Lemuel Gulliver, Jonathan Swift's most famous creation, has travelled from book to film to television series. Martin Reynolds watches his progress
Gulliver's Travels, like Robinson Crusoe, is one of those classic stories that most children have heard of but few have read. Given the density of its 18th-century prose, this is, of course, not surprising. The young reader, fired by the fabulous idea of the story, soon discovers that reading the text is pretty tough. Enter Gulliver's Travels - the movie.
Channel 4 has re-packaged its highly successful film adaptation into four 45-minute parts encompassing all four of Gulliver's adventures. Complete with state-of-the-art special effects and an outstanding star cast, this adaptation cannot fail to send a thrill through the upper secondary school classrooms it is primarily aimed at.
But will it bring students to a deeper understanding of a complex book? That all depends on how deep you want to go. The beauty of the film, like the beauty of the book, is that it works on different levels. The film skilfully interweaves the accounts of Gulliver's adventures with the story of his return to England and his struggle to prove his sanity. Although some students at the lower end might initially be thrown by such narrative switches, these keep the story moving, right from its gripping and atmospheric opening.
Compared to some of Swift's longer expostulations in the novel, this is certainly a turn-on. Yet, looked at more closely, the narrative switches provide the best introduction to the satirical irony that cuts through the book. So as Lemuel Gulliver marvels at the peaceable Brobdingnagians - "For the first time I felt I was among equals" - we quickly cut back to him nine years later, strapped to a medical couch by doctors convinced of his insanity.
Moments like these - and there are many - are tailor-made for a study of "film as text" or an opportunity to revisit the written text for closer study. Either way, the study guide, produced by the English and Media Centre, is an invaluable aid.
Dividing the film into the four travels of the book for school use allows teachers to focus deeper study on one of the tales. The first two - covering the lands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag - are the best known. Here, the comic reversals of giant Gulliver to tiny Gulliver provide not only some of the funniest moments in the film (such as Gulliver sword-fighting a swarm of wasps with a Brobdingnagian toothpick) but they create an obvious route in to looking at the way Swift uses Gulliver's travels to hold the microscope up to his own society.
Even if groups study only one of the travels in isolation, a viewing of all four episodes is a must. The film has a structural unity less apparent in the book. Once young Tom, Gulliver's faithful son, finds the tiniest Lilliputian sheep in his father's travel-purse, we know it will only be a matter of time before the said sheep makes a dramatic entrance and scatters the evil sceptics convinced of Gulliver's insanity.
Cross-curricular links with history speak for themselves but it is the versatility of this film which makes it simultaneously accessible to a mixed ability Year 9 English group and a Year 13 general studies group. While the former might grasp the sense of a good film and a difficult but fascinating book, the latter are likely to be moved to unpick the follies of a society out of touch with its humanity.
The Study Guide, produced by the English and Media Centre, costs pound;4.95, from C4 Schools, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