This article was originally published in the International Literacy Association’s magazine, “Literacy Today”
The power of literature to provoke thought, evoke emotion and address important social issues are all reasons why poetry, essays and novels are at the heart of ELA curriculum. By adding cinematic works to our literary canon we can expand the concept of literature and make analysis skills meaningful and relevant to our students.
Film study is a great way to make curriculum accesscible to students, using a medium that’s both familiar and relevant to their lives. For students who are struggling readers, film can level the playing field by providing them with an alternative avenue to understanding story and content.
For all students, film provides important opportunities for honing visual literacy skills and exploring complicated literary concepts, according to Susan Scheibler, associate professor at the School of Film and Television at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California.
“While I think people need to read and read and read, I think that a judicious set of movies can expand and deepen a student’s appreciation for all of the basic elements of storytelling,” says Scheibler. “Films are similar to written texts in that they tell stories, using the same elements: story, plot, characters, obstacles, conflicts, setting, themes and genre.”
Reframing the medium
Teachers might be reluctant to teach cinematic art in a literary context, either because they’re not experienced in film analysis or because they subscribe to the belief that movies are solely entertainment. However, film and literature use many of the same framing devices and narrative techniques, such as the three-act structure.
Conversely, since the advent of film, writers have incorporated cinematic devices to tell stories in a more visually powerful way. One example is “the gaze,” or deriving pleasure from looking or being seen (think voyeurism and narcissism).
Its time to move away from this notion and reframe the medium as a complex form of literature. Just as you would move from Harry Potter to Lord of the Flies, so, too, might we make room for Citizen Kane or The Godfather.
Incorporating film into your curriculum
A good starting point is to screen a film adaptation of a novel or play that you have already read in class. That way students are familiar with the story, characters, themes and plot, and you can begin to address concepts of translation, interpretation, and context. Look for films that interpret the original work, rather than those that are literal recordings of the book or play. For example, Ghost Dog is a version of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Clueless is based on Jane Austin’s Emma.
“Since most films are adaptations of literary works (novels, short stories, graphic novels, plays), it makes sense to use them in English classes,” says Scheibler. “They’re great for classes that focus on the question of adaptation and translation, since every film is a translation from the written word to sound and image.”
Once students have mastered this first step, teachers can introduce unfamiliar films that engage these devices and techniques on their own terms. Even when adapted from literature, films take on new meanings when we understand how they use visual elements such as image, movement, sound, and time.
Interpreting cinematic devices
In my Cinema class, I begin with an accessible film text: Mike Nichols’ The Graduate. The story is easy to follow, and students can identify with the main character’s fears and goals. In addition to elements of story, such as plot, character, conflict, theme, the film also uses literary devices like dramatic irony and cinematic devices like play of light and shadow to emphasize discrepancies of knowledge.
Composition and camera movement create relationships between characters. The iconic shot of Ben under the leg of Mrs Robinson says so much more than words ever could.
“Pictures often say far more than words that describe them, especially metaphor, but they can sometimes bring a historical or cultural context into the discussion of writers and poets,” says Ronald Chase, founding director of San Francisco Art & Film for Teens in California.
Students also discuss the social and political contexts of The Graduate. The zeitgeist of 1960s counterculture movement is depicted not just in the plot but also in the rule-breaking camera work.
While studying these films, student can be asked to identify specific cinematic devices (such as flashbacks, flash forwards, dialogue, and exposition) that directors use to express point of view and passage of time. A helpful resource to aid in film analysis can be found here: http://bit.ly/CinemaLit
By putting film on equal footing with novels, we model acceptance of diverse forms of storytelling for our learning communities.
As a unique form of literature, film is the next step in the evolution of writing that builds and expands upon centuries-old literary traditions. Incorporating film into our ELA classes provides additional avenues to teaching these concepts and has the added benefit of teaching our students the visual literacy skills they need to read a multitude of texts in the contemporary world.
Michael is an award-winning media arts teacher, speaker and consultant in Los Angeles.