In teaching literature, there are a few films that I find particularly well suited to "reading and interpreting" as literature. One of my favorite films for this purpose is Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a french film by Alain Resnais.
A number of factors play into my choice to use this film in class (available text of the screenplay/the film's interest in poetry/use of monologue/use of flashback/use of "told stories"). But I know there are more really apt films for use in literature classrooms.
What films do you like to use? Why are they fit for "reading and intepreting as literature"?
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I would like to suggest the John Huston film version of The Maltese Falcon because it is a classic as a film and because it is so closely tied to the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett. Part of the history of the film is that Huston had a studio secretary take the book and turn it directly into a screenplay by typing out the descriptions verbatim across the entire page and the dialogue running down the middle and indented on both sides. Huston used this script to get approval and financing for making the film. He did some editing afterwards, but he had started his career as a screen writer and was thoroughly capable of cutting and revising. The Maltese Falcon was made into movies three times, but the John Huston production starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sidney Greenstreet is the only one people remember and the only one worth remembering.
John Huston also made a classic movie out of the novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven. Huston once said that the three most important ingredients of a movie are story, story, and story.
Some novels are easy to adapt to the screen because they consist largely of action and dialogue with only brief descriptions of the settings. This at least partly explains why there have been so many film versions of the novels of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, and Dashiell Hammett, to name only a few.
I too have used appropriate portions of Shakespeare in Love. The sets and costumes are beautiful and appealing, and while fictional, the story helps my students to picture the time period.
When introducing argumentation, I often show Super Size Me. We discuss everything from his musical selections to the slant presented in his argument. It helps my students understand context and that there is more to an argument than just arguing with someone: you must have details, facts, and solid support. It also makes them question what they're eating in our cafeteria- a additional benefit.
I also think To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel to read, accompanied then by the classic film with Gregory Peck. I also liked to read the play, The Miracle Worker and then watch the film. This I tried to do at the end of the year so that the kids could read in class. We had a chance to talk about stage direction, especially the staging of the battle between Helen and Annie Sullivan in the diningroom.
This may also come from left field, but I enjoyed watching M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable with my students. There is some violence that would make me consider if my class was mature enough to handle (though it's probably pretty tame by today's standards). There is no novel with this, but it could be paired with any reading that deals with good vs evil. Or heroes and villains: Beowulf? (Though The Thirteenth Warrior is best for Beowulf...)
There were several things I enjoyed discussing with the kids. First was the idea of lanuage changing over the years, starting with pictures. I felt it was also a great opportunity to discuss what a hero is: Bruce Willis' character does not see himself as a hero—heroism has many faces.
It's hard for many people to believe that there are extraordinary things inside themselves, as well as others.
The theme of appearance vs. reality is important. Willis (David) doesn't "look" the hero, but Samuel L. Jackson's character (Elijah) seems eccentric, but not monstrous. We also spoke of the type of villains that Jackson's character describes: the soldier villain and the evil archenemy:
But he says there's always two kinds; there's the soldier villain - who fights the hero with his hands; and then there's the real threat - the brilliant and evil archenemy - who fights the hero with his mind.
And with the archenemy, he doesn't always appear evil.
The movie also has that Shyamalan signature "pull the rug out from under you at the last minute" moment, the twist you love because it's so hard for film makers to pull it off.
Finally, the story starts out talking about comic books. And if you're a fan of the old comics where there are heroes and villains, you will appreciate the cinematography, which frames certain shots as if they are straight out of a comic book. There is also the symbolism used throughout the story. (The "cape" that is the trademark of a super-hero; the fact that David's cape/rain slicker says "Security" on the back, etc....)
Three days to watch: at least two to discuss, maybe three. Only drawback, kids who are absent. It's hard for them to care about the discussion if they've missed a day.
One of the most popular units in our film class is a study of the "Hero/Myth Cycle" as outlined by Joseph Campbell. It is a cycle that can apply to literature and film. As a class we usually study Couching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and then I have the students also watch other films that fulfill the cycle. Succesful work has been done with any of the Star Wars series and the Indiana Jones series. I am sure there are many others!
Depending on the level of your classroom and the maturity of your students, Crash is a great film to show. It sparks a lot of cultural debate and lends itself to a great character analysis. The content is a bit mature, so I might only show this to juniors/senior, and I would definitely require a parent permission slip. It's an excellent film to show if you have a culturally diverse classroom where these types of conversations are important. If you did show this film, there are some great special features where the actors and writers/producers talk about why they think the film is so important.
Two films that I have used to great effect are Lars and the Real Girl and The Motorcycle Diaries. Both are excellent films, but the first in particular is so off the wall that it really gets great discussions going. I use them to focus on character change and development in texts. The first focuses on one man's creation of his own novel cure for his social insecurities, and the second traces the early Che Guevara on his youthful road trip where we can see the foundations of his later character being formed.
Two films I have used with great success are Rashomon and 12 Angry Men. The short story "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa is the basis of Rashomon, and the story and movie are wonderful investigations of point of view, not just literary point of view, but the various perspectives of the characters. 12 Angry Men is based upon a play of the same name, which is frequently anthologized in collections, and it, too, is an examination of how people's perspectives color their lives and the lives of others. I have found that students are quite responsive to both the texts and the movies, and they make a good pairing, too, for a unit.
As far as film adaptations, I have often used The Outsiders and To Kill a Mockingbird successfully to supplement the reading of those novels. Students also enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, and it provides an interesting if fictional account of The Bard's younger days.
Many of the Coen Brothers' films have strongly literary themes. No Country for Old Men, which of course was based on a Cormac McCarthy novel, is full of ruminations about good and evil, human agency, and greed. A Serious Man, maybe their bleakest movie, is a pretty rich updating of the story of Job. Many of their films can't be shown in class, of course, but these, I think, could under the right circumstances.
I'm a big fan of watching film adaptations of books-you can learn more about the story by critiquing the way the filmmakers interpret it. I heartily agree about the Othello film for exactly this reason.
I really enjoy the Fishburne/Branagh version of Othello. It works as an involving film in its own right (students love it), but it takes some liberties with the play, especially by excising many lines. Of course, many films of Shakespeare plays take many more liberties, so this one strikes an interesting balance and gives students many opportunities to discuss how and why the film differs from the drama. You can get it with subtitles, too, which makes understanding Shakespeare's language easier for them. The screenplay can also be found online with a bit of searching, but the screenplay itself differs from the final film.
I think that the movie The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Ark is a wonderful movie to use when examining interpretation. The fact that she believes all which happens to her as a message from God, and comes to be very wrong in the end, speaks directly to interpreting the things around us.
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