Volume III - 1995-1996

Novels and Films: A Dynamic Double Feature
by Leslie Criston

       Previously an archeologist, Leslie Criston returned to the University of Arizona for her M.A. in ESL. Having taught in Brazil and at Saint Joseph's University, Vanderbilt University, and Harvard University, Ms. Criston is currently on the ESL faculty at the University of Delaware's English Language Institute. She has a particular interest in teaching through content and in developing and learning about new ways to get students to explore their own creativity as they are learning English.

"In the information age it is cinemas, not books, that bring fiction to the largest audience. Movies have become the short stories of the video age."
-Frank Price Colombia Pictures

       While many of my students gained their first experience of American culture through entertainment, namely movies and music, very few of them had ever read an American novel. It seemed that perhaps an obvious way to deal with this was to use the existing love of films to ignite a love of reading. I'm surely not the first to couple novels and their film versions: I remember reading Mutiny on the Bounty in seventh grade and then watching the movie. However, in teaching a "Novels and Films" course, I didn't want to simply repeat the process of having students read the book and then watch the movie. Acknowledging that I had to meet reading-skill objectives, I also had the hidden agenda of wanting to involve my students in the "art process" by creating activities that would make them responsible for the way that they experience art forms, in this case the art of writing novels and creating films. The activities I developed attempted to "pull" the student in and out of the observer/critical and participant/creative mode.

Background of the Course

       The course was designed for pre-academic advanced ESL students. The length of the course varies from four to six weeks, one hour per day, five days per week. The novel, which is the primary text, is chosen based on student interests and on the movie ratings. After narrowing their choices down to three, the students then vote for the one to be used. The good news here is that there are a lot of great books and films to choose from. Lord of the Flies, To Kill a Mockingbird and West Side Story are among my favorites. Over half of the movies that won an Academy Award for Best Picture were based on novels or biographies. To name a few: Ben Hur, The Silence of the Lambs, Out of Africa, and Dances with Wolves. What's more, movie studios are buying book rights before the book is a best seller and then promoting it until it is a best seller! For example, John Grisham's The Firm was rejected by four publishing companies before it was accepted by Paramount Pictures for $350,000 as an initial payment. The book then got the attention of Doubleday publishers, which helped it climb to a best-seller and generate an audience for the later film version.

A Springboard for Comparison

       There is one aspect of the class that I feel fairly adamant about: that reading the novel must precede watching the film. Failing to read the novel first robs the students of creating their own "mind movie." The students must see that their own "movie version" is as valid as the film director's. In fact, it is the students who will use this version to critique the film of the novel, by questioning how true the film director was to his source. This enables students to view themselves as part of the art process. Reading the novel first also implicitly communicates that the original art form, and the very foundation of the film version in this case, is that of the written word, not the visual interpretation of it. What I have found to be true is that when critiquing the film version, the students remain very loyal to the written expression and begin to "see" the film differently. In short, the three artistic versions--the author's, the student's and the film director's-- create a wonderful triangle, a perfect springboard for a lot of comparison and contrast.

Activities to Stimulate Communication

       With all of that in mind, let me now share some of the activities used to stimulate communication. All of these focus on holding the students responsible for what they have read in the novel and seen in the film.

Assuming Roles- Assume the role of a specific character in the novel. Write a letter to the film's director/screenwriter expressing your opinion of how well or poorly you were portrayed in the film. Comment on the casting director's choice of the actor who played you in the movie version. Language Focus: Remain "in character" by using the words and expressions that your character would use. Choose an appropriate tone for your letter.

Working in Pairs- Select a partner. Choose one scene from the book that was also in the movie. Read the passage several times. Then view the scene several times. One partner will defend the positive way in which the director and actors interpreted the passage. The other partner will make concessions when possible and then refute the opinion of his partner by pointing out the weaknesses in the director's and actor's ability to interpret the passage. Language focus: expressing opinion, disagreeing, making concessions, analyzing, summarizing.

Considering Music- Music is a powerful tool that is available to the director. How does it contribute to the experience of watching a movie? Can you recall the music from these movies memorable movies: Jaws, Psycho, The Graduate, 2001: A Space Odyssey? Can you describe what was happening in a particular scene? Can you hum a few bars? Can you name the instruments? How does a director use music to convey a feeling or message? To create tension? To move from one scene to another? Choose a scene from the movie. Watch the scene several times with others in your group; then listen to it without watching it. Describe the music in terms of speed, tempo, instruments, melody, and mood. Describe in as much detail as possible how the director uses music to assist in creating the mood and message of the scene. In your opinion, was the music appropriately chosen?

