From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

You don’t want to watch a movie with me. No, really. I consider it a test of true friendship if someone can sit through two hours of me constantly pausing, rewinding and talking over the figures on screen. It’s a bad habit I cannot break. After helping teach a film and media class this semester however, I don’t think I should.
While my near constant commentary might be distracting to say the least, it isn’t meaningless. I am often pointing out how camera angles, body language, costumes, set design, lighting all come together to hint at a future plot point or reveal some sort of narrative truth. I can often predict the ending to a movie, which never ceases to be a sort of useless party trick for my friends and family, but underneath that novelty however, lies real critical thinking.
Plunging into a classroom environment that encourages this kind of deeper consideration about movies has taught me more about my own scholarship, and provided a new apparatus to engage my students. Perhaps this is not a shocking revelation to anyone else, it can’t be, after all the Film and Media program at ASU is housed in the English department. However, although I have used visual media in the classroom before, I once believed that fictional films had no place in a literature classroom. I was wrong.
The parallels between movie theory and literary theory are almost eerie in their similarity. Some of the concepts and terms are identical. Both have plots and narrative structures, can be categorized into genres, and are influenced by authorship as they critically engage in important societal issues. Series, sequels, and remakes exist in both worlds as well (I’m looking at you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, soon be a movie itself). Even what is called “visual style” in film studies could be compared to grammar, diction and syntax in literature. After all, they both influence how we “read” a text and lend credence to narrative voice.
But why does this connection matter? Allowing movies and literature to co-exist in the classroom can bridge gaps that would otherwise be paved over, only to collapse at a more crucial time. As heartbreaking as it might be to literary scholars (or at least to me!) some of the first narratives our students will remember could very well be movies. I know this is true of myself. Some of my earliest memories are of being curled up on my parents’ bed while my mom folded laundry, watching some terrible science fiction or horror movie. Of course, those recollections are paired with the great literary classics my mother would encourage me to read after shooing me away from the television. Not everyone has this kind of balance, and it might become less common as technology continues to advance. Regardless, as scholars it is our job to understand the public in order to better disseminate our ideas. Right now, that means embracing movies.
I’m not asking for a huge change in curriculum, or to shift all focus onto visual media, but rather to give more consideration to incorporating movies into an otherwise literature heavy syllabus. My brain doesn’t just stop working because I’m looking at a screen rather than a book. And yours shouldn’t either. Teaching students to read movies as seriously as books can only help them by encouraging critical thinking in all areas of life. I am shamelessly urging every film major who comes into my office hours to take a literature class for this very reason. Books aren’t going anywhere. But neither are movies. We need to learn how to teach these different types of media in conjunction with one another. Books teach us to think—to critically engage the ideas presented to us both in fiction and reality. Movies can offer us the same type of education and engagement, but only if we teach others to approach them in this way.

2 Replies to “From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature”

  1. In the two classes I teach – which roughly hinge on alienation in either American or European literature over the long 19th century – I show movies that I think bring out particular themes. In particular I’ve shown Network (paired with Bartleby), Cool Hand Luke and Taxi Driver (the latter with Notes from the Underground), Patton (with Browning/Tennyson) and then we watch Rebel without a Cause. Several problems unfold: 50 min. classes means they have to watch the movie on their own time, lack of equipment in one my rooms and simply the time it takes to do so prevents me from focusing on specific scenes, etc. And, most importantly, many of my students find these movies as difficult to follow as the literature itself. While I film as both artistic expression and aesthetic experience help create interesting configurations and continuities between seemingly foreign novels or poems and our contemporary moment, my students still have a difficult time crossing that bridge and, worse, the movies sometimes unnecessarily complicate (or further distance them) from the text itself. Who knew Cool Hand Luke was so difficult to follow …

  2. Emily and Daniel, do you have any suggestions about optimizing the film experience for students? I’m set to teach a couple of films next semester (including that outrageous Frankenstein / Shelley adaptation, Rowing with the Wind), and I’m thinking about how to approach the transition from novels to film as the course moves chronologically from texts to adaptations. What strategies have you used to facilitate this transition and to keep students critically engaged?

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