If we are to use film adaptation to engage readers and promote comprehension, analysis, and understanding, we need to inspire students to want to read the book if they like the movie. They should
to experience both. The story exists – the plot, the characters, the pathos – and it is a boon to experience this in several forms, styles, and iterations. However, according to Thomas Leitch of the University of Delaware, “not all adaptations are created equal.” In fact, he describes many strategies in adaptation from allusion to fidelity, the most relevant for this unit being
of the original text or previous adaptations into something newer, or more relevant, or simply different in some way that carries universal themes created in one time period that are still quite germane to another, just in need of some new clothes. These strategies for updating will be further explored in the “Teaching Strategies” section.
Studying adaptation with students will of course require a focus on the concept of adapting stories, particularly if we are to ultimately ask them to take the reins and do some adapting of their own. My plan involves classic texts that are “re-imagined” as films. That is to say, films that are set in different worlds than the original, updated to fantasy worlds, modern comedy and suspense, and an urban musical. Students will have the opportunity to both re-learn the ideas and themes of a classic text, while exploring both the process and advantage of adaptation through viewing modern “re-imaginings” of those classics. When I refer to “re-imaginings,” I describe an elaboration of a known literary work (which I refer to as “classic”) done with freedom and creativity with an eye on its own historical and cultural context. Think Baz Lehrman’s
Romeo and Juliet
(1996), although that example is a bit more loyal to the original text than the examples I’ll use here.
Students will need to understand the concept of adaptation as an artisanal practice, moving both between media and between art forms. After all, media are not always used for artistic purposes, so it will be important for students to differentiate between what is considered modern “media,” and the arts. Once this is established, they will be able to see adaptation in less evaluative, and more artistic, ways. Through pinpointing certain things about the root story through adaptation, we can be clear that it was digested by the student. “The book was better” is a widely used axiom regarding film adaptation. There have been classes titled “The Book Was Better.” Theorists agree that this is a popular opinion. James Naremore quotes Francois Truffaut in the introduction to his book
: “Theoretically, a masterpiece is something that has already found its perfection of form, its definitive form.”
Since it is perfect, why mess with it? Then quoting scholar Kamilla Elliott, Leitch makes the point in
Film Adaptation and its Discontents
, that “the majority of adaptation criticism favors the novel over the film.”
This begs two questions. First, why even make films? The answer is myriad and complex, and we must consider that it usually always involves money, and hopefully often involves art. Further, in bringing novels beyond the literate culture to the mass culture, adaptations generally burn novels into easily digestible entertainment. The second question, the more relevant question, is, why do our students prefer the movie? Why will they try watching it instead of doing their assigned reading? Why do websites exist dedicated to informing students of what differences there are in the film version of their assigned book, enabling them to pursue only one media form – the simple version, easier to “digest” as Bazin describes it?
The goal of this unit is not just to solve the problem of how to non-evaluatively assess independent reading, it is also to illuminate for students that it
in fact better to watch the movie, but to watch the movie
Through this curricular unit, it will become clear to students that film is a partner to text, not a replacement. It can be used to enhance the experience of reading, to broaden our ideas and challenge us by fulfilling or counteracting our imaginations. Further, by focusing on the reimagining of classic texts, students will be simultaneously faced with both the familiar and the new. Classics are comforting and are rooted in familiarity and general life lessons. The re-imagining of classic stories can be disruptive and challenging, helping us to find – using new means – those old meanings, themes and ideas in original texts.