Considering Language- You have explored the ways in which film directors use music as an artistic tool in conveying their messages. What are the ways that writers convey mood? Consider vocabulary, writing style, sentence length, etc. How do writers move their audience from one scene or chapter to another? Consider how one chapter ends and another begins. Does the writer use chapter titles or numbers, drawings or other types of visual art? How do writers express the theme of a passage or chapter? Is there repetition of an idea or a phrase that ties parts of a particular chapter together in content or theme? Is there a lesson that is learned or a conflict that is dealt with by a character through his actions or thoughts? Does this indicate the author's attempt to develop a theme?

Point of View- A writer expresses ideas through the characters in a novel and by using a particular point of view. This enables the writer and reader to get "inside" the mind of the characters. Does a film director have the same options available? What artistic "tools" might a film director use when interpreting a novel written in first person? Does the director give more visual attention to the central character from such a novel? In what ways might the director be limited? For example, can a director give much detail to the inward verbal thoughts of a character within the time constraints of a movie? In what ways does a director have fewer limitations? How does the director visually create the point of view? Consider camera angles.

Omitted Scenes- Many times, due to the time element, a film director is forced to omit certain parts of the novel's story line. What, if any, were the parts of the book that the film director omitted? Select one part that you feel was unjustly omitted from the film. Write a letter to the director expressing why you feel the part should not have been omitted? Explain and support your answer. Language: using convincing language; supporting opinion with detail.

Writing Reviews- Write a film review. Give a short summary of the plot and highlight any obvious strengths or weaknesses. How many stars would you give the movie? How would you rate the movie? (PG-Parental Guidance-children under 13 must be accompanied by an adult; R-Restricted-no one under 17 admitted without an adult; G-General Audience of any age, etc.) Find another person in the class who disagrees with your opinion. Discuss your opinion with this person and defend your opinion with examples from the movie. Disagree with your partner's opinion in a way that is acceptable and concede on points that you can. Compare your book/movie review with a published book review from a local or national newspaper. Are there similarities/differences between your review and that of the reviewer? Read each to another person in the class and ask whose review he/she agrees with and why. Language focus: expressing opinion; describing; making concessions.

Creating Surveys- Form a group of 3-4 class members. Create a survey which determines the percentage of Americans who l) read novels and watch their film versions, 2) only watch the film versions of books, 3) read books made into movies. On the survey, you should also include questions about the age and gender and occupation of the survey-taker. Have 30 people take the survey. Tally up each of the three main categories listed above and create a visual representation of each category using a pie chart. Share your own group findings with the rest of the group and collate your answers with the rest of the members in your class. Compare the results. Which group had the highest percentage? From your results, how do you think that age was related to the results? What age group had the highest number of people who read novels and watch their films? Who only watch movies? How does gender factor into the results? Are there more females or males in each category? What might be some reasons for having more men/women in each of the categories? In what ways could your survey be made more reliable? What other questions would you like to ask Americans about their film-watching, book-reading behavior? Discuss these ideas with your group.

Movies Preceding Books- Research how many books are now being written after the film version has been made. How might these books be different from books that were not written from a movie version? There are plenty of novels that can be adapted into films. What are some possible reasons that novels are written after the film has been made? In your opinion, do novels or movies better convey the message of the novelist? Support your answer. Prepare arguments for both sides.

Comparing and Contrasting- After reflecting on all that we have analyzed in this course, write a composition explaining what you have personally have learned by reading this novel and comparing/contrasting it with its film version. Consider how you have involved your own "version" in this class. How would the experience have been different had seen the film first?


       Through my own teaching experience and by having other educators share their ideas with me, I have collected many activities that have worked successfully in this course. I have experimented with these activities, keeping those that seemed successful. I wasn't quite sure how to measure the success until one day a student approached me and said, "Before this class, I didn't like to read, even in my native language. Now I look forward to reading each night. I feel that I have something to contribute to what I read." Of course not all students felt this way. While I know that I can't change anyone's feelings about reading, I realized from this student's opinion that perhaps the element that was vital in determining whether an activity was successful or not was that of empowerment. If I could provide materials that demanded that students view themselves as vital to the process of art, then they had no way out--they individually were responsible for their experience and how their experience influenced the art. Validating their experience, I hoped, would empower them to apply this experience to learning in general.


Corliss, Richard. "Hollywood Dances with Words." Time, 137 April 1, 1991 p. 72.

-----. " By the book." Film Comment, 27 March- April, 1991 p. 37.

Frankel, Martha. "Novel ideas." American Film, 16 April, 1991 p. 64.

"Loved it, darling, let's shoot." The Economist, 321 Oct. 12, 1991 p.94. World Almanac 1994 (Mahwah, New Jersey: Funk and Wagnalls Corp.) 1993. p. 312

Yoffe, Emily. "Soon to Be a Major Novel." Newsweek, 117 April 29,1991 p. 47.

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