Some Thoughts on the Place of Films in a Literary Education
by Lynn Bruce
"Six Oscar Nominations!" the video slipcase boasts; your taste buds taunt you with phantom popcorn. "But we really ought to read the book," you think. It's on all those illustrious lists of classics that young scholars really must know -- the lists that give you spasms of teacherly panic and remind you, painfully, that your own education was more fraudulent than you care to admit. But the video is within reach -- so very, very within reach. "We've got so many other books to read -- we'll never get around to this one, anyway," you sigh. And with a little twinge of guilt, you afford yourself a dual luxury... melting into the sofa with your kiddos for a couple of pleasant, effortless hours, and then mentally checking off another great book from your children's overwhelming syllabus. After all, they know the story now, right? Right? What harm can it do?
That telltale twinge of guilt is hardly a universal experience. Few people fret over these things except for those of us in the 'living books' educational philosophy camp -- we stalwart souls who take our family's literary adventures with Great Books very seriously. But I suspect if you find yourself reading this essay, you are probably sympathetic to the scenario I describe.
The 'screen question' is a pesky phoenix that arises regularly in discussions of Charlotte Mason's educational philosophy -- what would she have thought of our modern opportunity to glean from screens? Most of us suspect we wouldn't really want to know, but if you're feeling brave, read on.
Obviously, the words "television" and "video" do not appear in the indexes of any of Charlotte Mason's books, and from this we wrench a little dollop of salve for our screen guilt. But though the answer can't be found in the indexes, I believe it IS there in the books, amidst the larger ideas that informed her principles. I shrink from speaking emphatically for a woman long since gone home to Glory, but here's my take on it:
and television adaptations of great books can
seriously zap the voltage out of a literary education.
Miss Mason's writings remind us repeatedly that the reading of excellent literature has a multitude of objectives that go far beyond mere entertainment. The child becomes equipped for life by the ideas and wisdom he gleans from his books -- the knowledge of God, the knowledge of man, the laws of human nature and the created world. We choose great books with these criteria in view -- does the book convey this sort of living knowledge in a manner that is accurate, literary, gripping and inspiring? Does it teach my child a truth, stretch his soul and intellect, and make him a better person? We should judge films by the same criteria, but the screen test doesn't end there. Absorbing books from screens rather than from pages is a new thing under the sun, and brings about new concerns.
* * *
Generally, concerns about television and films fall into two categories: the problem of undesirable content, and the problem of the negative effects on the development of the brain. In this article, I'll address only the former, although I find the latter to be perhaps an even more compelling topic in terms of Charlotte Mason's philosophy. I'm studying to write about that at a later date; but for now, we'll stick with the problem of content.
One defining element of classic literature is the presence of a protagonist -- the hero, the champion of a righteous cause. The sterling qualities of the protagonist, rooted as they are in timeless principles and ideas, largely account for a book remaining relevant over centuries and achieving classic status. And why do we choose to spend precious time reading those classics? Because these books have the power to enlarge the spirit through ideas that are -- in the words of Philippians 4:8 -- true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy. These ideas are most often expressed through the motives and actions of the protagonist.
And therein lies the rub -- modern film adaptations of classic books almost always diminish the author's noble portrayal of the protagonist.
For a handy example, I need look no further than my husband's bedside table. Dan is a C.S. Forester aficionado, and has read all of his Horatio Hornblower books many times over. Forester doggedly maintains a high heroic standard for Hornblower, the protagonist, throughout the series of novels (to the point that I suspect my husband has secret Walter Mitty-like fantasies of being the great, heroic Hornblower -- which is, of course, exactly what Forester was after). Now, while Dan enjoyed the A&E movies based on these books, he was nonetheless quite distressed to see the subtle but deliberate ways the scriptwriters knocked Hornblower down several notches from Forester's ideal. Forester drew him as a paragon of honor, a man who championed ethics at all costs. In the film adaptation, he's hunky and magnetic, but he struggles with honor. His character is clouded in just enough doubt to unravel what drove Forester to keep writing about him in the first place, book after book after book... it's almost as though Forester is saying, "Here is a truly noble man, and he is so compelling that I can't shake him from my thoughts." But the scriptwriters' Hornblower is more forgettable. To paraphrase Jane Austen, he's handsome enough, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt us to be more like him.
