How to Pair Film and Literature
In today’s world, it’s just as important for students to learn how to analyze video as it is to analyze literature. They need to think critically about the images they encounter in movies, television shows, social media, and the news. They also need to talk about the difference between images and words. Images make us guess at internal thoughts and feelings, and words function as a translation of a person's internal world. Both words and images often fall short of representing the truth, or reality. Even though our degrees trained us to interpret words, film has become more and more literary as time passes.
Here are some tips for a literary interpretation of film:
Compare passages to clips
I rarely show a full film in class unless it’s for an elective like Film Appreciation. The study of film deserves its own course of study, but it’s fairly easy to learn how to analyze a short clip from a movie. I will often read a passage from a novel out loud, and then play the same scene from the film adaption of the novel, like I do for The Kite Runner. It’s important that they visualize the scene first, and then experience the director’s vision.
Compare different versions or an adaptation
For Hamlet, my students compare the performances of David Tennant and Mel Gibson. When I taught the novel Emma, we compared it to the film adaptation Clueless and then Gwyneth Paltrow's performance, so they understood the relevance of Austen’s social world in 1814.
Freeze the frames for longer conversation
Interpreting a few shots from a scene is just like close reading phrases or lines from a poem. Pushing pause on important shots allows students to see how the parts relate to the whole. It gives students the chance to think about what they’re seeing instead of being quickly whisked along to the next visual or sound.
Here are a few ways to connect film to literary techniques:
Point of View
In a lot of ways, in Emma, Austen played director with limited omniscient narration. In the novel, she only presents Emma’s point of view so we’re not sure what the characters truly feel, we can only imagine it. In the movie, the director focuses on Emma, which prevents us from understanding the other characters. For that reason, the audience misunderstands reality just like Emma. Ultimately, point of view in film is all about the location of the camera.
Place and Symbolism
It’s true that a picture is a thousand words – it takes a few pages of a text to present a single shot from a movie. A good example is the crane or drone shot in The Kite Runner. The camera flies around with kites in flight, showing the mountains around Kabul and a bird’s eye view of the city. You can see the snow on the streets and children on rooftops at the same time. Looking at a house or an object on a screen helps students realize its symbolism, or greater meaning.
Body Language and Tone
Gesture is an important part of literature, especially when you have first person narration because you only have access to one person’s consciousness. In reality, most communication happens nonverbally so we rely on the little things to know what someone feels – they look down at their shoes, they step backwards, they raise an eyebrow, or they put their hands on their hips. Tone, or the emotion behind the words, is easier to detect in a movie than it is in literature. In movies, we can hear a character shout or whisper, or speak slowly to indicate if they are mad, have a secret, or are figuring something out.
In the movie The Kite Runner, hearing a band play Afghan music at Amir’s birthday party really enhances the scene, especially considering the silence of the streets once the Taliban takes over. It’s almost as important as jazz is to The Great Gatsby. I will sometimes compare the lyrical quality of prose to music, and movies make that comparison a lot easier.
When we give students the chance to explain what they see on a screen, we help them do the same in their own lives. They people watch at the mall, they glance around the dinner table in the evening, they watch their coach explain a winning strategy, all the while trying to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface.
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