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The Basics of Film Interpretation

The Basics of Film Interpretation

Teachers want their students to be readers, and not just readers of words. We want them to read the world around them: the streets, the people, the room. When students read words, they think about what’s behind them, where they come from. In life, students look at places and people and do the same thing, they figure them out and learn about their history and why they look or behave the way they do. Interpreting and analyzing film is practice for real life observations, the process of actively searching for and noticing the meaning behind things. Everything in film is a symbol, especially because it prioritizes the image over the word. ELA teachers receive training in the interpretation of literature, but not in film. But it doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are 7 techniques that help students close read film just like they would a poem:


Light or the absence of light indicates either a showing or hiding of emotion. Shadows and darkness may increase uncertainty and mystery and bright light can reveal a sudden epiphany. The scene could take place at night or in the morning, depending on what’s happening in the story or conversation.


It’s hard to recreate the sound of music with words, but sounds in movies can impact the atmosphere of a moment. Music can correspond to a sudden burst of energy or rage, confusion and doubt, love, anguish, or the absurd.


Sometimes called the mise-en-scene, this includes the physical and visual elements in a shot, like the details inside a room or in a landscape, the clothing of a character, or what they’re holding. These details could function as symbols of status, power, family, tradition, religion, or culture.


Film and television work narrative into the story in a few ways: asides, breaking the fourth wall, letters, journals, text, emails, phone calls, video chat, websites, social media, internal monologues, and voiceovers.

Body language

Film communicates emotion sometimes with words, but more often with the body language of a character, the way they raise an eyebrow, look down at their feet, swing their finger in the air, roll their eyes, or sigh. These small gestures represent internal feelings. When students interpret a character in literature, they do so mostly by judging their experiences and decisions. In a movie, students interpret the tone of the character’s voice and perceive the way the character presents themselves to others.


Literature requires the imagination when it comes to images and sounds. In a movie, the audience can interpret the meaning of the clinking of a fork on a plate, the tapping of a shoe on the ground, the roar of an engine, the scratching of a beard, a cough, an alarm, the bubbling of water, or the tweet of a bird. Sounds can indicate anger, tranquility, or stress. Because movies seldom have monologues, they tell stories and indicate emotion with sounds.


Shots, short uninterrupted clips, usually depict the nature of a relationship between people. They can also say something about the development of a character or where they are at a particular moment in the story. Imagine what you’d think of a character that stands at the bottom of a mountain, at the end of a tunnel, sitting in a church, or running out of a building. What surrounds the character is sometimes more important than the character themselves. Imagine a character peering up at a doctor after surgery, down at someone who just fell from being punched, or up at their lover on a hill. Imagine them looking at every single face in an important business meeting or in a crowd before a big concert. The audience guesses at what they feel not by what they say, but by the context of the situation as presented in the shot. The main shots: close up, medium, long, two-shot, over-the-shoulder, cowboy (medium-long), high angle, low angle, Dutch tilt, deep focus, pan (left/right), and tilt (up/down).

Don’t feel so guilty about playing a movie (or part of a movie) this spring – it can be just as valuable as analyzing a novel.

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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