Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays
— With Discussion Questions and Assignments
Used appropriately, movies based on novels or short stories can supplement units based on the written original, enhance students’ interest in analyzing the written work, and motivate classes to excel in completing assignments that teach the skills required by the ELA curriculum. Filmed versions of plays supply the same benefits and often provide an experience that is close to viewing a live performance. Studying a cinematic adaptation of a literary work will show students how words are converted to visual media and allow a comparison of the written original to the cinematic version, permitting teachers to highlight the techniques of both film and the written word in telling a story. Presenting a filmed adaptation with high production values will demonstrate that movies can be an art form which communicates differently, but no less importantly, than the written word. Moreover, when used as a reward for having read a novel, a filmed adaptation can demonstrate that novel-length works of fiction usually contain a wealth of detail, information, and subplot that cannot be included in a movie. For all of these reasons, filmed adaptations of novels, short stories, or plays, are excellent resources for lessons requiring students to learn and exercise the analytical and writing skills required by ELA curriculum standards.
Note that novels and short stories can be analyzed for their use of the devices of fiction. Plays employ most of the devices of fiction but add the theatrical devices of music, sound effects, lighting, acting, set design, etc. Movies employ most of the fictional and theatrical devices as well as a separate set of cinematic techniques such as shot angle, focus, editing, etc. This essay focuses of the literary devices shared by written works, theatrical works, and film. For an analysis of theatrical and cinematic devices, see TWM’s Introducing Cinematic and Theatrical Elements in Film.
I. SHOWING THE FILM BEFORE READING A NOVEL, SHORT STORY, OR THE SCRIPT OF A PLAY
Usually, a filmed adaptation of a written work is best shown after a novel or short story has been read by students. This avoids the problem of students watching the movie in place of reading the book or story. However, in certain instances, where the written work is hard to follow or when students have limited reading skills, it is better to show the film before reading the written work or to show segments of the film while the writing is being read. Students who have difficulty reading a novel or a short story can often follow the conflicts, complications, and resolutions in a screened version that they would otherwise miss. For example, obscure vocabulary and difficult sentence structure in The Scarlet Letter and Billy Budd make these classics difficult reading for today’s students. The PBS version of The Scarlet Letter and the Ustinov version of Billy Budd are excellent adaptations which can serve as an introduction and make the reading more understandable. Viewing a filmed adaptation of a book by Jane Austen enables students to understand the story and avoid getting lost in the language as they read. (See “Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility as Gateway to Austen’s Novel” by Cheryl L. Nixon, contained in Jane Austen in Hollywood, Edited by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, 1998, University of Kentucky Press, pages 140 – 147.)
Plays, which were meant to be watched rather than read, are usually a different matter. Viewing a staged presentation with actors, a set, sound, and lighting is an experience more like watching a movie than reading a script. One of the few exceptions are the plays of Shakespeare which are usually better when read and studied before they are seen. Students need to be introduced to the Bard’s language in order appreciate a performance.
II. SCREENING ALL OR PART OF THE MOVIE IN SEGMENTS
A film can be segmented, or chunked, and shown before or after the corresponding segment is read by students studying the novel, story or play on which the movie is based. Have students keep up with the reading so that the timing is accurate and the events in the film do not get ahead of their presentation in the written work.
Several of the assignments suggested in Section IV can be modified for segmented viewing. The following assignment will allow students to exercise their analytical and writing skills after a segment of the film has been shown. The assignments can be modified to focus on specific elements of fiction or literary devices.
Discussion Question: What is the difference in the presentation of the story between this segment of the film and the corresponding sections of the [novel/story/play]? [Lead students into a discussion of any important elements of fiction or literary devices which are present in both or which are present in one but not the other.]
Assignment: [Describe a scene in the film.] Compare this segment of the movie with the corresponding sections of the [novel/story/play]. Cite specific examples to illustrate how the presentation in the two media either differ or are the same. Your comparison should include: (1) any elements of fiction and literary devices which are present in both or which are present in one but not in the other; (2) a discussion of the tone of the two presentations; and (3) an evaluation of the two presentations stating which you think is more effective in communicating the ideas contained in the story, including your reasons for that opinion. When you refer to the [novel/story/play], list specific pages on which the language you are referring to appears.
III. WATCHING THE MOVIE AFTER THE BOOK HAS BEEN READ
Comparing film adaptations with their literary sources can enhance students’ ability to analyze, think, and critique the writing, imagery, and tone of a literary work. Differences between the movie and the written work can be used to explicate various literary devices. The discussion questions and assignments set out below, as they are written or modified to take into account the needs of the class, will assist teachers in making good use of a filmed adaptation of a novel, short story, or play.
Before showing the film, think about whether you want to point the students’ attention toward any issues that you want them to think about as they watch the movie. This could be the use of a motif or other literary device or changes in theme. Many of the discussion question and assignments set out below can be easily adapted to be given to students before they watch the film, the discussion to be held, and the assignment completed after the movie is over.
IV. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS AND ASSIGNMENTS FOR USE WITH FILMED ADAPTATIONS
Fill in the blanks with a number appropriate to the abilities of the class and the relationship of the written work to the filmed adaptation. To make sure that students complete the assigned reading, the exercises set out below require a thorough knowledge of the written work with references to page numbers of the text.