The movie "Braveheart" is another example, although it's based not on one book, but rather many episodes of recorded history. This history is very important to Dan, because it's a legacy he inherited -- family tradition suggests he descends from Robert the Bruce's brother, and he is quite the Scottish history buff. As for me, I left the theatre mostly thinking it was a kick to see Mel Gibson swashbuckling about in a kilt as William Wallace. But Dan was having a high blood pressure nostril-flare over the smearing of Robert the Bruce's noble character. A scene that lasted just moments on screen was sufficient to reduce Robert, the fearless champion of freedom, to a sniveling, traitorous coward, all concocted from nothing for the sake of dramatic conflict. The scriptwriters veered inexcusably off the historical record to fabricate the Bruces' betrayal of William Wallace, even casting Robert's father (then King) as responsible for his capture and torturous death. The rampant historical errors in the script were so unfathomable to Dan the Bruce that he went to see the film again the next day, to be sure he wasn't imagining things. (The Texas Scottish Festival that year was interesting -- all about were rankled clusters of kilted American Scotsmen, fuming ready to march upon Mel and company with tar and feathers.)
Stripping protagonists of their righteousness has become a matter of sport -- or worse, perhaps a matter of principle -- amongst film-makers. It all points to a paradigm shift in the prevailing worldview. When Western culture was marked by a belief in absolute truth and the justice of a sovereign God, artistic expression revealed a pervasive admiration for righteous heroes. The high aim of art was to elevate mankind to moral greatness. Literature was lush with characters whose virtue called us forth from complacency and darkness to strive toward the inspiring portrayals of a more righteous life. Today, however, relativism has consumed our culture. The right thing is that which makes you happiest. Pursuit of God has been superceded by the pursuit of self, and this shift is powerfully revealed in the arts and the media. In a culture where the self is god, the purpose of art is to help you relate to yourself. Therefore, the modern protagonist must pursue his own fulfillment, and not be so virtuous that average people can't relate to him.
This accounts for the recent massacre of Les Miserables on film. Victor Hugo constructed the classic "redeemer protagonist" in Jean Valjean. The Christ-shadowing and the plentiful Biblical allusions in the imagery of this classic are what make the story so powerful and enduring -- here is a book with the power to change lives. Why? Because the protagonist, though human, is drawn from the character of Christ, and the book exalts Christ-like virtues. Oh, but the movie... here we see Jean Valjean doing largely the same things as the character in the book, but the meaning of it all is hollow, because the scriptwriters altered the living idea which is the driving force of the book -- Valjean's motive. Hugo's Valjean seeks redemption for the downtrodden, the poor and the lost, because when he was thus, the grace of God was extended to him. He finds the light of that grace within him cannot be contained -- he must extend it to others. The scriptwriters' Valjean does things that help others, but ultimately it's for his own gain. He lacks the power to redeem and transform that drove Hugo to write the book in the first place. Hence we lose the force of Hugo's mind appealing to our mind.
Essentially, shearing Samson is the screen writer's calling. The modern protagonist is no longer someone whose strengths you should admire and attempt to emulate; he is cut down to your own level -- someone to whom you can relate, someone in whom you can see yourself. This is an important distinction. C.S. Lewis never intended for us to see ourselves in Narnia's Aslan. He is a redeemer protagonist, a literary Christ-figure, sacred and holy; we are human and flawed, and can only view him with awe. He is not like us. We are not supposed to relate to him; we are supposed to be inspired to be more like him. But if modern secular film-makers re-create Narnia, as they continually plot to do, the mighty Aslan will most likely become a tame lion, a purring pet metaphorically brought down to the size of your child's lap, fidgeting over fleas and waxing finicky about his cat chow.
Why? Film-makers generally can't relate to the redeemer figure in classic literature. They simply cannot wrap their skimpy worldviews around larger-than-life protagonists who persevere in nobility of character and the personal pursuit of righteousness. In fact, they can't even comprehend the concept of righteousness. Think of it in a culture where there is no longer an acceptance of absolute right and wrong, logically there can be no such thing as righteousness. It doesn't exist, beyond doing what is right for yourself.
Film-makers need heroes to fall. It makes for better dramatic tension, and it makes for a character to whom modern viewers can relate. Our culture, drunk on the hedonistic wine of relativism, can more easily relate to a rebel who shuns traditional values of right and wrong in order to pursue his own happiness than to a champion of absolute righteousness.
