with a documentary called the Queen of Versailles. It parallels nicely with the unattainable American Dream; it follows a couple who were trying to build the biggest house in the US when the 2008 financial crisis hit. Wonderful shots of the family in denial about the losses of their finances, surrounded by a half-constructed mansion. Students find the doco fascinating.
posted by chronic sublime at 2:31 AM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

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