Posts Tagged ‘Of Mice and Men’

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

Teaching literature for examinations…

June 8, 2014

Being mainly a post for UK readers, provoked by recent controversy over the literature content of GCSE specifications, and the desire of the Gove(rnment) to exclude some well-known and loved American literature texts from being taught…

It strikes me there are a number of issues. Firstly, logistical and practical: as an ex-Head of English I know there are stock cupboards up and down the land which will contain hundreds of copies of To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. These will now be redundant; major new and expensive purchases will be required in short order; money that might have been otherwise spent on broadening the choice of reading books throughout the school will now go to narrowing it. There will be little time to draw up and resource new teaching plans and work schemes, but hey, teachers are only working about sixty hours per week so there’s plenty of time for them to catch up.

Secondly, and far more seriously, there are paedagogical issues. The reasons the two texts mentioned above have been so popular are several: OMAM is brief and relatively straightforward to teach; in my experience it did not stretch the most able students enough, but it was accessible to the less able, and enabled them to engage with literature.

TKAM is a very well-loved novel, and rightly so. It’s complex enough to demand lots from the whole range of ability; it raised a wealth of relevant issues for teenagers to relate to, and it allows some serious analysis of how literature is created and how it works.

I always felt a teacher must teach texts s/he loved, in order, first of all to convey some of that love of literature to students: the next generation of readers. Obviously, when one is teaching for an examination, the love of literature cannot be the be all and the end all: students need the skills of literary analysis, to understand how language is used to create all kinds of effects, and how plot, narrative and character are sustained and developed.

I shuddered when I read the lists of texts that were being prescribed (and yes, whatever weasel words education secretaries and exam boards use, they are prescribing). Some are incredibly dry, some too long, some of no real connection to the world of a teenage student. Authors such as Hardy, Dickens and Austen are lengthy, use old-fashioned and more complex language codes and styles; they clearly have their place at higher levels or in life after study, but not in a classroom full of 14-16 year-olds. Does the Gove(rnment) actually want to kill off the study of literature in our schools? I think we should be told.

Finally, there are some broader issues. When I first began teaching, there was 100% coursework; no exam, but a required portfolio of essays covering a range of different aspects of literature. Literature is literature, so the skills being taught and assessed were the same, as were the standards. The problem was abuse of the system by a small number of teachers and students; instead of addressing, policing and correcting these abuses, the system was done away with. The students I taught in those long-gone days read, studied and wrote about a far wider range of literature than today’s students, hemmed in by exam specifications, are able to do.

I think the Education Secretary is not fit for purpose; nor are the exam boards and their new specifications. I despair for the current cohort of students and teachers; I’m glad I am retired, for I would not have the heart to inflict this sort of thing on my students or my teaching colleagues.

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