This puts us educationally at odds with most film adaptations. Our major purpose in reading great books is to arm our children with an anthology of wisdom about human nature, a panoramic view of the human race -- sluggards and fools for caution, and heroes for emulation. When those characters are whittled down to fit a screenwriter's narrow cinematic aims, they lose their full humanity, their value, their power to enlarge us. We lose the vital spark of the author's mind. Miss Mason wrote, "...education is of the spirit and is not to be taken in by the eye or effected by the hand; mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated..." (Vol. 6)
We might take liberty to paraphrase that the heroic mind appeals to our heroic minds, and this is how we become heroic. Film adaptations usually burn down the mission in this regard. But this is not to say that all literary heroes must be without flaw. Miss Mason wrote in Volume 2, "Perhaps we are so made that the heroic which is all heroic, the good which is all virtuous, palls upon us, whereas we preach little sermons to ourselves on the text of the failings and weaknesses of those great ones with whom we become acquainted in our reading. Children like ourselves must see life whole if they are to profit." She mentions Jacob as a flawed hero "who is yet one of God's elect" -- and in that he does not pall upon us. "We recognize the justice of his verdict on himself, "few and evil have been the days of my life." No, we should not insist upon perfectly perfect heroes (although it is only natural that redeemer figures in fiction whose flaws are too magnified do pall on us).
The problem is that film-makers who adapt classic books typically upset the author's carefully balanced portrayal of the hero -- they tip the scale so heavily toward his imperfections that his heroic virtue is catapulted off the other side.
"...For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worthy books, many worthy books." (Vol. 6)
Maybe this business of mind appealing to mind is the most compelling reason of all to largely avoid films in a literary education. Essentially, a screenwriter's job is to add to and take away from the author's "whole thought" in order to create an abridgement that is most appealing to the masses. The resultant films are just a visual version of a watered-down abridgement, and thus get between the author's mind and our own mind.
I do not rigidly avoid films -- as in most things, there comes the occasional exception. But I find I need to set the bar high and hang onto it, to keep me from sliding down a slippery slope once the Blockbuster Video card is in my hands. My own standard for allowing a film to supplement literature study is two-pronged: a film that is 1) a word-for-word (or close to it) presentation of a literary work that was 2) preferably written for performance. Shakespeare is good for reading, but his works were written to be performed, after all. This is one case where seeing a performance before reading the play is quite advisable. But by this standard, some versions of Shakespeare's plays on film qualify, but many would probably not.
Now then, as much as I adore both the A&E and BBC productions of Jane Austen's works (and mind you, we Bruces watch them in gleeful addiction and quote them to distraction), I sadly concede that even those jewels don't quite vault the bar set by this standard. The films' scripts are drawn almost entirely from the books, but they are still rampantly abridged. (And I could get into a zingy discussion here of the various errant portrayals of heroic Mr. Knightly in the various "Emma" films, which would sorely grieve dear Jane if she knew, but I'll just tempt you to explore that on your own. Woe unto him who cheats himself of encountering the incomparable mind of Jane Austen by substituting these admittedly luscious films for her yet far more luscious books! The antics of the characters entertain us royally in the films, but in the books they present us with a profound, graduate level course in the wiles and ways of human nature -- and leave us better and wiser, safer in the company of fools.
So I break my own rule for those beloved Austen flicks. Why? To tell you the truth, I just love the costumes, the sets and the music, and the acting is superb. But I also managed to concoct a means to excuse myself on literary grounds. As my young daughters began to read Austen, their aerobic imaginations zealously set up the scenes... and I soon realized they were envisioning Austen's world all wrong. Having not yet encountered that period of history, they simply did not have a 'visual dictionary' of Regency England to inform their imaginations. (They were envisioning some sort of English ante-bellum muddle -- think 'Scarlett Bennett and Rhett Bingley' and you're getting close!) So, some of the films being unusually accurate on that score, I bent. But I made sure the girls read those books, too... which didn't take any begging, I might add.
