Using film versions to make literature accessible?

The other day I heard that next year there will be a film version of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. So, what do I do? My initial response is: take it off the book list for next year.

Teaching texts which have popular film versions is one of my pet hates. The students always tend to interpret the film and give it precedence over the novel. However, I can’t argue with the fact that film versions open new vistas for students who don’t read. Perhaps it isn’t that cut and dried. Perhaps I should be more open to new ways of getting students involved in the classics and in popular literature.

What literary value does the film hold though?

The plot, specifically the action, conflict and resolution, drive any feature film. I must hasten to add that characterisation is also essential. Aren’t these the basic elements of a novel anyway, and so should I really be happy that my students are getting the same knowledge of narrative as they would through reading a book – which would take more time and perhaps not be as memorable?

Well, yes and no. It would certainly be a quicker way of accessing the story, and possibly our minds do remember what we see rather than what we imagine. But there are a few things which will go by the wayside.

The first of these is the use of imagination. All books allow polysemic readings since each reader has a different interpretation of character, and often of the value system underpinning the text. In a film the director chooses to mould the character in a particular way, often relying on stereotype and on dominant target audience response. The director usually valorises a moral position and condemns another. This is often based on his/her perceptions of the expectations of the dominant viewer whereas an author is more likely to come from a personal angle. Writers create their characters in such a way that readers become involved with them emotionally and identify their own typifications according to experiences they have had with people in their own lives. So, it is quite common for people to differ on what a character might look like or whether a character is appealing or not. Readers need to use their imaginations in order to make a character “come alive” and in order to do this they use a complex strategy of compare and contrast, subconsciously linking what they are reading to their past experiences.

Imagination keeps the brain moving and maintains curiosity, a necessary element to engage the mind in meaningful learning.

The other one that springs to mind is complexity; let’s look specifically at sequencing in this regard. The Book Thief is an excellent example of this. The amount of foreshadowing, telling readers that this or that person has died before the time, is unusually high, each time sustaining the reader by a desire to find out how or why this has happened. Zusak has structured the novel so carefully and used the multiple narrative strands in such a way as to entice and interest the reader. The narrative is told, for the most part, in the third person, by Death, a spirit who is invisible to the people he “carries in his arms” and who comments in the first person on each death, betraying his own compassion and emotional involvement in the world of human beings. Death is beyond time, outside of the construct as we know it. This sense of omniscient omnipresence across years is easy to imagine but would probably be organised in a far more chronological way in the world of film language. Students would lose the richness of the complexity of time through watching the film rather than reading the book. The general storyline would remain the same but the way that story was told would probably be markedly different, and not only different, but simplified.

Do I want a simplified world for my students? The answer must be a resounding no. If I wanted a simpler narrative, I could easily choose a linear narrative from the start.

Will I take it off the book list? I think so. I want students to think critically, to use their imaginations.  I want them to love to read, to want to discover new people in the pages of their minds, where through some amazingly complex process they combine their knowledge of the world they live in with the little black marks on a page. The pictures they see should be of their own making, rich and full of emotional intensity – and they should be able to take time, to dwell on the pages, paper or electronic, to savour the words.





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