The Dream Course; Part I

I don’t know how many of you would remember, but a while ago, I posted some musings about a film as literature course that I want to design to put in my arsenal of teaching ammo.  As I get ready to fire off my resume to a couple of different institutions of higher learning, I would like to get this course out of my head and onto paper so that I can pass it around and wow potential bosses.

I’m coming to you, as I usually do, to beg for your critique, your input, your stories, your suggestions, and your expertise.  For those of you who don’t know me very well, please understand that I’m a terribly collaborative person; I don’t take critique personally and I’m eager to learn from anyone who has anything to teach me.  If you think I’m heading in a bad direction or you think that one of my lessons could be improved by this or that, say so, please!

I’m going to post these as I put the class together and I’ll link them together under the category of “dream course.”  Nothing is ever “finished,” either; if you come back in a month and revisit an old post that you think you can improve, comment!  I have my comments automatically emailed to me, so I’ll be sure to get it.


I’m planning the class as a 15-week, three-meetings-a-week course (I figure it’s better to plan for the maximum number of potential classes and pare it down than to plan for 12-weeks, two-classes-a-week and have to expand it out).  So far, this is what I’ve got – keep in mind that this isn’t what I’ll give to students; it’s a sort of combination syllabus /lesson plans / discussion starters and notes kind of thing.  Okay, enough hedging – here it is:

Objectives. Students will:

• analyze works of fiction, poetry, and drama for plot, character, setting, conflict, theme, and point of view (the elements of fiction).

• apply analytical and critical thinking skills to investigations of both written and cinematic texts.

• acquire and apply the language of scholarly critique in discussion and written work.

• investigate the relationships – and the contrasts – between written and cinematic works.

• develop and practice active listening and observational skills.

• communciate clearly and effectively, both in speaking and in writing.


In this course, we will investigate a number of written and cinematic texts.  Through these investigations, we will find that there are a number of universal themes present in the stories that humans tell, and that many texts contain variations on several different themes at once.  Our encounters with the material of this course will offer opportunities for us to talk, think, and write about:




growth and change

morality and justice


Schedule (subject to change):

Week 1, Class 1

Introductions, syllabus, waivers (Chili’s note; some of the material may be objectionable (sex, violence, homosexuality, language) to some students; I intend to offer them full disclosure of the course material in the syllabus, and I’m going to have them sign an agreement to interact with those materials before the class begins), expectations, and required materials.  Whole-class discussion questions:

• Why do we love movies?  • What qualities and characteristics make a movie “good”?  •  What are some of your experiences with film and literature?  Do you prefer one over the other?  Why (or why not)?  • Do you have a favorite text-to-film adaptation?  A least favorite?  What criteria do you use to judge a film inspired by a text?

HW: Begin reading Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (students will read in 1/3 sections to complete the novel by the end of the week).  No written work due for class 2

Class 2

(themes; relationships, personal responsibility/accountability, choice)

Whole-class discussion:

• learning to see film and literature as separate – though related – works of art.  • Why do we feel the need to compare them?  • Why do we expect films to “follow the book,” and why are we disappointed when we feel they don’t?  • How do the experiences of reading and watching differ?  What parts of our brains are engaged in each activity (Chili’s note; is there research on this topic that anyone’s aware of)?  •  what are the strengths and shortcomings of both written works and films?

HW: read 2/3 of Frankenstein.  Answer critical thinking questions for class 3 (Chili’s note; I still haven’t thought these up yet; I’ll have to re-read the novel and make them up as I go).

Class 3: Frankenstein

Discussion of text, mostly student directed; what’s coming up for them?  What do they see as the major themes?  What intrigues/frustrates/excites/fascinates them?  Show the Hallmark Presentation of Frankenstein in the 2nd half of class.

HW: Compare and relate the film and text (Chili’s note; this is what they’re going to want to do, so I’m going to let them get it out of their systems early.  This may be the only time they get to explicitly compare text and film).  Finish last third of the novel for next class.

