Tuesday, September 04, 2007

No, you CAN'T just watch the movie!

I am, again, inadvertantly competing with a couple of (bad) film versions of texts that I am teaching in my classes this semester. First, there's the mega-blockbuster Troy, starring Brad Pitt as Achilles. Now, I haven't seen Troy (though I have recently resolved to do so ASAP), but my understanding of it was that the filmmakers did not make any claims to suggest this was an exact rendering of Homer's Iliad. Nevertheless, most of my students have seen it already and their attitudes toward the text-- and, in particular, toward certain characters-- are already shaped by the film version.

I'm also working against The Human Stain (starring Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins). Although that film stays pretty close to the text of Philip Roth's novel, it involves some of the worst casting in the history of film, in my humble opinion. Stunningly beautiful Nicole Kidman is cast in the role of a down-and-out working class janitor, who becomes the love interest of the main character, in large part, because of her outcast status. And the very-white and very-British Anthony Hopkins is cast in the leading role of an ambiguously-raced professor and former boxer from New Jersey. Philip Roth, as many of you know, is one of the quintessential "American" authors of the "American" experience. And The Human Stain is, even more than some of his other novels, really about the "American" experience of race, politics, class, etc. Not to sound overly-nationalistic, but the decision to cast an Australian and an Englishman in the two leading roles was a bad call.

I don't think all film versions of literature are bad. I thought the 1992 version of Of Mice and Men was fantastic, as was the 1998 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'm sure there are plenty of other fine films out there. But when you are working against a bad one, it's really tough to overcome. For one thing, it is extremely difficult for students to let go of the specific images/people presented in the screen-versions, and I think that seriously handicaps their imagination, if not also their critical capacities. (I'll have to defer to my eminently insightful friends, Professors Grady and Vaught to comment more on the relationship between thought and image.) The problem, in the end, is that if your students have already seen these films, there is little you can do to effectively "correct" those impressions.

As the old saying goes, you can't unring a bell.


Chet said...

there are of course versions where the film exceeds the text: a clockwork orange (anthony burgess), arguably one flew over the kookoo's nest (ken kesey), and my personal favorite, the sweet hereafter (russell banks) ....

the thing with troy is that it is disappointing what could have been done with it. imagine the cgi interaction between gods and mortals! and the whole thing with patroclus is a bummer.

Chet said...

I think i said something about this in one of my posts, but there's this book my Marita Sturken called Tangled Memories. talks about the interweaving of images with personal memories. the images become our memories. for example, i have a picture of myself at my first birthday (i was a cute lad) and i cannot decided whether i have a memory of this or if it was formed on the basis of the image.

it makes one wonder if prior to photography these problems with memory obtained. clearly a memory can't be limited to what we saw at the moment. a book is supposedly capable of bringing those other things forth. sometimes, it doesn't even deal in images.

Chet said...

sorry to deluge you, but it also occurred to me that you might find a practical way into the distinction between the film and the text by asking the students why the filmmaker chose certain elements to film and others to elide: for example, all we really know from the film is that briseis is a hot babe that achilles want to sack, and is also consequently related to priam. but clearly she has an important religious importance as well. or, why the different gods were left out of troy altogether. or, why patroclus was a cousin and not a lover, or why a cousin (if not a lover) and not a friend or something else? the latter choice perhaps signifying that homoeroticism can only be thought according to familial love? whoa.

Doctor J said...


response to post #1: I completely agree with you about Clockwork Orange and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I didn't like either the book or film of The Sweet Hereafter

#2: I have many similar "memories." And I will definitely check out the Sturken book.

#3: I'm going to take your suggestion about pointing out the differences between the Iliad and "Troy." (Of course, I have to watch "Troy" first!) Someone else told me that another difference between the two is that Achilles is older than Patroclus in the film, which of course he isn't in the Iliad. Mnay of my students have already mentioned the absence of the gods in "Troy," so that may be the best place to start.

petya said...

speaking of movies...could you show episodes of weeds in your class? teach them about friendship...?

petya said...
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