Film Analysis in English Language Arts: Tips for Teaching High School with Movies
In ELA classes, the most common time that you will show a film involves the movie version of a novel or play that your class is reading. One of the most powerflu decisions that a movie production staff has to make involves casting -- selecting actors who will bring the novel's characters to life. While this adds several dimensions and senses to the character's presentation, it also places limits that are not present in the book -- the character takes on particular physical and emotional characteristics that are not necessarily present in the novel.
Kimberly Willis Holt's novel When Zachary Beaver Came to Town features adolescent themes that include romantic attraction; in the film version, the characters are so young that these themes do not enter the story. Instead, the theme of accepting Zachary, despite his freakish appearance, comes to the forefront. Right or wrong, this was a decision left to the production staff.
Before you watch a film version of your novel, have your class make a list of actors with whom they are familiar and whom they would cast in the lead roles of the movie. If you want to extend this into a creative activity, you can show your class examples of movie posters, and have them make a movie poster for your novel, putting their "cast" on the poster. Be sure to have your students explain the reasoning behind their casting choices.
Using Senses to Create Mood
When teaching film analysis, one of the close similarities with literary analysis has to do with the use of imagery. Of course, with the medium of film, imagery can take many more shapes than the written word. Music actually booms throughout the theater, instead of coming through a text description. Specific visual influences can actually appear -- instead of filtering through description.
And so when you're showing a film and you reach a portion that is thematically rich, stop the movie and have your students analyze the visuals and the music. What is the lighting like? What does the music sound like? What colors appear in that part of the film? what message is the director trying to convey here? How does this compare to the book's descriptions?
A corollary to this activity would be to ask your students to write a script for a chapter, or even a smaller section, of your novel. Include instructions for visual and auditory effects in the scripts -- it will be interesting to see the different interpretations your students will bring to the task.
To Cut, or Not to Cut
One of the most important decisions that you will discuss when teaching film analysis has to do with the decisions that production staffs make in cutting elements from the book to make the movie shorter. The image-rich novels of Pat Conroy, like The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, contain many events that do not appear in the film versions -- if they did, they would run longer than four hours (like the full-text film version of Hamlet).
Audiences don't generally stick around for four-hour movies. So directors make choices, cutting scenes and events out here and there. There are exceptions, as with Coppola's text-faithful film version of The Outsiders, but most films have to cut from the novel to get under two hours, or two and a half hours.
What events from the novel or play that you're reading have come out of the film version? Why? How have certain scenes or events been combined so that the message remains, but the time frame makes sense?
Ask your students to critique the decisions that the production staff made in cutting out certain parts of the novel. What would they have changed? Why?