by Kathy Garland
Mrs. T.: Have you seen the Halle Berry version of Their Eyes Were Watching God? Just wondering about your thoughts…
KG: I haven’t, but I think I might use that or Gatsby movie this fall with undergrads. What did you think?
Mrs. T.: It [Their Eyes] is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. I literally threw the book at the SmartBoard today while we were watching it in class. They change and re-write metaphors and key scenes. It’s just torturous. Anyway, I did show Gatsby and I am absolutely in love with it. It does have some differences from the text, but it makes you love the text even more.
I immediately located the film, which you can view for free via YouTube. My teacher friend was right. The made-for-TV movie is not an ideal version of the iconic novel. Several key parts are diluted, and as a result make integral chapters and themes seem irrelevant. However, no matter how terrible, I would still encourage language arts teachers to show the film. But I’ll get back to this point in a minute.
This recent and timely conversation about how and when language arts teachers should use popular culture is where my past and current work is situated. For four years, I had the opportunity to observe one high-school English teacher’s use of media literacy education (the formal study of media). One important part of the class required that students learn film language as a means for analysis and evaluation; the teacher’s purpose was to help them attain media literacy, “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate messages in a variety of forms” (Aufderheide, 1993, n.p.). However, close examination of her class demonstrated that students were not only becoming more proficient with “reading” media, but they were also developing and using literacy practices that closely resembled what many teachers expect in traditional English classes (Garland, 2010). More specifically, these students exhibited the initial phases of critical literacy.
My study (2010) and others (Boske & McCormack, 2011; Hobbs, 2007; Kist, 2005; Morrell, 2004) have shown that examining the nuances of popular film is a culturally relevant way for teaching secondary students to pay close attention to their mediated worlds. Whether we deem films “good” or “bad,” students can learn to critically think about movies that they may otherwise passively view. If we continue with Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005) as an example, students might benefit from a conversation about the similarities and differences between director’s purpose versus author’s purpose. Why would the director choose to exclude scenes that advance the plot of the written novel, especially when those scenes support a feminist lens? Does the director’s gender influence such exclusions? Whatever the answer, these types of questions about director’s omissions of texts can help students develop a critical view of movies and literature. Other publications I’ve written also provide research-based methods that would help frame lessons centered on directors’ decisions (Garland, 2011; Garland & Smith, 2013). These lessons demonstrate how literature-based films, such as Percy Jackson (2010) and The Lorax (2012) omit and add texts that subsequently affect plot, characters and message.
One current movie that many language arts teachers seem to agree upon using is The Great Gatsby (2013). Mrs. T. and I concur. She and I both appreciate it as a “good” film version of a novel; however, our love is based on two different reasons. According to her, “it makes you love the text even more,” which is a common rationale language arts teachers use for showing movie renditions of books (Day, 2010; Jolley, 2009). But my love of the popular film is due in part to the purposeful way that Baz Luhrmann weaves rap music and jazz into the movie’s text and narrative. What might high-school students’ opinions be? After reading the novel, students could also consider other pertinent questions. For example, should a movie strictly follow the author’s written text? How important is it for a movie to reflect aspects of current society (e.g., Gatsby)? The questions asked are bound to promote student thought and initiate critical perspectives.
How are you integrating film with language arts? No matter if you’re showing the movies that make English teachers cringe (e.g., Romeo and Juliet, 1996) or the ones that we anticipate viewing with students, feel free to share the experiences that you’ve had with teaching, studying or using popular films in academic settings. I’d love to hear about the film choices that you’ve made or are thinking about making.
Aufderheide, P. (1993). Report on the National Leadership Conference. Washington, DC: Aspen Institute.
Boske, C., & McCormack, S. (2011). Building an understanding of the role of media literacy for Latino/a high school students. High School Journal, 94(4), 167–186.
Day, J. (2010). Of mice and media. English Journal, 100(1), 70–75.
Garland, K. E., & Smith, S. (2013). Exploring the core with in-depth popular film analysis: How students can create a film review using a critical media literacy framework. Florida English Journal, 6-12.
Garland, K. (2011). Re-viewing popular film adaptations of young adult literature using
three contemporary literacy strategies. Signal, 34(2), 19–24.
Garland, K. (2010). Literacy practices in an English language arts elective: An examination of how students respond to media literacy education. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. (Publication number 3436333).
Hobbs, R. (2007). Reading the media: Media literacy in high school English.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Jolley, S. A. (2009). Connecting to conscience: Shakespeare and Woody Allen. English
Journal, 98(3), 73–79.
Kist, W. (2005). New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple
media. New York: Teachers College Press.
Luhrmann, B. [Director], & Wick, D., Fisher, L., Martin, C., & Knapman, C. [Producers] (2013).
The Great Gatsby. United States: Warner Brothers.
Luhrmann, B. [Director], & Luhrmann, B. and Martinelli, G. [Producers] (1996). Romeo and
Juliet. United States: 20th Century Fox.
Martin, D. [Director], & Carlisle, M., Jones, Q., & Winfrey, O. [Producers]. (2005). Their eyes
were watching God. United States: ABC, Harpo Films.
Morrell, E. (2004). Linking literacy and popular culture: Finding connections for
lifelong learning. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon-Publishers, Inc.
Renaud, C. and Balda, K. [Directors], & Meledandri, C. and Healy, J. [Producers] (2012). The
lorax. [DVD]. United States: Universal Pictures.
*Special thanks to Mrs. T. for allowing me to share our personal conversation.