written by: Shelia Odak
• edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom
• updated: 9/11/2012
More than ever, today’s students are visually oriented. This often bemoaned fact becomes a help rather than a hindrance in the literature classroom when you can couple teaching a text with showing a film.
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Using Film in a Senior Literature Class
Allowing your 12th grade students to compare a text and a movies tends to help them remember the book long after the semester is over, and gives them an opportunity to marry a favorite pastime - seeing movies - with classic literature. Since some schools use British literature in the 12th grade classroom, and some use American literature, I have included examples from both. There are many movies which work well in the classroom, and these are a few 12th grade compare text and movie lesson ideas that can help you include the element of film in a literature course.
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Setting the Scene
Some films bring the setting of a book to life for the students. One example is the lush 1993 production of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Martin Scorsese takes a break from the bloodshed usually found in his films to create an opulently layered vision of America’s Gilded Age. Have the students pay attention to the details of the homes in the film and the clothing the characters wear. Notice that a wall will have dozens of paintings instead of one. The dinner service has scores of pieces, even for a meal at home. There are different outfits to wear at different times of the day. Discuss with the students how all of these layers of clothes, possessions, and manners influence the actions of each of the three main characters.
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Shakespeare and the Movies
One of the best ways to teach Shakespeare is to allow the students to hear the Bard’s language being spoken by skilled actors. Suddenly, speeches that made no sense to them when they read the words themselves take on nuance and meaning. When teaching Hamlet, have the students read specific speeches in class and then watch the scene as acted by Kenneth Branagh. Use the closed caption feature on the DVD so the students are better able to follow the speech.
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Comparing/Contrasting the Book and the Film
Many films make slight changes from their literary inspirations, and this practice makes for a great compare/contrast lesson. One title that works for this 12th grade compare text and movie exercise is Of Mice and Men, the book written by John Steinbeck and the film starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich. The film develops the character of Curley’s wife more than does the book, and this makes for an interesting short paper. Have the students explore why they think this choice was made, how it influences the film, and whether they prefer this version or the way the character was imagined by Steinbeck.
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Using a Movie Not Based on the Book
For several years I worked in a high school where the book The Red Badge of Courage was part of the literature curriculum, and the novel made for a compelling 12th grade compare text and movie exercise. I used the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan in order to discuss the idea of the individual and war, which is central to Stephen Crane’s novel. The class would watch the first 15 minutes of the film with the instructions to pay attention to sound, silence, and color. Afterward, we would discuss how the filmmaker achieved the goal of making the viewer feel the experience of an individual soldier in the midst of chaos. This led into a writing exercise where they reflected on how Crane worked to create the same experience.
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Casting Your Own Movie
This is a fine exercise when you cannot find a film that you want to show with the book. Have the students cast their own film version of what you are reading. I often used this with The Great Gatsby, because I am not fond of the film version or the made-for-TV versions available. Students had to come up with their own cast list and defend it to the class.
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When preparing a 12th grade compare text and movie lesson plan, always preview the film before showing it in class. There may be scenes that contain nudity or strong language that you will choose to skip.
If there are many discrepancies between the book and the film, do not show the film until you have finished the book and tested the students on it. Often, the students will start to mix up the book and the film, and this can cause a problem on a test.
Another good reason to preview the film is to see how closely it relates to the book. For example, while the film The Last of the Mohicans is solid entertainment, the film makes significant changes from the book. Also, do not be fooled if the filmmaker puts the author’s name in the title of the film, seeming to imply that he/she has stayed true to the original source. A few minutes of Mary Shelley Frankenstein, with Kenneth Branagh and Robert De Niro, will illustrate how little the novel has to do with that film.