Lit-crit hits the screen

July 30, 1999

Colin MacCabe argues that lecturers should use film adaptations to help students understand literary classics.

The language of pre-20th century English literature is now almost impossible to read for almost all contemporary students of English. This is in part because of a general simplification of syntax and vocabulary driven by linguistic developments in the media.

The seriousness of the situation can be gauged by the fact that research at the British Film Institute suggests that there is almost no teaching of pre-20th century literature in schools that is not accompanied by audio-visual material. This barely recognised fact is an inevitability. What is not inevitable is how audio-visual material is used. At worst it may simply keep students' attention and offer some pale version of the original written text. At best it may offer students access to complex sentences and unfamiliar genres as they begin to compare two different semiotic systems.

Films can open up Renaissance texts so that students can begin to understand them as a series of choices and possibilities. In the opening scene of Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, for example, lines from the Shakespearean play's prologue are spoken by a television presenter. The lines are repeated as the camera zooms through the streets of a dystopian Los Angeles, a vision of the near future as familiar to us as Renaissance Italy was to the London playgoer of the 1590s. The use of modern forms of direct address for the prologue and the montage of newspaper headlines and street signs make the 16th-century language spring into luminous life.

Gus van Sant's My own Private Idaho is a loose adaptation of the two Henry IV plays in which the world of Seattle rent boys doubles for Eastcheap and Keanu Reeves is a modern day Prince Hal; a rich boy who returns to take his place in the world of hetero-normative corporate America on the death of his father. Van Sant hardly uses Shakespeare's language. Yet, the very slight echoes of Elizabethan forms, as in the scene in which Reeves refuses to recognise the Falstaff who so loves him, enable van Sant to give a historical depth to the contemporary divisions of class and sex in America.

In these brief examples, the modern film version allows one to ask questions about language and genre that render the Elizabethan text less of a monument and more of a set of choices. The language, hitherto encountered as an incomprehensible block, is separated into comprehensible elements.

What I am suggesting is that if we wish to enable our students to engage with the canon of English literature, the basic introductory work must pass through contemporary audio-visual adaptations. Many will object that this is to hypercanonise a canon that it has been the business of scholars to dismantle over the past 25 years. My answer is simple: independently of whether it is theoretically possible to do away with the canon as a method of selection, it is practically certain that if we wish our students to read the texts they study then, like our sixth-form colleagues, we will have to develop these sorts of exercises.

An objection with which I would have more sympathy is one that would complain that this approach privileges narrative and drama, leaving poetry with no effective place in an English degree. My answer to this objection is that it would appear to describe accurately the situation. I know of no detailed survey of university English degrees comparable to the BFI survey of secondary school teaching of English, but plentiful anecdote suggests that fewer and fewer students are now graduating with even the most minimal knowledge of pre-20th-century poetry.

At Exeter University the department is committed to a full-scale review of the English literature degree that will look very closely at what knowledges and skills our students bring to us and what additional skills and knowledges they will acquire here. I shall argue as persuasively as I am able that if we are to offer our students access to the corpus of classic English literature then film will be central to that process.

Colin MacCabe is professor of English at Exeter University. This is an edited extract from his inaugural lecture "A Defence of Criticism".

Should students be taught pre-20th century literature using film adaptations of classic texts?

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Colin MacCabe argues that lecturers should use film adaptations to help students understand literary classics.

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