Austen aside, my children have often flatly refused to see movies of books they've read, which just tickles me silly. When Lord of the Rings was being filmed, Caitlin announced, "My own creation of Tolkien's world is so rich and complex that I simply don't want to clear space in my imagination for some studio's money-headed revision." I love that. Would she recognize the subtle alterations made to the characters in the films -- from those to whom we aspire (as drawn by Tolkien) to those to whom we can relate (as portrayed in the movie)? I suspect so -- years of narrating have made her a stickler for nuance. And years of writing have made her respectful of the integrity of an author's intent, as expressed in the whole of his work. She can smell an abridgement at forty paces.
Similarly, she anguished for years over whether to watch the Anne of Green Gables film adaptations, because she couldn't bear to lose her own imaginary creation of Prince Edward Island. It was sacred ground, her second home during that phase of her girlhood when she simply was Anne. Her objections began to lose steam when she learned that the series was filmed on location, and that the casting was well nigh unto miraculous. At long last she recanted. Does she regret it? No -- but she is quick to point out that she had read every book in the Anne series five times before seeing the movies, and her own conception of the characters and settings were already permanently etched to the last detail in her memory. When she thinks of those books now, she still sees her own imagining of them. But some of her friends, who saw the films earlier in their journey through these books, struggle to keep their own construction of Anne's world alive in the imagination. This grieves Caitlin. She feels they have been cheated.
She's got a point. Films are dictators that steal our mental real estate. When we watch a story play out on screen, who makes the pictures? The dictator -- and we passively accept whatever he offers. But it does not improve us -- research proves time and again that passive observation renders almost no change in the brain's neurons, and that the mind must make its own pictures, must act upon what is before it, for real learning to occur. Neurons will only dance to their own music. When we read, our brains are ablaze; we are free, we are magic! Our minds fire and flash in mysterious ways to create boundless images and worlds from mere squiggles of ink on a page. It's a miracle, really -- an extra but oh-so-essential gift that the Creator, from the bounty of His own image, lovingly sparkled into the human mind. It's what makes us individuals. Give a million people the same book, and their imaginations will create a million different worlds from it. This is a dictator's nightmare!
And the mind needs time and space to reflect upon it all, to retrace the steps of the neuron dance. Television and videos move a story past us too quickly, too passively, too superficially. They deny us the all-important pondering gaps -- those moments of reflection and meditation that allow us the space needed to form true relationships to ideas. Miss Mason said, "It has long been known that progress in the Christian life depends much upon meditation; intellectual progress, too, depends, not on mere reading or the laborious getting up of a subject which we call study, but on that active surrender of all powers of the mind to the occupation of the subject in hand, which is intended by the word meditation." (Vol. 3, p. 121) When we read a book, we find ourselves, between readings, engaging in private narration -- replaying the scenes in our minds and ruminating on the meaning of it all. We come to own it; we grow gradually, rising to the author's insights bit by bit, and fitting them into our own. Films not only prohibit our imaginations from this gradual assimilation over time, but also from indulging in the private narration which is such a universal experience among readers that we can only assume it fills a natural need for the mind. And I do believe it's something God designed us to do.
Time and tape and digital media march on, whether we're ready or not. I enjoy listening to the Bible on audio; nonetheless, it's not at all the same quality of learning experience as when I read it for myself. Ideas fly by me too fast to meditate upon and absorb them, connect them all up. But when I read the Bible, I often stop at the end of almost every sentence, to ponder. Scripture particularly requires these "be still and know that I am God" moments. This is why David, in the Psalms, repeatedly vows to the Lord that he will meditate upon His word... it's not enough to just read it, or have it read to you. David sat out on those hills watching the flocks, and talked to himself about the word in the quiet stillness. Essentially, he narrated it back to himself, and to the Lord, through meditation and praise, until it was hidden in his heart.
I'm afraid none of us sit on hills enough in this frenetic modern age, and our children are as rushed about as we are. If our pursuit of a literary education for our children seems to lack voltage, perhaps we need to make time for some hills, some quiet stillness for thinking on Philippian sorts of things -- righteousness, and its heroes. Glowing screens tempt us with the promise of a quick literary fix, but it's all a ruse. Like a modern plague of noisy locusts, they strip the quiet, magnificent literary trees of their shady leaves and the sweet fruit that our screen-less forebears feasted upon daily. But take heart! These are locusts we can unplug.
Fie on them -- the trees are yet standing. Fetch a blanket; let's head for the hills.
Les Miserables, anyone?
Copyright 2002-2009 Lynn Bruce, Dallas, TX; mumsadah at gmail dot com
All rights reserved; used by permission.