Getting Serious

Okay, I’m starting to get serious about this Film as Literature course. Here’s what I’m thinking so far.  Keep in mind that I’m still very much in progress and am looking for feedback and suggestions and critique:

For the purposes of this class, literature is defined as the stories we tell to help us define our place / navigate our way in the world. They are the stories we tell to solidify our culture, to express our values and investigate our fears, and to set down our history and to predict our future.

Literature, in this context, has no specific qualifications beyond those definitions – literature can be books or movies, it can be an oral tradition or an interpretive dance (though we’ll likely not get into those last two categories in much detail). What I’m looking for here is to get students to start thinking of literature in broader terms than just canonical books.

I’d like to start the course with a film that WASN’T first a book. I’m considering The Last Samurai or Mississippi Burning, but I’m open to other suggestions – got any? What I envision doing is showing the film almost immediately – before we get too much into the purpose for the course – so that students can get the experience of seeing a film the same way we’d investigate a novel without getting bogged down in technicalities or overly-academic notions. We’ll look at plot and setting, characterization and conflict, motivation and resolution in the film in much the same way we’d look at it if we were reading it; I’d ask the students questions that would encourage them to think about different aspects of the film in ways that they may not have considered if they were watching the movie for entertainment. I’ve not come up with specific questions yet, but I’m not too far away from composing a few targeted inquiries that get at the kind of thinking I’m looking for my students to do.

I would then consider doing a side-by-side comparison of a text and a film. I’m leaning heavily toward a Shakespeare piece – there have been a lot of interpretations of King Lear and a few good ones of Othello, and I really am in love with Hamlet, but I think that’s only because I’ve taught it so much that I’ve developed a real sense for the play- though I’m also strongly considering looking closely at either The Green Mile or A Dry White Season. My intent here is to get the students to form an impression of the story in their minds through the reading, and then to look critically at the film versions of the story not so much as a comparison to the text, but in terms of how well the screenplay echoed the themes of the story as the students understood them. What did the director do well and what did the students think fell short? Why? Does the class agree that this or that was well or poorly done? How does what we, as individuals, bring to a literary experience influence how we judge a piece (or an interpretation of a piece)? How does our collective understanding of stories or storytelling influence how we, as a class, judge that piece? Are our individual judgments different from those of us in our role as members of a society?

There’s a lot more to this, but these are the things that have been foremost in my mind and, consequently, the things I wanted to get out into this forum for discussion, critique, and development.



Filed under compassion and cooperation, film as literature, Learning, Literature, popular culture, Questions, reading, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job, writing

8 responses to “Getting Serious

  1. Wayfarer

    What do you want your students to know, do or understand after having taken this course? What should they walk away with?

    The answers to this question will do a lot to frame the course. I encourage you to think about this from the students’ point of view. A well-designed course, in my humble opinion, is less about what you want to teach than it is about what you want your students to learn.

  2. One of the things that I love most about literature is its potential to make history come alive; living history in a film is even better (when done properly). I think your choice of Mississippi Burning is right up this alley. Plus, given the age of the average student, it might be a rare exposure to the serious events of those times. They have a chance to confront some history of this country’s progress, as well as analyze it from a story telling perspective.

    I think the biggest problem with a course like this one is you’ll want “more, more, more!”

  3. Films which were not book / short story adaptations:
    The Bucket List
    Citizen Kane
    La Haine
    My Neighbour Totoro

    Films which were book / short story adaptations:
    Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
    Starship Troopers
    Any Harry Potter film (very good examples of storytelling constraits / freedoms enforced by the differences in media)
    Blade Runner (also a very good commutation test example with the Director’s Cut and the original Theatrical release versions both available)

    A film about adapting books:

    Films to compare / contrast against their originals:
    The Departed / Infernal Affairs
    Last Man Standing / Yojimbo
    Seven Samurai / The Magnificent Seven / Sholay

    Hope that helps 🙂

  4. Wayfarer, did you not see this post? I’ve got objectives down already – I know this isn’t all about me, but there’s got to be something in it for me – something I’M invested in – in order for it to work. I’ve taken too many classes where the instructor was just phoning it in. I want to keep this exciting and fresh and invigorating. In order for that to happen, I have to care, too.

