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Pairing Texts with Movies to Promote Comprehension and Discussion

Thematic pairings of novels/short stories with movies can help students access difficult texts and can lead to deeper comprehension and lively classroom discussion. This article suggests pairings for some commonly assigned middle and high school texts.

The following books, short stories, and movies are paired by theme. Below, the content of each text and film is briefly summarized and the main teaching points are highlighted. Teachers can use clips from the films to highlight similarities and main points from the novels. Note: Age ranges are suggested, but teachers should consider their own school environment and classroom compositions in determining how much of a film should be shown.

Racism

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and In the Heat of the Night (Ages 14-16)

To Kill a Mockingbird is told through the eyes of a young girl, Scout, who witnesses her father, Atticus, a prominent southern lawyer, defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Despite Atticus’ best efforts, the jury overlooks the obvious evidence that prove Tom’s innocence because of their intense racism and fear of black people.

If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story between Tish, who is pregnant, and Fonny. Fonny has been falsely accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, and is serving a lengthy prison term. The charge against Fonny sticks because of the false testimony of a white policeman who lied to punish Tish and Fonny for embarrassing him. Like Tom in To Kill a Mockingbird, Fonny’s fate rests in the hands of a racist legal system.

The film, In the Heat of the Night features Mr. Tibbs, a distinguished homicide detective from Philadelphia returns to Mississippi to visit his mother. When a rich factory owner turns up dead, the racist police arrest Tibbs on suspicion of murder. When Chief Gillespie and his squad find out that Tibbs is a lawman himself, they are forced to examine their prejudices and work together to solve the crime.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • discuss the similar plot lines and characters of all three texts and compare their outcomes
  • analyze the racist ideas in each text and decide how these beliefs inform the outcome of the texts
  • discuss the ideas of prejudice and discrimination and how they are presented in the texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • analyze the historical significance of the film, especially the scene when Mr. Tibbs slaps a white man
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially when studying racism in the United States and the Civil Rights Movement

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad or The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Apocalypse Now (Ages 16-18)

Heart of Darkness is a novel about Marlow, an Englishmen commissioned to retrieve Kurtz from deep within Africa’s Congo region. Both Marlow and Kurtz are ivory traders. When Marlow reaches Kurtz, he discovers that Kurtz has made himself a king of sorts in the village where he lives, by exploiting the village’s natural resources and its residents. Both Marlow and Kurtz give a colonizer’s perspective and use racist language when describing the African people.

The Poisonwood Bible follows the Price family through the parents’ and four daughters’ perspectives as they embark for the African Congo to serve as Christian missionaries. Unlike Conrad’s writing, Kingsolver depicts a Congolese region that has been in turmoil, not only because of the presence of European people eager to exploit the resources there, but also because of the devastation that evangelical missionary work brought to the region.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe presents another view of the relationship between missionaries and Africans — the perspective of Okonkwo, a native Nigerian who sees his way of life changing with the onset of white missionaries. His experiences with the missionaries and later the white exploiters produce catastrophic consequences for him and his family.

Apocalypse Now is a film based on the book, Heart of Darkness. The film, however, is set during the Vietnam War and does not follow the plot of the book exactly.

Teachers can use this paring to have students:

  • discuss the different perspectives of the characters in each of the texts
  • discuss how perspective shapes an author’s viewpoint and how that viewpoint is played out in the text
  • analyze the hegemonic ideas in each text
  • discuss why the director of the film, Francis Ford Coppola, decided to set the film during the Vietnam War
  • analyze what role race plays in each of the texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • study other peoples who have been conquered in similar ways, such as the indigenous people of North America
  • focus on similar events happening today, especially with economic exploitation of African countries
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially in studying the colonization of Africa, the role of missionary work played in colonization, and the Vietnam War

Coming of Age

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Slumdog Millionaire (Ages 16-18)

The Kite Runner is a coming-of-age novel that features Amir, a young boy from Afghanistan who betrays his best friend, Hassan, by allowing him to be raped. Throughout the novel, Amir realizes the consequences of his betrayal and seeks to make it right. Hosseini uses exquisite visuals in his depiction of war-torn Afghanistan and Amir’s journey into manhood.

The film, Slumdog Millionaire, is also a coming-of-age story. This tale depicts two orphaned brothers who face tremendous hardship as they grow up in the streets of Mumbai, India. The main character, Jamal, explains his life story to a suspicious police officer after he wins a million dollars on a game show. Like Hosseini’s Afghanistan, the director of the film, Danny Boyle, uses intense visualization as he depicts an India marked by the dichotomy of extreme poverty and wealth.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • study the technique of visualization in a book and a film
  • compare and contrast the plot lines in each text
  • discuss the different types of conflict in the texts
  • discuss the effects of prejudice on the characters in the texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-world, and text-to-self connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially in studying the social class systems in both Afghanistan and India

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton or Scorpions by Walter Dean Myers and Gangs of New York (Ages 14-16)

The Outsiders and Scorpions each feature young men involved in gang life. In both novels, the protagonists are faced with hard decisions about their involvement with gangs and ultimately learn lessons that transform their lives.

The film, Gangs of New York, is based on the true story of two rival gangs in New York City in the mid 1800s. One gang is comprised of mostly Irish immigrants while the other is made up of New York natives. Their hatred of each other produces extreme violence on the streets of New York.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • relate personal identity and geographic roots to the prevalence of gangs and violence through time
  • teach tolerance and conflict prevention
  • analyze similarities between protagonists in all three texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially when studying the setting and time periods of the texts

Strong Women

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and the film version of Their Eyes Were Watching God (Ages 16-18)

The Bluest Eye is about Pecola Breedlove, a little girl growing up in the 1930s, who is abused by society, her classmates, and her family because she is black. This abuse makes Pecola feel ugly, so she craves the bluest eyes because she feels that will make her loved and beautiful. This belief is because of pervasive white ideology that was prevalent during that time period. The main narrator, Claudia, watches as devastating events unfold in Pecola’s life and decides to ignore societal beliefs about beauty and be proud to be a strong, black woman.

