Tuesday, September 10, 2013

On teaching literature, specifically Emma, and the effect of movie adaptations in the classroom.

I read an interesting article by Robert Eggleston the other day on teaching Jane Austen’s Emma and the effect of using the movie adaptation to help teach it. Here are a few excerpts from the article that I found particularly interesting.

 Indeed, I found that Austen's Emma might never have been more inaccessible to younger readers than it is today, and that recently produced variants (although useful for their ability to provide visual representations of fictitious people, places, and events in a historical setting) merely obscure the original and prompt students to equate reading the novel with the less strenuous act of watching it on television....

What eventually became apparent was that Emma did not answer the students' expectations. Although they found a requisite amount of emotional turmoil in the novel--they conceded that Emma does cause a fair bit of trouble--they felt that it was lacking in what they called "action." Action, not surprisingly, involved fast-paced events of monumental significance (preferably life and death). Short, punchy scenes, the novelistic equivalent of sound bites, were what the students demanded.... They wanted to be able to pick up the novel and find 15 minutes of intensity, and anything that took any longer to make its point was deemed boring. This standard prevailing, then, Emma was doomed to be dismissed as not meriting the effort required to read it....

Whereas the students had been a somewhat subdued group when confronted by their professor armed with a copy of Emma, they were now transformed into an attentive, even happy, audience. Nothing in my experience has so readily proved Janice Radway's assertion that "television is an empowering artifact and discourse for [young] people" (530), for the students responded to the television adaptation of Emma with an enthusiasm that they would never extend to their consideration of Austen's original novel....

This uncertainty points to a problem which can arise whenever adaptations of novels are introduced into the classroom. Rather than making students think about the original in question, easy access to adaptations prompts them to treat the consideration of differences and similarities between mediums as an end in itself, and leads them to focus on the actors and actresses instead of the roles being fleshed out. A still greater problem in this particular case was that neither the television production nor the other adaptations of Emma killed off the students' indifference; in the end, my attempt to use adaptations to open the novel to examination was met with that catchphrase which permeates Clueless: "Whatever."...

So what do you think?

My next post will be some thoughts I have in response to this article.


  1. I have yet to read your response (that's next on my list), so I'll risk putting mine out there beforehand.

    Fortunately, my experience in juxtaposing literature and movies in the classroom was the opposite of Eggleston's. Even though my students were giddy at the prospect of reading what they termed "movie books", they were consistently disappointed with the filmed translation. They would point out discrepancies throughout, noting details that were added, omitted or otherwise altered. Even in cases of close representation (I think "Where the Red Fern Grows" was one of those), the movie just couldn't live up to what their imaginations had conjured up. I admittedly had two advantages with my students preferring the book to the movie: (1) my students were likely younger (and more impressionable?) than Eggleston's, so I may have been able to better prime them to prefer reading via active viewing with Venn diagrams and reflective conversations afterward, and I think they really responded to that influence; (2) the books I chose were for the most part twentieth century and not so distant (the exception being "The Secret Garden" which was generally hard for all).

    I'm interested to read your thoughts on this as well!

    1. Most of the time my experience has paralleled yours and not Eggleston's--that is the point I eventually get around to making in the next post. :) The other point I make, which I will be interested in hearing your comments about, is that quite possibly his students were too 'young' for Emma (the novel), when he introduced it. They hadn't yet learned how to critically engage with literature to the level that Emma needs. That would be one reason why your students loved Where the Red Fern Grows (the reading and content was right for their age) and why his didn't like Emma. It is possible that his problem could have had something to do with his presentation of the material, as well, though I have no way of knowing, since he doesn't give that info. Anyway, I'll stop here, so as not to repeat my entire next post here. :-)