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6. Examples of outstanding films

1. Ballad of the Sad Café (1991)

This is a film based on Carson McCullers's masterpiece, which bears the same title and whose director is Simon Callow. The work was released in 1991, and, among other aspects, Vanessa Redgrave's interpretation of the role of Miss Amelia is very impressive. In general, the film is faithful to the book. Thus it may be regarded as an outstanding literary adaptation since it reflects the triangle of love which is superseded by the triangle of hate between the three major persons and which leads to the final tragedy.

This film was recommended for teaching purposes by Grindhammer in 2000 (cf. below); her contribution consists of "Notes for the Teacher" again, as it seems to be typical of all the EBU articles which deal with film teaching in the foreign language class. This is one of the rare articles containing a list of key vocabulary supposed to be unknown to the learners, which is introduced at the beginning of the teaching unit and which thus may help to facilitate comprehension. In addition, the author develops a lesson plan with various activities and exercises which range from scrambled sentences and true-false statements to more ambitious tasks which are to be solved by group work.

On the one hand, her methodological ideas, then, may be said to be close to teaching practice. On the other hand, her interpretation of Carson McCullers's text is less satisfactory: she uses unqualified labels such as "her innovative forms, her haunting language" (p. 18) or "its [the narrative's] provocative characters" and the writer's standing "apart from mainstream patterns" (p. 13). As she quotes McCullers's "theory of love" and discusses possible links to the writer's life (p. 18), it is particularly disappointing that she does not suggest an open classroom discussion in order to arrive at a critical evaluation of it. Thus unfortunately, according to this publication, the descriptive level is not to be supplemented by an exchange of arguments in class.

For a brief characterization of McCullers's short novel, cf. "Schwerpunkt Roman, Knapptexte 11" .

Lucille Grindhammer, "'The Ballad of the Sad Café', A Recent Filmed Version of an American Classic - Activities and Exercises (ab Klasse 10)", Englisch betrifft uns [EBU], Heft 2 (2000), pp. 13-19.

2. Rain Man (1998)

This film, which was directed by Barry Levinson as early as 1988, is still worth watching today because of the excellent performance of Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffmann. They act out two personalities as different as they can be imagined. There is the successful businessman (Tom Cruise) and there is his autistic brother (Dustin Hoffman), whose behaviour is quite disturbing. On the one hand, he is easily frightened, helpless, demanding protection. On the other hand, like a child, he may be very stubborn. Although he has some mental defects, he is also a mathematical genius. In the film the two brothers are on a journey across the United States and gradually learn to understand each other. To my mind, it is quite an outstanding Hollywood production.

This motion picture was recommended for Foreign Language Teaching (FLT) by Denise Wordell ten years after its release (cf. below). Like other articles published in the journal Englisch betrifft uns (EBU), it consists of practical suggestions for the English language teacher throughout. First, there is a description of the general lesson plan (pp. 30-31). This includes a presentation of the film, which is supposed to be viewed without any interruption in class before the individual parts are discussed (p. 31). Such a kind of pre-viewing, probably because of the difficulties of film comprehension, is a procedure still rarely recommended.

To ease comprehension, according to Wordell's ideas, the teacher may use worksheets which contain annotations of key vocabulary which are without phonetic transcription, though). On the one hand, this is characteristic of EBU articles; on the other hand, this is one of the few publications which not only contains annotations of difficult lexical items but also comments on unfamiliar allusions. Besides, vocabulary work is arranged in some word fields, for example referring to autism (p. 32) and technical terms of film analysis (pp. 33-34).

As for the analysis of the film itself, which is supposed to take place in seven consecutive lessons, there are worksheets, homework tasks and background material about autism (p. 37). Since the article offers also solutions for all assignments (pp. 38-40), it will undoubtedly turn out to be extremely useful in practice.

Denise Wordell, "'Rain Man' in the English Language Class", in: Englisch betrifft uns [EBU], Heft 3 (1998), pp. 30-40.

3. The Hours (2002)

This film, which was directed by young Stephen Daldry, came out in 2002, featuring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman as the three major female characters. The film's title derives from the novel by Michael Cunningham The Hours (1999), which goes back to the famous work Mrs Dalloway (1924) by Virginia Woolf. Michael Cunningham agreed to the film version of his work. It is outstanding because of its roots in literary history, its literary quality and its cinematographic value. For a brief characterization of the novel cf. "Lesetipps, no. 2" .

According to Surkamp's plan (cf. below), the students are asked to pre-read Cunningham's work on their own (p. 292). In doing so it would be helpful for them to know some facts about Woolf's life and work and her commitment to women's rights as well, which may facilitate their understanding of Cunningham's novel and the film version. But even the pre-reading of The Hours is not easy since a didactic edition does not exist.

This demanding starting-point is followed by a very ambitious didactic approach. Surkamp suggests a creative task right at the beginning: the students are asked to analyse the first scene of the novel and to develop some ideas for a film version. Certainly this is a very attractive concept, which, however, may be hard to realize in class. (p. 293). In other words, it may be tempting, but it also implies high risks. Unfortunately Surkamp does not say whether this approach was tried out in practice.

First of all, it has to be taken for granted that none of the students knows the film before the beginning of the teaching unit. Secondly, the learning group should have some experience both in film analysis and in film production, so that they may develop a storyboard for example and that they know the necessary technical terms. Thirdly, it would be interesting to know whether the students are able to agree on a number of characteristic features, to produce a suitable script which is rather faithful to the novel, and a plan to visualize their texts. And it should be kept in mind that all this is supposed to be done before the students have viewed any scene from the film, that is, they have to rely on their own imagination only. After that the students may view the beginning of the film and compare it to their own version.

When viewing the rest of the film it would be recommendable to interrupt the presentation from time to time in order to achieve an active participation by the students: they may be asked to describe the effect of central camera perspectives for example (p. 295). As post-viewing activities, the author mentions different creative possibilities such as making a poster, writing a film review, writing a diary entry, an interior monologue or a letter from the perspective of one of the characters (p. 296).

All in all, the demands put on the learners are very high, and the success of the approach depends on the commitment of the teacher and the proficiency of the students. If they are 'film experts' and enthusiastic about film work, this approach may succeed at a very advanced state of foreign language learning.

Carola Surkamp, "Literaturverfilmung einmal anders. Aufgabenorientiertes Lernen mit Stephen Daldry’s [sic!] 'The Hours'", in: Müller-Hartmann, Andreas/Marita Schocker-v. Dithfurt (Hrsg.), Aufgabenorientierung im Fremdsprachenunterricht. Festschrift für Michael K. Legutke (Tübingen: Narr, 2005), pp. 287-298.

Last updated by Dr. Willi Real on Monday, 17 March, 2008 at 9:50 AM.

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