Of the many debates that have been had in the English office throughout my career so far, the discussion on whether it’s useful to show a film version of the texts we are studying has been one of the most frequent.
There are well reasoned arguments on both sides: showing a film can help students get a grasp of the plot but film adaptations often deviate from the original; showing a film is a quick way of getting through the story in a tight curriculum plan, yet using film robs students of the chance to experience the full text as the writer intended.
Personally, I have wavered between showing films and not, often depending on the group I’m teaching and how close a film version might be to the original text but, until now, I haven’t sat down to really consider the implications. I’ve settled on the use of films as a good thing and here I’d like to lay out my current thinking:
In a curriculum where we are always battling between the desire to do texts justice and the pressure to move on to the next, anything we can do to save time is a welcome bonus. Whereas reading a novel may take five or six hours of instruction time (especially with frequent stops to check for understanding), watching a film version takes far less.
Yes, it is true that films often deviate from the original in some way and often miss out parts that we might deem important to our analysis of the text but that does not mean it is not useful. The purpose of showing a film is not to generate material for analysis, rather it is to build familiarity with the plot, characters and themes of the text before the work of analysis begins. As to the issue of artistic licence in films, there are some ways to minimise their impacts or even turn them to our advantage.
Before any screening, I take great pains to make sure my class know that the film they are about to see will deviate from the original text.
As an example, in the teaching of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I prefer to use the Disney adaptation (2009) as it’s fairly close to the original text and students have generally come away with a good understanding of the story. However, there are some significant differences: the film begins with a scene showing Scrooge with an undertaker, preparing to bury Marley; the Ghost of Christmas Past is vanquished without showing Scrooge the life he could have had with Belle; and various details are added to the film to help create the atmosphere of Christmas in Victorian London.
To make this clear to the students, before viewing, I teach a lesson exploring what it means to interpret a text for different media.
We begin with a reading of the first two-three pages of the text (up to ‘Once upon a time’). After a short period to discuss vocabulary with each other (I don’t provide any input at this point as I want them to understand that we each have different interpretations, based on our own understanding), I ask them to decide on the most important image in the section they have read. Students will then draw this scene, emphasising what they believe are the most important elements of it. These drawings then form the basis of a discussion about why each student chose their scene and the details they have homed in on.
This activity gets them thinking about how we might come to different interpretations and lays the foundations for the next stage of the lesson.
Next, students are shown one version of the opening to A Christmas Carol (I use the 1984 version, starring George C. Scott) and are asked to note down what we can see and hear. Once the clip has finished, I direct them back to the opening pages of the text and ask them to note down what has been omitted and what has been added.
Another discussion follows, and we draw out the elements that help to create the festive atmosphere. Students often pick out the happy shoppers, toys in the windows and carollers setting the scene for a Christmas tale, while the fog and ice creating a disconcerting atmosphere too.
By examining a film adaptation in this way, we are able to do two things: first, students become aware of some of the ways a director may choose to deviate from the text, removing the dissonance created when we read scenes from the original; and second, analysis of different interpretations helps to draw out the key themes of the text, developing their analytical abilities through comparison.
Finally, I announce that we are going to watch another version of the opening (Disney, 2009) but this time, rather than pausing to have them analyse I let it play and we view the whole film over the next two lessons.
Relieves cognitive load
This may be a fairly tenuous reason, but I would assert still valid all the same.
Reading a text, particularly a text from a different place or time period, throws up lots of unfamiliar vocabulary and idiom. When analysing a text, this can be really useful as it offers way into new understanding and helps to develop the students’ own knowledge bank. However, when we are trying to build an understanding of the basic features of a text (plot, character, themes), then frequent pausing to define terminology adds to the cognitive load and take focus away from the knowledge we want our students to acquire. Consider the experience of reading for a person who struggles with decoding or reading comprehension. The constant stopping and focus on individual words makes it much harder for them to maintain a sense of the whole passage, and so to follow what is happening in the story.
Of course, we do want our students to learn new vocabulary but there is a time and place for everything. When our aim is for students to understand the who, what, when and where of a story, we need to make sure that is where their focus is. Viewing a film adaptation helps as the job of interpreting language has already been done by the director. Where words come up that are unfamiliar to students, there are often visual clues on screen to help them maintain a sense of what’s going on. All of this helps the students to maintain a grasp on the plot of the story, and providing the version we have chosen is reasonably faithful to the original, will provide them with a common foundation on which we can build our detailed analysis later in the module.