Television and film adaptations of set classroom texts have a poor reputation in education. We may now simply hit play on a YouTube clip rather than wheeling in an enormous TV and loading up a video, but the same negative perception persists: adaptations are less worthy than the original text, a time-filler, and only lazy teachers use them.
It’s true that if you don’t put much thought into how to use adaptations, they will not serve you well. But if you plan strategically to complement the original text, adaptations can be an excellent teaching tool. They can bring lessons to life, inspire insights and be integral to students’ understanding.
Stephanie Keenan is curriculum leader for English and literacy at Ruislip High School in London. She blogs at mskeenanlearns.wordpress.com and tweets at @stephanootis
What comes first?
Despite being trained never to show the film first on the basis that it’s a massive spoiler for the book, I have developed my own rules, which are as follows.
Plays are written to be performed and the performance will illuminate the text, so watch the play before reading it.
Ideally aim to show more than one performance for comparison.
Live is best but filmed theatre is also effective, especially with the joy of free National Theatre live streaming (http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk) and DVDs from the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe. You can follow this up by watching a Hollywood version.
Novels activate the imagination, so don’t steal that from students – read the book first, then compare TV or film adaptations.
Allow students to create their own narrative voices and characters, and imagine their own settings. That way, they can experience the exquisite irritation of disagreeing with the director’s choices when watching film extracts later on.
First, read poems aloud without the text. Then go to the written poem. Then make your own images or films responding to the work.
Poems need to be voiced so that we can hear the sounds of the language and picture the imagery ourselves. That ownership can later be expressed by creating your own artwork.
Ideally, hear, see and analyse speeches in performance before the script or transcript is explored.
Listen to the audio alone, then with video, then turn to the text, comparing it with the spoken version.
Selection and comparison
Selection and comparison should be your guiding principles for using film and TV effectively in the classroom. First, judiciously select high-quality examples to share, then choose specific scenes to analyse in detail.
Second, compare the two media in order to deepen pupils’ understanding of the original. By analysing what has been changed, and why, students can develop awareness of authorial and directorial choices. Ask questions such as:
What was included or left out and why?
Why did the director make those choices?
Why did the author make their choices?
What can the written text do that the visual text can’t, and vice versa?
This will help to develop the critical distance required to analyse how making technical choices can manipulate the reader/audience – something that many students struggle with.
You also need to respect the adaptation as its own text or work of art. To ensure effective comparative analysis, we must make the terminology, codes and conventions explicit, just as we would with a written text.
Students will have absorbed the language of visual media from birth, so by helping them to achieve critical distance, we can offer a parallel, complementary skill to textual, literary or linguistic analysis.
Introduce an awareness of how adaptation and adaptability are an inherent part of language and textuality. Language changes and stories travel through the generations – orally, then in print. Great stories survive.
Students should know that many famous texts were adaptations of former classics, such as the classical myths and legends reinterpreted by Shakespeare. They should know that Charles Dickens’ novels were once serialised and how this affects their structure, and that the letter form emerges in epistolary novels.
Professional writers have always drafted and redrafted. Texts are always changing and being edited. Novels become plays – such as Philip Pullman’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Introducing this awareness of intertextuality offers historical context, while the understanding of the endless adaptability of narrative keeps both English language and literature fresh, relevant and somehow “ownable”. One day, one of your students could be writing their own adaptations.
Ideally, film or TV adaptations should be carefully planned into a whole scheme of work rather than being a one-off activity. But if you need to be convinced and want to experiment, try one of these suggestions:
Creative writing Before reading or viewing a work, show film stills and encourage your students to predict the plot and use this as a basis for creative writing activities.
Missing scenes Use a whole film or an extract as a jumping-off point to explore translation and adaptation. This can culminate in students writing their own adaptation – for example, rewriting a book chapter as a script, or creating a missing scene.
Structure and sequencing Investigate narrative structure and sequencing by comparing written and visual texts. Move acts, scenes or chapters around and analyse the effects. Rewrite a version using flashback, add a prologue or epilogue, or create an alternative opening or ending to the original text. How does changing the structure affect our response? Why is the original structure effective?
Narrative voice Use the comparison to analyse narrative voice. What are the limitations of narrative voice in film? Write a voiceover for a film adaptation. Then change the narrator, make the narrator unreliable, or switch from first to third person.
Comparative essay Set an essay comparing a written and visual text, or a script and a performance. For example: “Which is more successful and why, the film or the play?” or “Compare the ways in which the film and the novel manipulate the audience or reader’s emotions in [set scene].”
Advantages and disadvantages
Illuminates the original text.
Secures knowledge of the original through comparison with different versions.
Teaches students complementary analysis skills.
Provides context for the original text.
Develops understanding of authorial choice and reader/audience response.
Provides experience of a historical era in vivid detail – useful for long-lost settings and costumes.
Offers further layers of analysis.
Builds on students’ existing knowledge of TV and film conventions, making the implicit explicit.
Offers a bridge between home and school, as adaptations can be viewed with parents.
Can lead to lazy “just watch the film” planning.
Anachronisms creep in – for example, the guns in Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”.
Distracts from analysis of the original text.
May lead to misconceptions about historical periods.
Causes confusion between the text and the adaptation.
“Steals” the opportunity for a student to recreate a historical era from the description provided and their imagination.
Curriculum constraints can mean there is not enough time to explore adaptations as well as original texts.
There’s a danger of “dumbing down” the original text.
Can turn students off if the film is perceived as just as boring as the book.