Reading and analyzing works of literature is the center of the English Language Arts middle school curriculum. While films may be shown in class, most often they are seen as cursory complements to a unit rather than studied as core texts. The main objective of this unit is to study the intricacy of storytelling across literary and visual modes. According to Stephen Apkton, visual intricacies are primary as they are essential in the oral tradition of storytelling. In addition, he notes that “every student in this century should be able to critically understand and deconstruct visual media.”
Students will be learning to comprehend stories specifically in the case of embedded tales in both literature and film, with particular attention to the question of how filmmakers can achieve this effect. They will also encounter magical realism, a frequent feature in the oral tradition. The techniques of framing stories allow the inner story to have a different rapport with reality. The central text and film for this unit were both selected with that characteristic in view. An additional objective is for students to study the use of a fairy tale as a model of complications inherent in conflict resolution. Common Core Reading Standard of Literature 7, for both grades 7 and 8, involves comparing and contrasting literature with film and analyzing fidelity as well as choices made by the directors; and so this unit enhances the ability to teach material which covers this standard.
The core of the unit is centered on the layers of storytelling in the novel
by David Almond. The novel is a less well known text which provides many pedagogical possibilities. It also has the advantage of there not much being available about it on line, so students will be forced to do their own critical thinking. This winner of the Michael L. Printz Award for Young Adult Literature intertwines four stories which all involve the pursuit and/or return of someone who is lost. The first one is of a boy named Kit, who as a young teen has moved into the former coal-mining town of his grandfather located somewhere in rural England. He befriends Askew, the local troubled youth. Askew ends up leaving his community and Kit takes it upon himself to go after him and bring him home. Kit’s grandfather tells the local myth of “Silky,” a benign ghost of a child who lost his life in the mines, which stokes the imagination of Kit and Askew as well as the stories Kit himself writes. Silky is always seen running around corners in the mines' narrow paths, ever just out of reach. Kit writes a lengthy story of a caveboy called Lak which takes up several chapters in the novel and mirrors his and Askew’s conflicts. Finally, there is the play that Kit’s class is putting on during the winter of the school year. It is
The Snow Queen
, their own teacher’s version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
Since the vividly told tale of
The Snow Queen
has inspired many adaptations, it makes an excellent example of such issues as fidelity, invigorated life, and the relevance of themes to changing generations of readers and viewers. Furthermore,
The Snow Queen
itself also includes an embedded story.
While “The Snow Queen” only has a small part in the plot of
, the descriptions treating it are quite vivid: “Here’s evil come for good Kit…. Here’s bitter winds to freeze his soul. Touch my cheek, feel the snow there. Look into my eye, see the ice there (111).”
David Almond seems to acknowledge that he has altered the tale to fit his story, as he refers to it as “Burning Bush’s [the name by which they refer to their teacher] version of
The Snow Queen
He even explores the fine line between stories and life when Allie, the character playing the queen says, “That’s why I love it, Kit. It’s like magic. I don’t just have to be me. The world doesn’t just have to be the way it is. You can change it, and keep on changing it.”
In fact, Kit himself uses a story that he actively writes and tells to lure his troubled friend Askew back from the brink of suicide to the bosom of his community. With his hallmark magic realism Almond has Kit wake up with pebbles in his hand given to him by his created character whom he has been dreaming about. Kit’s experiences writing the tale of Lak seem to be a reflection of Almond’s own experience, evident in an interview following the novel where he explained “Each time I came to a new section of this story, it was really as if Kit was writing it, and I just had to transcribe his words…I had a real sense of peril...I didn’t know if Kit would ever come out again.”
Students will benefit from viewing the creative process and learning how creating and telling narrative allows the world to be changed for the writer/teller just as it is for the reader/listener. They can also explore how they can utilize art and story writing to create and establish their own identities.
According to Bettelheim, the purpose of fairy tales is to show children that if one faces life’s obstacles head on, one can overcome them.
In a fairy tale the author is free to explore the realm of the marvelous without being tied to our world inherent in magical realism.
The Snow Queen
is a tale told in seven parts, and the evil Queen goes unpunished. In the first tale there is a demon who shatters a mirror which makes good people see only evil, and in the second tale of lovely Kai and Gerda a shard pierces Kai’s eye and heart turning him to discontent and causing him to run away. Parts three through six consist of Gerda’s search for Kai where she encounters flowers which tell her unhelpful self pre-occupied tales, and then encounters three different old women, a robber girl, and crows. During the last part Gerda actually finds Kai, prisoner of the Snow Queen, who is using some kind of mathematical puzzle (rational thought) to hold him, but the spell is broken by faith and love. During the unit, students read the original text of
The Snow Queen
and also view a film adaptation. This will encourage analysis of the plot, theme, and adaptation choices.
The Secret of Roan Inish
is the perfect full-length film to complement this unit on the power of narrative and story-telling. The film is based on an out of print book,
Secret of the Ron Moor Skerry,
about Fiona, a young girl whose family has recently moved from a small island to the mainland (Ireland in the film and Scotland in the book) losing her baby brother in the process. When she is sent to live with her grandparents, Fiona hears several old tales. The first is the tale of her grandfather’s great grandfather who was “saved by a seal and two cows.”
Later, she listens avidly to a tale told by her cousin Tadhg, of their ancestor who took a selkie as a wife. Selkies are mythological seal-like creatures who can take the form of a woman. It becomes apparent that selkies may have taken her brother, which makes an interesting tie in to Kit’s grandfather’s story of Silky. Fiona’s belief in the tales and her fearlessness allow her to overcome the obstacles and retrieve her brother, in true fairytale fashion. So this story too is about someone who is separated from the community and is followed and rescued by another. The film also illustrates the power of storytelling as John Sayles “expresses his respect for storytelling by repeatedly embedding stories that are told, so that the film self-consciously navigates its filmic narration as the embodiment of oral legend.”
The unusual and haunting Sayles film, with its master cinematography by Haskell Wexler, will allow students to analyze the craft of filmmaking as well as the plot, which, like
is centered on the power of myth and narrative, and the illusionary border between magic and reality.