- Discussion Question: How is the presentation of [name a major character who appears in both versions] different in the [book/story/play] and the movie? [Follow up with:] Why did the filmmakers change the way in which this character was presented?
Assignment: Describe _____ characters which appear in both the film and the [book/story/play]. At least one of them should be a minor character. Specify how dialogue, action, and physical appearance in the movie define the individual. Using direct quotes from the written work, citing page numbers, describe the characters using the same criteria. Evaluate which presentation is best in allowing either the viewer or the reader to fully grasp the nature of the characters.
- Discussion Question: Were any scenes described in the [book/story/play] substantially altered in the filmed adaptation? [Follow up with:] Why did the filmmakers change the scene?
Assignment: Select at least _____ scenes from the film that were altered considerably from similar scenes described in the [novel/story/play]. Use direct reference to details in order to illustrate the differences. Cite specific page numbers when you are referring to anything appearing in the [book/story/script]. Evaluate the changes in terms of how well the intention of the scene is made manifest in either media.
- Discussion Question: What elements of fiction appear in the [book/story/play] but not in the film? Did this detract from the quality of the story told by the movie?
Assignment: Note _____ examples of elements of fiction that have been left out of the film but seem important in the [book/story/play]. Suggest reasons that may justify the elimination of the scenes, characters, subplots, or settings. Be sure to use direct reference, with page numbers, to the written work in order to support the opinion offered.
- Discussion Question: Did the filmmakers add any characters or events that do not appear in the [book/story/play]? Did this help to tell the story first suggested in the literary work?
Assignment: Often in movies, the screenwriters will add characters or events that do not appear in the original [book/story/play]. Note _____ examples of these additions and suggest reasons that they may have been written into the film.
- Discussion Question: How does the tone of the story told in the film differ from the tone of the story told in the [book/story/play]?
Assignment: Evaluate the tone created in the movie. Cite clear examples of color, visuals, editing, and music that may have contributed to the tone of any particular scene. Compare the tone created in the film to the tone created in the [book/story/play] using the same scene. Cite specific examples, giving page numbers, of the description that created the tone in the written work.
- Discussion Question: Did this film change the theme or any of the ideas presented in the [novel/story/play]? What were they? Did these changes improve on the story underlying both the written work and the movie?
Assignment: Ideas are the reasons stories are told. Themes are the major ideas in a story; however, most stories contain other ideas as well. Some films change the ideas presented in the work of literature from which they were adapted. Pay close attention to theme and other ideas in both the written version and in the movie and write about how they were changed. Evaluate the changes.
- Discussion Question: Which told the story better, the [novel/story/play] or the movie?
Assignment: Often a story will seem to be deprived of beauty or meaning by the changes made in a filmed adaptation. On other occasions, the experience of the written story will be enriched by watching a filmed version. Write an informal essay stating your opinion of the quality of the story told by the movie as compared to the [novel/story/play]. Justify your opinion with direct reference to both the film and the written work; for the latter, cite the specific page numbers for the passages on which you rely.
- Discussion Question: Compare the settings of the story in the written work and in the movie. Is the movie faithful to the [novel/short story/play] in terms of the settings used?
Assignment: How do the settings in the movie reflect the images of place found in the [novel/story/play]? Describe specific details in both the film and the work of literature that support your conclusion. When referring to the written work, cite page numbers.
- Discussion Question: Compare the use of visual images in the movie and in the [novel/story/play] in the description of the various characters.
Assignment: Using specific examples of written descriptions in the literary work and visuals in the movie, discuss the presentation of character contained in both.
- Discussion Question: Describe any important differences in theme between the story appearing in the written work and the story told on screen.
Assignment: Attitude toward subject, meaning the basic topic (such as war, love, politics) can shift dramatically between a [novel/story/play] and its movie adaptation. Explain through example any changes that can be seen between the attitude toward the subject expressed by the filmmakers and presented by the author of the [book/story/play].
- Discussion Question: Were any important motifs, symbols, or allusions included in the work of literature missing or changed in the movie adaptation? Why do you think the filmmakers made these changes?
Assignment: Important motifs, symbols, or allusions contained in a written work of fiction are sometimes missing or changed in the movie. Specify examples of these literary tools that are not a part of the filmed adaptation. Note any replacement motifs, symbols or allusions contained in the movie.
- Discussion Question: What, if any, were the changes in the plot between the [book/story/play] and the film?
Assignment: Rising action, an important part in the plots of both written fiction and movies, may be different in filmed adaptations. Note any changes. Describe details which are important in the written work that have been removed from the movie and details which are not in the [book/story/play] which have been added by the filmmakers. When referring to the written work, give the page numbers of any passages or details to which you refer. Justify the changes.
- Discussion Question: Which ending did you like better, the conclusion of the [book/story/play] or the way in which the movie ended? Explain why.
Assignment: Compare the ending of the [book/story/play] to the ending of the film. Illustrate how any differences either reiterate or obscure the intention of the original work. Cite specifics and support all assertions.
Movies with screenplays that are carefully adapted from novels, short stories, and plays can be an important part of lesson planning. Using the techniques described above, teachers can make film adaptations an integral part of the learning process.