Week 2, class 4

* “Compare/relate” paper due

Show Branagh’s Frankenstein.  If time allows, discuss each film’s treatment of  what students determine are the themes of the text; how does (does?) each film portray what you see as the important points Shelley makes in her novel.  Where do you (do you?) feel the films get it “right” (or exceeds the novel) and where do you (do you?) think they fall short? (Chili’s note; if time does not allow, assign this as homework).

Deliver rubric for first paper, due class 6 (this will be a pure analytical response paper.  I’ll be looking mostly to get a feel for the students’ writing abilities and where they are in terms of being able to think analytically, rather than just offering up a personal review or a recap of the material).

Class 5

Poetry and discussion

• This story is 191 years old.  Why does Frankenstein still capture our imaginations today?  • What does the image of the Creature represent to modern audiences, and how, if at all, do you think that this is different from what Shelley’s contemporaries might have seen?  •What do the texts (written and visual) say about feminism?  Personal responsibility?  Agency and free will?  Choice? The idea that there are some things we aren’t supposed to know or be able to do?

•Relate the novel/films (either/or) to modern debates about things like cloning, stem cell research, and abortion.  • Finally, why does the Creature not have a name, and how does that inform how he functions in his world (Chili’s note, I’m bringing up the idea of self-identity with this question; how does our name, or the labels we apply to ourselves – or have applied to us – impact who we actually are and how others respond to us)?

Class 6

Finish Frankenstein; closing remarks; response paper due.

Hand out Brokeback Mountain.  Discussion:  • How does (does?) society impact our behavior?  • What is “normal”?  Who gets to make that standard, and how does it get transmitted/enforced?  • What is identity and how is it formed and expressed?  • Discuss the concepts of insiders/outsiders (haves/have-nots, mainstream/fringe, etc.).  • What risks are we willing (or not) to take in the search for the self?

Ugly Duckling handout; selections of love poetry, including pieces from the LGBTQ community (blog posts?  I’m looking for suggestions here)

In-class writing prompt: “I’ll tell you that I’m tolerant, but *blank* really makes me uncomfortable…”

Students will read Brokeback over the weekend.

Week 3, Class 7

Screening of Brokeback Mountain.  Students will answer critical thinking questions for class 8

Class 8

Critical thinking questions due.

Screening of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Numar.

Class 9

Screening of Torch Song Trilogy

HW:  Analysis paper.  Discuss the different approaches each of the three films we saw this week took to the themes of love, self-identity, and acceptance, along with any other themes you believe were important in the films.  Address specific scenes that you feel were particularly effective for each of the themes, as well as any that you found to be distracting or difficult to follow.

There you have it, Dear Readers; my dream class so far.  What do you think?



Filed under Dream Course

11 responses to “The Dream Course; Part I

  1. sphyrnatude

    this sounds really cool. One thing that could be very interesting would be to view a number of different Frankenstein movies, and then put them into context of the times that they were made. This would provide a great opening to view movies (and literature) in light of the society that it was prepared for instead of viewing it all through the lens of “today”.

    Dracula would be a great option for this too.

    Of course, it would be easy to expand into an entire class on just Frankenstein in its multiple presentations….

  2. Darci

    I love the concept and have been working on the same concept as a Middle school elective/club. Have you thought about doing a YA text to film adaptation? You could do Tuck Everlasting or The Princess Bride. They cover the themes in question but on a more basis of levels.

  3. Can you offer the class online? I’d love to take it. =)

  4. Sphyrnatude, I considered doing a bit on Dracula – perhaps putting together a unit in the course where we look at how good horror movies (as opposed to the blood-bath crap that seems to be so popular now) are put together. I tossed around the idea of setting the course up through the film genres, but I feel a little under-experienced in that realm; I know how to work the literature, so I figured I’d run with that. Remember, though, that I said I’m looking for input; if you guys think this would work better thematically through the films, then let’s play that out and see what we get.

    Darci, I have The Princess Bride, Willow, and Ever After on my wish list of films. I think that I’m going to have trouble paring the course down, in fact; there’s a lot of great material that can be brought to bear on a course like this. Wanna collaborate? I’m happy to share what I’ve got!

