Syllabus: “Literary Classics Adapted”
This course takes as its theme “Literary Classics Adapted.” While students read a variety of literature, including poetry and short stories, the focus of the course is on the play and the two novels we are reading as well as their cinematic adaptations. Students are introduced to some basic critical approaches to literature-to-film adaptation. By considering film adaptations of literary works after first reading and discussing the texts in class, students learn to analyze the adaptive choices that directors and screenwriters make—or, how they “read” a particular originary text. Students engage in visual and textual analysis of films and pieces of literature, considering their formal attributes. Situating texts in relation to their filmic counterparts enables students to think deeply about how different readers interact differently with texts as well as how a text’s or film’s publication/production context influences its content.
For this class, students are assigned a 10-12 page final paper. They are asked to choose a film adaptation of one of the texts we’ve read in class (preferably, a film adaptation that we haven’t discussed in class) and analyze the adaptation in light of its formal attributes (in relation to the text) and its historical (production) context to make an argument about how the adaptation reimagines or re-presents the originary text, i.e., how it’s reading the originary text—in terms of motifs, symbols, themes—and how it’s revising the original either to make a new statement or to enable people of a different era to connect with it. A minimum of four sources are required for this paper.
Sample Student Paper Proposal 1: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Sample Student Paper Proposal 2: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Frank Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990)
Corresponding Final Paper: “Heart of Hamlet’s Darkness: Prince Hamlet, The Freudian, and Zeffirelli’s Vision”
Sample Student Paper Proposal 3: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mel Welle’s Lady Frankenstein
Corresponding Final Paper: “The Women of Frankenstein and the Glass Ceiling”
This assignment provides students with the opportunity to creatively engage with one of the texts we are reading by planning—not filming or performing—their own cinematic adaptations.Students are assigned groups and collaboratively plan an adaption of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. During the penultimate week of class, students present their film ideas to their peers and to myself. Such an assignment encourages students to think about why texts are adapted and how screenwriters and directors use a particular reading of an originary text to structure their cinematic vision. In this way, this assignment allows students to have fun with literary analysis while also keying them in to the sort of questions they will need to ask themselves while writing their final paper.
On the second day of class, I deliver a brief presentation on respectful classroom discussion. I reiterate the points made in this mini-lecture by displaying this PowerPoint and distributing print copies of the slides to students. Because my courses often ask students to challenge their biases and assumptions, especially about “normalcy,” it is important that students learn to frame their comments in a respectful way, offering different viewpoints without invalidating or diminishing the viewpoints of others. I want students to learn to appreciate difference—rather than trying to reach a consensus in class discussion to instead embrace contrasting perspectives. This PowerPoint covers information about different factors that influence the way we see the world and the way we read a text as well as practical ideas for framing discussion comments, both statements of agreement and disagreement, in a productive and respectful manner.
I have included this PowerPoint in my teaching portfolio not only because the notion of respecting difference is central to any class I teach, but also because it points to the sort of classroom dynamic I strive to cultivate in my classes: I want students to feel free to critique the ideas communicated in texts and to challenge their peers by asking them to consider alternate perspectives, but I want this dialogue to occur in a safe environment so that all students feel open to sharing. Key to this is an understanding of critique, literary and otherwise, as not necessarily a negative endeavor but rather as a productive and thoughtful method of inquiry.
During the class for which students have read Toby Litt’s “The Monster,” I divide students into groups of three or four and ask them to collaboratively respond to the questions on this handout. Some of these questions ask students about the assumptions they made about the monster. Others require students to consider their attitude toward the monster as well as the monster’s attitude toward itself. These questions encourage students to consider the concept of “normal” as requiring something different (“deviant”) against which to measure itself. They challenge students to think about whether something can be “monstrous” if there is no standard to which it might compare itself. After about twenty minutes of group discussion and writing, I ask each team to share their responses with the rest of the class. Because the story is vague about what the “monster” is (and whether it is even a monster at all), the responses usually lead to some form of debate about whether it is human or nonhuman.
I have included this worksheet in my teaching portfolio because it is a good example of an assignment type that I often use because it works well both as an in-class activity and as homework and because it balances close reading with attention to larger thematic concerns. In addition, the worksheet illustrates the way I use various literary texts—in this case, Litt’s short story—to encourage students to question their assumptions about what constitutes “normalcy.”
This close reading homework was assigned while students were reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it is very general and could work for almost any text. I assign this homework after using the same worksheet in class to help students learn and practice close reading. The worksheet asks students to identify (and copy) a passage that stood out to them while reading. Then it asks students to read this one passage in a variety of ways: for plot, for affective responses, for word choice, and for thematic concerns.
In this example, the student’s answers to the prompts demonstrate a high level of engagement with the course material and good attention to the language used in the passage. The student also succeeds at drawing parallels between the chosen passage and other moments in the text.
This homework assignment asks students to locate a credible article about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (though it could work for another text or to prepare students for a research paper), provide a full MLA citation for that source, summarize the author’s argument, and then explain why they agree or disagree with the author’s argument. For this assignment, students post their citations, summaries, and responses to an ICON discussion forum so that they can benefit from the research conducted by their peers. Before this homework was assigned, I delivered an in-class presentation about how to use databases available through the university library’s website like JSTOR, Project Muse, MLA International Bibliography, and WorldCat, and I also showed them strategies for searching Google Scholar. Included in this presentation was instruction about broadening and narrowing searches and experimenting with different search terms.
In this example, the student tackled a theoretically complex article and wrestles with the author’s argument in the summary, breaking down psychoanalytic jargon in order to explore how the author understands the relationship between creator and creation in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The student also compares her reading of the novel with that of the author, thereby learning to engage in dialogue with other writers.
In the Spring 2014 semester, I taught two sections of the General Education course “The Interpretation of Literature,” both of which were themed “Literary Classics Adapted.” This course focused on three longer works—William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights—with poems and short stories intermixed as needed. After reading, discussing, and analyzing these three texts, students watched certain film adaptations of them for homework. For Hamlet, they watched the 2000 Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyda, as well as the 1996 Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh. For Frankenstein, they watched James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). For Wuthering Heights, they watched The Twilight Saga. The course WordPress site linked above served as the venue for student blog posts from both sections. Every two weeks, students were given a blog post prompt, which usually offered them two options, and were asked to engage with their selected topic in approximately four hundred words.