Phi Beta Cons

See the Movie and, Yes, Read the Book

Fans of Seinfeld will recall the memorable episode in which the indolent George sets out for some self-improvement by joining a book club. Unfortunately, and predictably, he fails to read the rather slim book assigned, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and suffices himself with seeing the film. Of course the film changes the book in significant ways (one of several instances in which prominent literary authors saw or even allowed substantial changes to their iconic work in film form, others being Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town), and thus embarrasses himself at the club discussion when he confidently introduces elements that are in the movie but not in the book.

The National Association of Scholars has emerged with Beach Books 2014-2016: What Do Colleges and Universities Want Students to Read Outside Class? (The event launching the study will air on C-Span soon.) The findings are similar to what they were in the 2013-2014 edition. The books colleges are choosing as common reading for entering freshmen to read over the summer  are far slimmer than even Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and not just in number of pages. Some of the choices are at middle school reading level, believe it or not, and most of them are trendy recent books and bestsellers, “easy, exciting reading,” as the study reports, “no-fuss digestibles — memoirs and nonfiction, young adult books, science-fiction, and comic books, books with young protagonists, and books where students might already have seen the movie, and affirming books that make students feel good about themselves and what they can do with their college education.”

Whatever movie adaptations exist of these books, they can’t be what I am thinking of for my suggestion to improve the common reading programs (which is the intent of the Beach Books studies–not to bury, and certainly not to praise, but to improve). My suggestion is: Assign for common reading a great classic of which there have been excellent movie or television adaptations and have the film(s) be part of the assignment.

One thing NAS notes is that colleges like to have a living author come to campus to discuss the book with the students, something that would of course rule out the classics of previous centuries. But choosing a good, time-tested novel that has had a quality film or television adaptation raises the possibility of inviting the director or screenwriter or actor or some other person connected to the film to campus. And this could also get students to see that films, too, are works of art, not just entertainment, and may help elevate taste in movie-going.

It so happens that we are in a golden age of dramatic adaptations of classics. The film and television dramatizations of decades past were often stiff and stagey, with actors often too old for their parts, but what has been done in recent decades is simply sublime. There have been superb dramatizations for both big and little screens of a great deal of Dickens and Eliot and Hardy and Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell and of course Shakespeare. Most of Jane Austen’s books have received serious and lively treatments. (There is even a subgenre of films about reading Jane Austen.) I recall many times as a young reader when I rushed to read a book that had been adapted into a film I liked, and, sure enough, message boards on some of the television multi-part adaptations have revealed excited viewers, some turning to the source material to compare and amplify.  

And folks, British acting is one of the treasures of Western civilization, on a par with the cathedrals of Europe. These novels arise from the very fabric of their culture and by extension our culture too, and these actors were simply born to portray these characters. Then too, many of the same actors appear in different roles in a variety of films and television shows, and students might enjoy recognizing their favorites from Dr. Who or Star Trek or the Harry Potter movies doing the more classical roles. 

One fear may be that the students, like the hapless George of Seinfeld, might see the movie in lieu of reading the book, but since all film adaptations take liberties with the text, these changes can form instructional contrasts in the discussions, and students can be forewarned lest they embarrass themselves like George.

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