Facets of the American Dream and American Nightmare in Film

Thesis (M.A.), 2008

96 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The American Dream – Historical Background

3. The American Dream today

4. Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) – The American Dream
4.1 Story
4.2 Chris Gardner and Symbolism
4.3 Images of the American Dream
4.4 Realization of the American Dream

5. Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) – The American Nightmare
5.1 Story
5.2 Suburban Life
5.3 Suburbs related to the American Dream
5.4 Failure of the American Dream

6. Andrew Bergman’s It Could Happen to You (1994) – The American Dream over Night
6.1 Story
6.2 New York Living and Dreaming
6.3 Gambling in the USA related to the American Dream
6.4 Gambling as a Way to Happiness?

7. Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997) – The American Bad Dream
7.1 Story
7.2 Dreams and Desires
7.3 The other Side of the Dream
7.4 American Nightmares

8. Realization of the American Dream – Positive Examples

9. Failure of the American Dream – Negative Examples

10. Conclusion

11. Bibliography

12. Appendix
12.1 Gambling in the United States
12.2 Poverty Rate in the U.S. 2002 by Race and Hispanic Origin
12.3 Prisoners and jail inmates in the U.S
12.4 Superior

1. Introduction

“Predictively, any attempt at abstracting from the plethora of relevant publications something even faintly resembling a definition of the ‘Dream’ is doomed to failure.”[1]

Peter Freese

As Peter Freese precisely points out, defining the American Dream is a difficult if not irresolvable task. The reason for this is that “beyond an abstract belief in possibility, there is no one American Dream.”[2] Nevertheless, it is easy to find short definitions in various encyclopedias. In The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language it is defined as

“[a]n American ideal of a happy and successful life to which all may aspire: “In the deepening gloom of the Depression, the American Dream represented a reaffirmation of traditional American hopes.”'[3]

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy offers a different definition:

“[a] phrase connoting hope for prosperity and happiness, symbolized particularly by having a house of one's own. Possibly applied at first to the hopes of immigrants, the phrase now applies to all except the very rich and suggests a confident hope that one's children's economic and social condition will be better than one's own.”[4]

A rather short and simple explanation of the term American Dream can be found in the dictionary WordNet by the Princeton University which says that it is

“the widespread aspiration of Americans to live better than their parents did.”[5]

All of these definitions describe various facets of the dream, but none of them gets to the point.

In order to get an idea of what the dream really is or what it is assumed to be and how the idea of it came up, it is necessary to have a look at American history. The recapitulation in this work will make an attempt to reveal why it is the American dream and how it is related to American national identity. It will give a brief overview of the most important concepts in the history of the country, starting back in 1585 when the first colonists arrived. It will deal with important topics which, besides colonialization and the connected reasons for leaving Europe, are the establishment of the Declaration of Independence, the Frontier and the westward movement, Manifest Destiny all the way up to the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle for equality. Besides, it is supposed to not only show the bright side of the dream but its shady sides as well in order to give full testimony of the idea of the American Dream. Among these are the struggle of the first colonists and the people moving westwards, the displacement of the Native Americans as well as slavery and the pursuit of equality. During this work, more prevailing topics such as gambling and homeownership with its advantages and disadvantages will be discussed as well. But is the American Dream still a topic discussed in every-day life? Some examples such as political speeches will show that the enchantment and the topicality of this concept are unbroken.

The brief overview on American history will make clear that the concept of the American Dream has positive as well as negative sides. But since this topic is rather complex and not easily definable, there is more than just the good and the bad side of the coin. Thus, the dream varies and has many facets.

Ever since, authors and writers wrote about the dream, and people still talk about it. Authors of the 20th Century such as Langston Hughes, Kurt Vonnegut and F. Scott Fitzgerald write books on it[6] and newspapers of the 21st Century such as the Newsweek[7] and the New York Times[8] publish articles discussing the existence or non-existence of the dream.

Above all, another medium has joined the discussion – the film. Since Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush from 1925, which is one of the first movie adaptations about the American Dream, there have been more films closely related to this concept. Those movies are, for example, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) and Robert Zemeckis’ Forest Gump (1994).

The four movies chosen for this work are recent publications with the oldest one being from 1994 and the newest one from 2006. These films differ in concept and matter though they are all related to the American Dream. The purpose of this work is to show that there is a variety of concepts and that these films are manifold in presenting the dream, its vision not only presenting black and white but many different facets. Thus, this work is not supposed to give a detailed analysis of each movie but an overview or in fact a width in order to see the various layers and different facets of it.

Hereby, it is important that all movies are related to the history of America in order to be relevant for the discussion.

Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) is an example for the American Dream come true. It offers the typical image of the idea of becoming from rags to riches and thus serves as a positive example. The movie is also linked to important subjects of the American history such as the Declaration of Independence and the American Flag which will be discussed in matters of relevance.

Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999) is the counterpart to The Pursuit of Happyness, describing the shady sides or the underbelly of the dream – its failure, so to say. It is linked to the dream of homeownership and upward mobility and reflects its advantages as well as its disadvantages. The film reveals the negative sides of the image American Dream and shows that, instead of being beautiful, it might turn out to be a nightmare.

Andrew Bergman’s It Could Happen to You (1994) is related to the idea of becoming rich over night without much effort. It is the contrary to the idea of the Puritans who believed that hard work was the way to happiness. Because the protagonists win their money in the lottery, it is necessary to disclose the American history of gambling in order to understand how it is linked to the American Dream, which will be discussed in that chapter.

Oliver Stone’s U Turn (1997) is an example for the American Bad Dream, a dream that although it is most likely out of reach, still creates desire. It is the story about people desperately trying to fulfil their dreams regardless of the price they have to pay. That discussion questions the Americans’ will to aspire happiness or wealth under the aspect of America’s current situation concerning poverty and inequality, for example.

The questions this work is going to discuss are how manifold films about the American Dream and the American Nightmare really are and in how far they can be related to American history. It will consider if these films are relevant in order to define the dream and if it is as easy as to divide them into positive and negative examples or if there are different facets and, if that is the case, how these facets are being illustrated.

Each movie analysis follows the same approach. First, a short overview about the story of the film is given in order to understand its relevance for the topic. Afterwards, the main protagonists, their dreams and desires as well as their nightmares will be examined. These chapters will reveal some obvious facets of the American Dream, positive as well as negative ones. The following excursus will show in how far the topic is related to American history and sheds light on the connection between American Dream and the history of the country. Concluding, all aspects will be discussed to find out how the American Dream is being realized or why its realization failed.

2. The American Dream – Historical Background

“But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability and achievement.”

James Truslow Adams

In 1931, the American historian[9] James Truslow Adams published his book The Epic of America which became famous as the study which shaped the term American Dream. Adams was the first person to use this expression and it became a phrase frequently used by people all over the world. Today, it is connected to the national identity of America and it is an inherent part of every American’s vocabulary. At that time, Adams defined the dream by saying that

“it is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of a social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”[10]

Today one would say that it is the dream or the opportunity to rise from rags to riches. But although Adams was the one who gave this idea a name, he was not the one who invented it.

Peter Freese, a scholar who is intensely engaged in questions about the American Dream, says that “long before America became a country, it was a continent, and long before it was known to exist as a continent, it was a vision and a dream”[11]. What he means by that is the struggle of mankind to find a place where everyone is free and has the opportunity to live a life of self-determination. He gives some examples which he accounts to be synonyms for a place like America, for instance, “a paradise on earth”[12], a place where Europeans could be free from religious bondage; “Atlantis”[13], Plato’s vision of an island that is fertile and paradise-like; “El Dorado”[14], a country rich of gold and other treasures. In the course of history, other phrases concerning the newly explored continent, America, arose. Worth mentioning are the most famous phrases such as Brave New World, a term first used by Shakespeare in the 5th act of his drama Tempest and later adopted by Aldous Huxley[15]. Also the term land of milk and honey which can be found in the bible was later being related to America. In 1630, John Winthrop, who was one of the first settlers and governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote in his essay A Model of Christian Charity that this new world “shall be as a city upon a hill”[16] whereby he quotes the bible in which is written that

“ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.” (Matthew 5.14-15)

This notion gives hope to many people and again creates a picture of a paradise-like place. But it was not only this idea of a fertile and untouched country which could be an escape from “a sinful and urbanized Europe”[17], a chance for the people to start anew.


[1] Peter Freese (1994), American Dream and American Nightmare, p. 94

[2] Jim Cullen (2003), The American Dream, p. 7

[3] Anthony Brandt – The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (January 2008)

[4] Houghton Mifflin Company - The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (January 2008)

[5] Princeton University – WordNet (January 2008)

[6] Peter Freese (1994), American Dream and American Nightmare, p. 174 f

[7] Peter Freese (1994), American Dream and American Nightmare, p. 177

[8] New York Times – The American Dream in Reverse (January 2008)

[9] Peter Freese (2006), The American Dream. Humankind’s second Chance?, p.10f

[10] James Truslow Adams (1954), The Epic of America, p.374

[11] Peter Freese (1985), Anglistik und Englischunterricht, p. 8

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Peter Freese (1985), Anglistik und Englischunterricht, p. 8

[15] ibid

[16] John Winthrop (1630), A Model of Christian Charity, p. 118

[17] Peter Freese (1985), Anglistik und Englischunterricht, p. 9

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Facets of the American Dream and American Nightmare in Film
University of Duisburg-Essen
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Jessica Narloch (Author), 2008, Facets of the American Dream and American Nightmare in Film , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/116654


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