Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

"Can't we just watch the movie??"

elly's picture

Elly Leman

Webpaper #3

Due April 15th, 2011


“Can’t we just watch the movie??”


Throughout my literature classes in high school my classmates regularly asked my professor, “Why can’t we just watch the movie?” It was always presented to us as an unacceptable option, unless it was a reward for having gotten through the book. The language of this upsets me today when I look back. The idea of a film being a reward for all of the work that it took to get through the book automatically places the film above the book in the kids’ minds, or at least it did for me, and wasn’t the point of the resistance to the film to place the importance on the written work? I would like to explore this idea further, and ask whether, in 2011, we can still place novels above films in literature classes when technology has overcome the students’ lives so fully outside of school.

I have been struggling with the concept of the adaptation of stories to film. Based on past experiences, everyone seems to discuss their personal opinion when they talk about how successful a film adaptation was. This is more of a personal critique however, but does not go into analysis or theory. The difference between critique and theory is that a critic will concentrate on the failures and successes of the film, and whether something in a film works or not is based on personal taste. A theory will attempt to find a reason or meaning behind these successes and failures, and perhaps postulate as to what the filmmaker and screenwriter were hoping to achieve through their choices. I believe that if teachers were to concentrate on the analysis aspect rather than, “‘this scene was cut,” or “the dialogue here did not match,’ so it cannot be relied on as an adequate representation of the book.” Instead, they could take the film as its own piece of art or work to be analyzed and picked apart as its own being.

It is exactly these choices of what scenes to cut, or what dialogue to represent, that make a film, even when it is an adaptation of a novel, its own life form. “Students are inherently more interested in multimedia,” and teachers can learn to “foster textual analysis skills using different media” based on the film itself. (Muller 32) I do not believe that there is anything wrong with the dissection of a film in an English class in order to learn more about plot, characterization, and theme, especially if it is a way to get the students to begin the exploration of these lessons. It can even take these lessons in a different, but highly useful direction, which will be used much more often in their daily lives,

Unlike literature, film can use lighting, music, and camera angles as tools with which to tell a story. By studying these elements, students can learn to see film as a cultural artifact, noting its use of cultural conventions for conveying information…the unique ways a film expresses its narrative. (Muller 33)

      To do this, teachers could ask questions like, “How does the director use cinematic and theatrical elements to illustrate literary elements?” (Golden 25)  In an article for The English Journal, John Golden explains his approach to teaching film in literature courses, and explains that if you make sure that the students know the difference between review and analysis (or critique and theory) you can push past the initial likes and dislikes, to the type of “picking apart” that typically happens with a novel or written work. In one example, he discusses how he asks his students to write a diary entry from the point of view of a character after they watch a scene from a film with a strong sense of conflict. This is a perfect example of how to embrace the cinematic elements to produce a literary work.

      Anne Dalke posted this quote on Serendip, “Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory, 15-17: theory is endless... an unbounded corpus of writing which is always being augmented... a resource for constant upstagings.... ended...the condition of life itself... the questioning of presumed results and the assumptions on which they are based. The nature of theory is to undo... what you thought you knew, so the effects of theory are not predictable.” Perhaps every story already does fit into one of those that have already written, but there are so many theories as to why something happens a certain way, or why it wasn’t written a different way, that every story can then become something different depending on who is theorizing about it. This would offer the perfect situation for students to theorize and analyze film, which could grab their attention more easily than a novel, and practice this process, and by doing so many the film more relevant to themselves but telling their own story of what a character may write in their diary, or why the director chose to shoot in a certain location.

Why is a different approach to film relevant for literature classes today? Every day the students of these literature classes go home, post a summary of their day, the highlight low points and embarrassing details, on Facebook or update their friends over Twitter throughout the school day from their phones. They watch YouTube videos, online-TV that is available 24/7 and communicate almost entirely through technology with friends, and in some cases family. I can only imagine the level that this will reach for students who are just now entering high school, as it was already getting extreme when I graduated in 2007. When thinking about it from the “a word contains 1,000 pictures” angle, there is so much to be done with imagery and films, while embracing this new focus on technology, but the critiques of “adaptations” have created an environment where teaching film to learn literary concepts has been treated as an injustice to the field of study. “By critically thinking about film as film, students will learn to scrutinize a whole new generation of text—read daily outside the classroom—with its own language and conventions.” (Muller 33)

      I suppose what I am advocating for is the embracing of technology not just in computer and science classrooms, but even in literature or language arts classes. The work that I still remember from such courses was the work that involved a subject or medium that was relevant to me at the time.

      It is not outlandish to say that this new technological way of life isn’t going anywhere, it is only growing exponentially. Maybe if the subjects that don’t typical embrace technology, but rather focus on the classics (or are perceived that way) could embrace the evolution of the students’ ways of learning. Isn’t it the fact that children soak up everything around them so fully that makes them such incredible learners?



Works Cited

Golden, John. "Literature into Film (and Back Again): Another Look at an Old Dog." The 

      English Journal 97.1 (2007): 24-30.

Muller, Valerie. "Film as Film: Using Movies to Help Students Visualize Literary Theory." The 

      English Journal 93.1 (2006): 32-38.