    Seester, I’m looking forward to getting the framework of this course down and then looking to see how I can incorporate new films in from semester to semester. I want to have the mechanisms in place, and to be able to plug different works into the curriculum to keep it fresh.

    Trudy, thank you for this list – it DOES help. One of the things I LOVE about blogging is that it opens up possibilities that I can’t consider on my own. I love benefiting from others’ perspectives and experiences!

  5. numonohimax

    This is a really interesting idea! I’m currently teaching a composition course with a primary focus on graphic design and journalistic writing, and next semester I’m going to be teaching a class on writing and film, but from a composition, rather than a lit. crit. standpoint. A couple of texts you may want to consider taking a look at for their information about cinema, its history, and its relationship to other media would be:

    1) “The Language of New Media” by Lev Manovich (has a ton of information about how film influences and is influenced by other media – might be a little much for your students, but it might give you some good ideas)

    2) “Ways of Seeing” by John Berger (I like starting classes out with this, because it gets the students to start viewing the cultural context of images, shows the relationship between images and texts, and introduces them to various critical theories such as Marxist, feminist, etc.)

    3) “Remediation” by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (this one focuses on the idea that all new media builds on old media, i.e. – film is a “remediation” of photography and narrative; this could be helpful in terms of your focus on adaptations of literature to film).

    Also, it could be interesting to throw in a couple of films based on graphic novels, since that’s another medium that combines literary and visual communication. “Persepolis” is out right now, and it’s really quite powerful. “American Splendor” is also a personal favorite.

    I think there’s a lot of interesting things that could be said about film (time-based media) vs. text (static media) in this class. From the sounds of it, you’ve already got a lot of good ideas – I’ll be interested to see how it all comes together!

  6. That’s an excellent idea, numonohimax. You could take in the full range, from the excellent 300, Batman Begins, and X-Men 2, through the not bad of Hellboy, down to the depths of badness that are Spawn, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, and X-Men 3.

  7. Julia

    I incorporated some film clips and TV shows into my composition courses to help my students understand how to create a mood and describe the scene in their writing. I think connecting films and literature is very interesting and enlightening. While working on my master’s in literature I took a course entitled “The Vietnam War in Literature and Film” and it was the best class I’ve ever taken because the books added depth to the films and the films added dimension to the books. Can I come take your class?!

    I’ve seen about every movie that has been made but can’t seem to come up with any solid ideas for you. My only thought is to perhaps reconsider using Shakespeare. I’m not advocating dumbing down your content, but I think most students freeze when it comes to Shakespeare and it will be more difficult to engage them and attain your course goals. I firmly believe that selecting more accessible content does not have to mean that the course is less challenging. I used to get crap from other teachers all the time for using films and music in my classes but my students consistently told me that they felt they learned more in my class because I used material they could relate to in order to teach new concepts.

    It also might be interesting to look a book that has spawned more than one movie. That way you could compare the original source to a couple different interpretations. Anyway, just some of my thoughts. I suspect that as you teach it the first time you might decide to change some of your selections for future classes because of how the class goes and what challenges surface. Lesson plans and syllabi are ever-evolving!

    Good luck and have fun!

  8. Jordan Young

    Never thought about teaching Film as Lit until last week when a student in my journalism class asked if I were going to teach it this fall. I usually shy away from analyzing films in great detail (unless I’m writing about them), but maybe that’s why I should teach it. Started thinking about what I’d show–Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” would be a must; he was a master storyteller. While I’d have to show a lot of relatively recent films to retain student’s interest, I think most of today’s filmmakers are amateurs by comparison to Welles, Hitchcock, Wilder, Cassavetes, and others whose films are older than the students. But the world did not start the day they were born, and they need to be reminded of that.

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