This semester, I’m teaching a Film and Literature class for the second time. The first time through, in the Fall of 2015, I taught it as more of a filmmaking class, and while we still have some of those elements this semester, I have incorporated more purely literary content.
This is how I’ve done it.
And full disclosure: as with everything I do in class, this idea was stolen entirely from Cheryl, and then modified for my own class context, in which we are explicitly supposed to be comparing the film versions of stories to the novel/play versions. She does a Pokemon Go-style search for literary references with her 7th graders that is incredible and engaging and massively fruitful for kids’ education and cultural literacy.
I have picked a tentative, ever-expanding and changing list of cultural reference texts that kids (who were almost all born after 2000!) probably wouldn’t encounter, or choose to engage with even if they did. The criteria: there has to be some sort of written (non-script, novel-style or play/short story-style) version and a film version in existence. And for NC high schools’ sake, the film version has to be rated PG-13 or lower. These criteria eliminate cultural touchstones like Catcher in the Rye (Salinger won’t sell the rights to make a movie version) and rated-R movie classics like Beloved or The Godfather.
This semester, kids will be encountering classics like Hound of the Baskervilles, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Gone With the Wind, along with probably a half-dozen others that have yet to be decided.
[As an aside, I do realize that this list skews both old and white, and that’s something I’m struggling with rectifying. I selected texts that probably wouldn’t get read even if they were assigned--ones that would come off as both oppressively long and complex. But as I said before, this list is in constant flux, and I welcome suggestions to both improve it and make it more culturally diverse.]
The goal here is not to give kids a deep understanding of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s diction or whatever. The goal is to do one or two of these a week, so kids will understand common cultural references, like Greg House = Sherlock, or what a “scarlet A” is, or what it means for someone to be chasing their own great white whale, or that Nicholas Sparks stole every idea he ever had from Jane Austen.
So: here’s what we do.
The first day, I have students fill out a slideshow that asks them to summarize the plot of the story in 2 sentences and make a slide each for 10 characters, describing them and their significance to the story, and inserting an image of each. They are encouraged to use sites like Shmoop and SparkNotes for this process -- the only goal is that they get some context for the excerpts they are about to encounter…
Which generally happens on Day 2. I pick an important scene from the text/movie (often, but not always, the opening scene), and link up the assignment on Google Classroom to a 5-8 minute video clip from the movie and the corresponding scene from the novel. (This is one of the other reasons I have gone for older texts - they are easy to find full-texts versions of online, often from Project Gutenberg.) Students read/view the two, and write some comparisons, look for patterns that repeat, consider what the movie adds/leaves out, etc. For some of the texts, I’ll give them two video versions; for example, for Pride and Prejudice, I gave them a clip of the 1995 BBC miniseries and the first two episodes of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
The next assignment is to look for pop culture references and make a slide deck of 20 that they find (Bride and Prejudice, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, etc.). I want them to understand that these stories don’t exist in isolation; rather, many of them are referenced in many ways in modern media. Then, I ask them to do a second comparison between a scene of their choosing in the book and the same in the movie.
Hopefully, this series of assignments gives students a collection of cultural checkpoints that they would otherwise miss in their educations. As we move forward in the semester, the assignments will likely get more complex; I will start to add things like “compare the way the author chooses to establish setting to the way the director does the same in this scene” and “how would you film this scene in this book, if you were directing, and then compare that to how it was done” and “shoot this scene from the book yourself.”
What I have noticed already, though, is that students are continuing to engage with the stories beyond the required assignments. They are watching the rest of the BBC Sherlock episodes; they are checking out Sherlock Holmes anthologies from the library; they are watching all 100 episodes of the Lizzie Bennet Diaries. And that is definitely a success in my book.