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Reading & Literacy Opinion

To View or Not To View?

By Carol Jago — November 03, 1999 8 min read
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I don’t think English teachers should show films in class. The curriculum is already full.

What I am going to say is likely to anger many teachers and students. To assist those who may want to skip what follows, I will declare my position immediately. I don’t think English teachers should show films in class. For those who wonder how, with all the wonderful versions of classical literature available on video, I could come to this conclusion, please read on.

Most of the 49 states that have adopted language arts standards (only Iowa has chosen not to) have included in their list of standards references to viewing. Along with the familiar--reading, writing, listening, and speaking--viewing and visually representing have been added as essential language arts skills. Like the Standards for the English Language Arts, written by the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association, state documents recommend that students go beyond seeing film versions of the texts they read and study visual texts in their own right.

I applaud this expansion of the language arts, particularly in an age when children are bombarded daily with seductive visual images. Every time they gaze into television, computer, or movie screens, children must exercise judgment. Teaching them about advertising ploys and the power of the visual image to affect a viewer is essential. I also believe that the study of film as genre is an important and lasting outcome of a liberal-arts education. But instruction in viewing and film should not occur in an English class. Our curriculum is already full.

Every moment in an English class is precious. By the time a teacher has taken attendance, made a few announcements, and turned on the VCR, only about 40 minutes of the period is left for the movie. This means that the average feature film will take three class periods to show. If a teacher shows five movies in a school year--which, given the number of excellent film adaptations of novels now available, doesn’t seem unreasonable--students will have lost 15 days or three weeks of class time to “viewing.” I do not believe this is a wise use of students’ time.

Too often, when the lights go down and the TV monitor lights up, teenagers hit their internal relax button and shut down all critical faculties. Some pull out their calculators and start their math homework. A few put their heads down for a snooze. However the lesson has been framed, most students consider a day watching a movie as a day off.

Teachers unintentionally foster this attitude by scheduling films for days when they must be out of class for professional development or illness. The number of lesson plans that read “Show film” is legion. Substitute teachers don’t mind as it doesn’t take much effort to press the play button. Kids don’t mind because they aren’t being asked to do any work. And the day’s lesson plan was easy to write. What is lost is one hour in the education of a child.

I can already hear the arguments: “But what about Shakespeare? Aren’t plays meant to be seen, not read? Don’t professional actors bring to life, through gesture and intonation, lines that would remain forever obscure to the teenage reader? Don’t costumes and sets scaffold students’ understanding of the action?” Yes. Yes. Yes. As a genre, I think that plays can be one of the most difficult texts for students to read. And very few teenagers have ever seen a live professional performance. Yes, showing films like Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” and Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet” is a very good use of class time.

I first saw Marlon Brando as Antony when I was a sophomore in high school. After a hiatus of six years, I have seen the 1953 Joseph Mankiewicz version of “Julius Caesar” every year since, easily 25 times, and that doesn’t count the years when I taught two periods of 10th grade English and would view the movie twice in one day. James Mason as Brutus still gives me goose bumps when he tells Cassius that Portia is dead. Great actors can animate even a less-than-lively play like “Julius Caesar.”

Too often, when the lights go down and the TV monitor lights up, teenagers hit their internal relax button and shut down all critical faculties.

What teachers need to be on guard for, however, is structuring students’ viewing of a film in such a way that it actually discourages them from reading the text. I often use short excerpts from the movie or an audiotape as we begin a play in order to help students hear Shakespeare’s language in their heads as they read. I also like showing students alternative versions of the same speech, for example Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Any video store has on its shelves at least three versions of “Hamlet” to compare.

But when students know the teacher will show them a film clip of last night’s reading assignment or the whole film before they have to write their papers, I find that they don’t push themselves as hard as they might to unlock the text on the page. By all means let students see Shakespeare in performance, but also make sure they learn to negotiate his written words.

Novels are another story. Film adaptations of novels, even the Sergei Bondarchuk “War and Peace” that runs for 507 minutes, have been so abbreviated that even the best of them are seriously flawed. It is simply not possible to compress 300 to 600 pages into 90 minutes. For comparison, a screenplay (double-spaced and with very wide margins) typically runs fewer than 200 pages. Don’t we hate it when students turn to Cliffs Notes or the Electronic Library for plot summaries instead of reading the book we have assigned? Don’t we practically accuse them of cheating, particularly of cheating themselves? Why, then, should we encourage students to watch film versions of classics? Movies, even powerful productions, can only ever hope to skim the surface of a great book.

For example, the 1934 film version of Great Expectations is considered by many one of the greatest films ever made. As such, viewing this movie would seem the ideal solution for slow or reluctant readers who, if they could be persuaded to persevere, might well need 12 to 20 hours to complete Charles Dickens’ 400-page novel. But as wonderful as Oscar-award-winning cinematographer Guy Green’s graveyard scene is, these students would be much the poorer for never having constructed the following scene for themselves:

“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

“O! Don’t cut my throat, sir,” I pleaded in terror. “Pray don’t do it, sir.”

“Tell us your name!” said the man. “Quick!”

“Pip, sir.”

This is powerful prose, rich in detail and full of passion. To offer students a film version in place of Dickens’ sentences seems a poor substitute. Teenagers will take the substitute, of course, anything to keep from working too hard. But though they come away with the gist of the story, they won’t have learned how to read a Dickens novel. Most will tell you they don’t care, but how could they care when they have no idea what they are missing? High-quality film adaptations have a place in the curriculum, but only after the novel has been read and students’ reading assessed.

Even with this caveat, there are other problems with showing students a movie version of the book they have read. Any film is an interpretation. Experienced readers viewing “The Age of Innocence” hold their own memory and interpretation of the novel up against director Martin Scorsese’s for comparison. Student viewers rarely have this confidence. They accept the filmmaker’s version at face value and assume their own reading must have been somehow mistaken. How could Martin Scorsese be wrong? They’re convinced it must be them. Unsure of their newly formed interpretations, students let go of their own reading and accept the filmmaker’s as valid and authoritative.

I want students to leave class with Edith Wharton’s 1920 description of Madame Olenska’s looks rather than with the interpretation of Michelle Pfeiffer’s makeup artist and costume designer. Newland remembers Madame Olenska’s appearance after returning from Europe:

She came rather late, one hand still ungloved, and fastening a bracelet about her wrist; yet she entered without any appearance of haste or embarrassment the drawing-room in which New York’s most chosen company was somewhat awfully assembled. In the middle of the room she paused, looking about her with a grave mouth and smiling eyes; and in that instant Newland Archer rejected the general verdict on her looks. It was true that her early radiance was gone. The red cheeks had paled; she was thin, worn, a little older-looking than her age, which must have been nearly 30. But there was about her the mysterious authority of beauty, a sureness in the carriage of the head, the movement of the eyes, which, without being in the least theatrical, struck his as highly trained and full of a conscious power. It frightened him to think what had gone into the making of her eyes.

How can a scene in a movie, even an excellent movie, begin to capture the subtlety of the world Wharton recreates in this passage? How sad to offer students substitutes when the real thing is there for the reading. Almost every classic has been considered at one time or another for production by a filmmaker. This is for good reason. Classic stories have--among other things--unforgettable characters, a riveting plot, and an enduring message. It is a recipe for success on the big screen as well as on the small page. But books and film are two very different media, and I don’t believe they mix well in an English classroom.

By all means, encourage your students to enroll in a film class, but when they are with us, it’s best to keep them reading.


Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica (Calif.) High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at the Universityof California, Los Angeles. Her book With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students will be available from Calendar Island Books in January.

A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as To View or Not To View?

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