    Alan, if I could figure out a way of doing an online course (should I open another blog?) I’d TOTALLY do it. I think our crowd would make a KICK! ASS! class, don’t you? I’ll keep the idea open; if I can make it work, I’ll do it!

  5. Pingback: ENG 644: Special Topics. Film and Literature « Please Pass the Popcorn

  6. mabnyc

    I think that if you’re discussing the interpretation of novel to screen that you’d be remiss if you didn’t include the 1931 James Whale version of “Frankenstein”. (I haven’t seen the Hallmark version so I can’t comment on it.) It’s a classic in its own right, but it also differs greatly from the novel in that the creature is mute and does not become more clever than its creator. Or flee to the Arctic. The choices that are made in adaptation are fertile ground for discussion, particularly Whale’s version, which is way looser than Branagh’s. Why was the creature mute? (It wasn’t because Boris Karloff didn’t have a great voice. He had a fantastic instrument.) Is a mute creature scarier than an articulate one? How does this change, or not change, the themes of the novel? Is one stronger than the other? Does the change reflect anxieties of the works’ respective times? Or just the media they were presented in? Or both?

    I think that if you’re asking students to view a story in two separate media you have to allow the conversation to go there. What “works” in film that doesn’t work in prose and vice versa?

    It’s interesting that you’re going from “Frankenstein” straight into those other works. If you’re segueing from this work into a cavalcade of gayness, you may want to explore the relationship between “Frankenstein” as portrayed by Whale (a flaming homosexual, he) as opposed to the one portrayed by Shelley, who presumably had other things on her mind.

  7. kizzbeth

    The Princess Bride is an interesting choice in that the novel is written by a man famous for his screenplays and then he wrote the screenplay as well. It’s also extremely accessible in either format.

  8. Wow, great comments already. So as not to post too long an entry, I’ll restrict these preliminary comments to Frankenstein:

    I’ve always done Frankenstein because it is one of my favorite texts, but as mabnyc notes, above, the James Whale 1931 version is far more familiar to students than any other: even if they’ve not seen it, this is the version (along with its sequel) that largely informs popular awareness. To that end, I always do both Whale and Branagh (or another adaptation).

    As Whale is so different from Shelley, I usually try to present a summary of the history of the text’s transformations, from early stage versions (1823!) to the Peggy Webling stage version (1927), and from Edison’s 1910 film to Whale’s adaptation and beyond.

    I’m trying to remember if a useful summary of popular adaptations was in The Endurance of Frankenstein (George Levine and U. C. Knoepflmacher, eds.), Approaches to Teaching F. (Anne K. Mellor), or The Frankenstein Omnibus (Peter Haining, ed.) I do know that the last of the three does contain H.M. Milner’s text of “Frankenstein; or, The Man and the Monster!” – the original 1823 stage production: very short, a great handout, and part of the whole journey into film.

    As sphyrnatude notes above, it is almost TOO easy to spend the whole semester on the one text!

  9. kizzbeth

    I didn’t realize that To Wong Foo… was adapted from lit.

  10. One thing I wanted to mention is that I find that students don’t often don’t know how to write about film and literature. Many of the compare/contrast papers come back as movie and book reviews as opposed to an analysis of the film and the book. Your students sound a bit more advanced than my own so this may not be an issue for you but I wanted to bring it up just in case.

    Have you seen Transamerica? Incredible film. Not only will the subject matter lead to great discussion but in the fact of a woman cast to play a man passing as a woman leads to interesting discussions of Shakespeare and audience expectations, suspension of disbelief, why some things are allowed on film but uncomfortable in real life, etc.

  11. Becca

    I really like your syllabus so far; I would have loved to take a class like this as an elective.

    One thing you might consider to expand the discussion of “What makes something good,” is to visit one of the bloody gory flicks of the present in comparison to one of the classic horror films that our minds race to when we think of the genre done “right.”

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