Media and literature

Why use media approaches?
Texts from the English literary canon are often seen as ‘pure’ literature, as opposed to media texts which are a (necessarily, or potentially) bad influence against which students should be defended.

“The aim is to set standards…against which the offerings of the media will appear cut down to size” (Leavis and Thompson)

This suggests a clear distinction between the literary tradition and that of popular culture and the media. However, as English teachers will know, books which are now promoted as part of the canon – by authors such as Dickens and Hardy – were originally published in serial form in magazines, complete with cliff-hanging endings to each episode, like those used in television drama and soap opera nowadays. It has been suggested that if Dickens was alive today he would be writing scripts for Brookside rather than novels!

Media approaches provide a way of making these connections explicit, enabling students to relate literary texts to their own experience, and to the media with which they themselves are familiar.
Adaptation: analysis and production
There are many different ways of using adaptations to aid pupils’ understanding of literary texts. One of the most common is comparing the book and the film. However, the English and Media Centre publication Media 1: Years 7-9 warns against simple comparisons of texts and their adaptations, which can lead to detailed lists of differences or omissions which don’t take into account the underlying reasons:

“the adaptation is often seen as…necessarily inferior because it is a reconstruction resulting from the collaborative industrial and institutional practices, rather than the work of a single creative individual. Yet the original text in itself has been a product of similar processes, and is no less a construct.”

It’s often better to focus on short sections of an adaptation rather then attempting to consider it in its entirety. For example, students can adapt a scene from a text and then compare their adaptations with the same scene in an existing film or radio adaptation.
Activities before reading
Show students the opening sequence of an adaptation. Ask them to predict the genre, then to redraft the opening sequence as a written text which they then compare with the opening of the novel itself.

Read the opening passage of the novel: ask students to storyboard the first six shots of a film/TV adaptation and compare these with an actual adaptation.

Students can analyse the book cover and predict its genre, style and audience. Ask them to reconstruct the cover as a film poster. What extra information do they need?
During reading
At an appropriate point, screen the next sequence rather then reading it. Get your students to write this sequence as prose. Compare their versions with the original text. How much familiarity and understanding of the style, language and viewpoint of the original have they shown? How do the three versions differ, and why?

Analyse a scene shot-by-shot looking for the effects of camera, soundtrack and dialogue.
Ask students to write production notes from the director to crew, cast and designers on how a key section should be shot. Compare their ideas with the adaptation.

Compare a scene in the text and in adaptations, then ask pupils to adapt it for a third medium such as comic strip, photo-story or radio play.
After reading
Brainstorm a list of crucial areas of difference between the literary and media text. Small groups each work on a single area of difference and analyse it in detail.

Pupils write to the author giving their response to the original text and the adaptation.

Prepare a treatment for an updated TV serialisation. Pupils work in groups to select cast and locations, decide on number of episodes, narrative structure and breaks. They write to a TV company with a synopsis and rationale.
Analysing film/TV adaptations: points to consider
The characters
What do the characters look like? What is their age, sex, class, character? What are the visual clues that tell us this? (This can include clothing, facial expression, body language).
What is the setting? What are the visual clues that tell us this? What objects are featured, and what do they suggest?
Use of colour
Is the scene in black and white or colour? Are the colours strong or muted, light or dark, warm (reddish) or cold (bluish)? What do the colours tell us about the setting, the time of day, the season, mood and so on?
How is the scene lit? Is it bright or dark? Is shadow used to create an air of gloom or mystery, or to hide elements?
What shots are used (e.g. close-up/long-shot or wide angle) and why? Wide angle shots are usually used to establish the setting, while close-ups can show expression (at moments of emotion or drama) or threat.
Camera angle and position
Photographing characters from below makes them appear larger – suggesting importance or threat – while the opposite is true of shots from above, which suggest vulnerability or low status.

Shooting through branches or around objects can suggest the presence of a hidden observer.
Camera movement
If the camera moves, is it moved slowly or quickly, and why? What sort of movements are used, and what do they suggest?
How are the shots edited together – cuts, mixes or fades – and why?

How long do the shots last? What effect is created by the speed of the editing?
What is the soundtrack comprised of?
Is music used? If so, why? What mood does it create? Is it fast or slow, happy or sad, light or threatening?
Is there a narrator? If so, what are they saying and why? What sort of voice do they have?
What do the voices tell us about the individual characters?
What sort of sound effects are used, and why?
Summarising, extracting and discussing information
Media activities can be used to encourage consideration of the key elements of the text, or to look at aspects of the text in more detail:
Video hot seat
Students work in a group to examine a novel. Each student researches a particular character or event and prepares a short (30-second or 60-second) presentation.

Students sit with their chairs in a circle. At one side of the circle is a video camera (preferably with an extension microphone), connected to a monitor. One student operates the camera while the student opposite makes the presentation.

Each student makes their presentation, with or without notes (not from a script).

After each presentation, all students move to the left, so that everyone has a go at presenting and at operating the camera. The finished video can be used as a resource for the whole class.
Literature as news
This is a fairly common activity in which groups produce a newspaper or a news report based on the events in a novel. They obviously need to consider which are the key elements of the story.

The activity will be much more successful and more satisfying for the students if they have undertaken preliminary activities to introduce them to news language and structure.

There can obviously be problems with comparing events in a novel such as Great Expectations where the action takes place over a period of many years: how can they be ‘news’? It can be better to use the events in a section or chapter (or an Act, in the case of a play).
Media approaches can provide ways of dealing with the use of imagery in poetry. Students can go through a poem and pick out examples of imagery. They can then produce a poster collage – using pictures from old colour magazines and similar sources – depicting this imagery.

An alternative approach – which could be used with a Shakespeare sonnet, for example – is to make a video montage of the imagery in the piece. A poem could be analysed and the visual metaphors listed in sequence; students then produce a video putting the images in sequence.
Further reading
The English Curriculum : Media 1 Years 7-9
has a useful section on media approaches to literature. It’s available from NATE, 50 Broadfield Road, Sheffield S8 0XJ (01742) 555296
Obtaining adaptations
HMV and Virgin Megastore carry a wide range of videos including classic film versions of literary texts, and can order those not in stock. Audio cassettes are stocked in larger bookshops. Videos can be obtained by mail from MovieMail (01432 262910), , whose website allows you to search for any video in print in the UK; they also publish a useful printed catalogue and offer rental by mail through their ‘Premiere’ membership scheme.

© 2001 Media Education Wales