Olivia de Havilland’s Stealing My Popcorn! (and How That Can Influence English Language Arts)
Ok, I might be stretching it. Olivia de Havilland is not stealing popcorn BUT there are ways to feel as if actors Olivia de Havilland, Henry Fonda, and the like are right there enriching, informing and engaging our students.
From the 1918 silent “Romeo and Juliet” to the recent version of The Beguiled a century later, to everything in between, we’ve seen hundreds of pieces of classical literature turned into films ranging from multi-million dollar, star-studded, “motion picture events” to Muppet movies! There’s a reason for that. Classic books contain classic stories and Hollywood, from its early silent start to its now interactive, high definition explosion, requires stories.
Good teachers use any and all opportunities to instruct and enrich. So why shouldn’t the use of classical film in the study of classical English Language Arts be a useful study model? Well, it is!
But let’s pare it down. It’s actually very easy to develop insights and manage resources for the use of classic film in the study of classic literature, and here are some tips:
1) Scope – What makes a classic “classic” is the timelessness and “time-li-ness” of a story, achieved usually, by revealing the human condition. A play on grief and betrayal by Shakespeare, or a Bronte work on unrequited love contains universal emotions and drives found within us all. This is why we keep studying classic literature. Reading these works are obviously a student’s first ‘pass’ at internalizing words spoken between characters or a description of a battlefield. But the very nature of a film experience enhances a student’s internalization and subsequent understanding of a story.
2) Comprehension – As both teacher AND student know, the challenge of understanding these works, let alone enjoying them is language and reference. These stories were written, in some cases, hundreds of years ago. So before we can really get to theme and/or character motivation, we have to figure out what they’re saying! As trite and overstated as this may sound, hearing a pivotal speech given by a person that looks likes a description in a selection does, literally, bring a piece to life and contributes to a student’s understanding and enrichment.
3) Control – YOU pick! If your student is trying their best to get through Dickens, and even the most detailed study guide or annotated version is stumping them, go ahead and watch the movie! But depending on your expectations, you may choose to have your student watch the G – Rated musical version of “Oliver!” rather than the PG – 13 Rated, somewhat more violent and intense 2006 version. There are many film versions of many books, so you can design the best viewing experience for your students.
Most of us already use recommendations or guides for film, television, or game ratings and reviews. But for comprehensive listings and descriptions of all films, start with IMDb, which stands for, LITERALLY, Internet Movie Database (doesn’t get much more straight forward than THAT!) It has lists of ALL films and a great deal of insight into quality, casting, and production details. These listings can help determine what your students need; would they benefit from a highly produced, detailed production or simply a “hit-the-high-points” rendering of a classic. IMDb can help you pick the right film, though it does not provide parent alerts or rating.
However, Common Sense Media, though not as comprehensive as IMDb, DOES provide film guidelines and ratings. Combine these findings and you should be able to find a perfect film version of your classic reading selection.
But my inspiration for the use of film versions in the teaching of classic literature is TCM – Turner Classic Movies. The programing and detailed information on background and production of well-known and beloved film classics as well as little-known and obscure works is a veritable ‘buffet’ of film/literature connections and cross – curricular insights. This is where a student can hear Steinbeck’s ultimate message in Tom Joad’s final speech in The Grapes of Wrath (by actor Henry Fonda) or watch Ebenezer Scrooge’s ‘morning after’ elation dance in A Christmas Carol (my favorite is Alistair Sims in the the 1951 English version from Renown Films). The TCM film library is vast, historical and presented in a thoughtful and intelligent manner.
So while sitting around watching movies sounds indulgent AND counter-productive (yes, we know, students are supposed to be able to READ a piece of classic literature) this additional layer of involvement with a selection can broaden any student’s insight and hopefully, enjoyment.
Find titles and recommendations for great classical film/classical literature connections at The Lit Channel.