The film, Their Eyes were Watching God, follows Janie Crawford through a series of dysfunctional and abusive relationships with men. Janie embodies characteristics that both Pecola and Claudia have; however, her journey to self-fulfillment is marked with embracing and accepting herself as she is and rejecting people who want to change her.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • compare and contrast the similarities between the characters and themes in the texts
  • discuss the role that race plays in the texts
  • discuss the role of the “watchers” in the communities of both texts
  • analyze the ideas of beauty, relationships (functional and dysfunctional), and identity
  • discuss the different types of abuse and the effects it has on the characters in the texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially when studying the Great Depression and its effects on African Americans, the Great Black Migration, and the rural South, especially Eatonville, Florida, the first black community in the United States to be incorporated

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and The Color Purple (Ages 14-16)

The House on Mango Street features Esperanza, a young girl with high hopes of breaking out of the traditional Hispanic woman’s mold and accomplishing her ambitious hopes and dreams. Despite a lack of strong female role models and experiencing traumatic events, Esperanza wants to persevere and not be sentenced to a life of staring out of a window. The film, The Color Purple, is about Celie, a black woman who has also experienced numerous traumatic events during her life in the South. Despite these trials, Celie emerges as a strong and independent woman.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • compare and contrast the writing styles of Cisneros and Walker
  • compare and contrast the main characters, Esperanza and Celie, and the plot events of the texts
  • discuss the roles of women in the texts
  • analyze the themes of racism, sexism, and relationships in the texts
  • discuss the different types of abuse and the effects it has on the characters in the texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially when studying Hispanic culture, the Great Depression and its effects on African Americans

Utopia & Dystopia

Animal Farm and Enemy of the People (Ages 14-16)

Animal Farm is an allegorical representation of the Russian revolution. In the story, farm animals attempt to create a utopia based on a concept called animalism, which represents communism. However, two pigs emerge as corrupt leaders and change the tenets of animalism to be more like capitalism.

The film, Enemy of the People depicts the main character, Dr. Stockmann, who discovers that the water in his Norwegian town is polluted. This problem is deepened because the economy is driven by the famed Baths, which people come to from miles away. When Dr. Stockmann alerts the town’s leader as well as his brother, Peter, Dr. Stockman and his family is ostracized as Peter convinces the majority to ignore Dr. Stockmann’s warnings.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • discuss the utopia and dystopia in each text
  • analyze similarities between the plots and characters in both texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history when looking at the setting and time periods of the texts
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and Pleasantville (Ages 14-16)

Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about a dystopian future where firemen burn books, TV prevails over reading, and the government controls almost everything. The protagonist, fireman Guy Montag, goes on a journey to discover how to be happy. With the help of a few important people, he gains knowledge and transforms into a hero.

Pleasantville is a film with a very similar protagonist, David/Bud who also goes on a journey when he and his sister are sucked into a 1950’s T.V. show. Both characters discover that knowledge is the key to self-actualization and try to teach others the same concept.

  • discuss and analyze the similar symbols, plot events, and characters, especially David/Bud and Guy and Jennifer/Mary Sue and Clarisse
  • discuss different types of allusions in both texts
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially studying McCarthyism and the Civil Rights movement
The Giver by Lois Lowry or “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin and Gattaca

The Giver is a novel about a utopia where there is no pain and peace prevails. However, as the protagonist, Jonas, gains knowledge about his inner workings of his community, he discovers his world is really a dystopia.

The short story, “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” is about a place where there is no suffering, sadness, or pain of any kind. All of the people who live there lead blissful, happy lives. Unfortunately, there is one who lives among them that receives all of the pain and suffering so that others can be happy.

The film, Gattaca, is about a society that promotes using reproductive technology to maximize citizens’ mental and physical abilities. This technology allows middle and upper class people to produce children that stay within their socio-economic structure, while lower class people are perpetuated to lives of toil. The main character, Vincent, wants to become more than he is fated to be, and goes to great lengths to break out of his social structure so that he can achieve his dreams.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • compare and contrast the similar ideas behind each text
  • discuss the issues of class structure, conformity, governmental control
  • describe what makes a perfect and imperfect society
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially in studying class structures and types of government
Uglies by Scott Westerfield or “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut and Logan’s Run (Ages 14-16)

Uglies is a novel about the beautification of a future society, revealing a dystopia within. When a community member turns sixteen, he or she gets an operation to become beautiful and perpetuate a strict class system. The operation also brainwashes the receiver to embrace conformity and not question the government. Not every person wants this operation, however. There are rebels who do not get the operation and decide to continue to be “ugly.”

“Harrison Bergeron” is a short story about a society in which the government tries to make every person is equal. To make it this way, the government forces the people to wear handicaps so that no one can be more beautiful, athletic, etc. than anyone else. Harrison wants to break his literal chains.

Logan’s Run is a film about a society whose strict government wants to regulate population in order to preserve the earth’s resources. In order to do this, every person must report to the Sleepshop to be executed. Those who do not turn themselves in are called "Runners", and it is Logan’s job to find them.

Teachers can use this pairing to have students:

  • compare and contrast the similar ideas behind each text
  • discuss the issues of equality, conformity, and governmental control
  • describe how each society is both a utopia and a dystopia
  • make text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world connections
  • use texts in cross-curricular activities with history, especially in studying types of totalitarian governments

AdLit.org (2011)

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