Reading Literature/ Reading Film

movie image

Dave Farmer, in his blog Wordsmith & Member of Imagineland, posed an interesting question in his post “Should movies be faithful to the book?”

Here is my response to his question :

Hamlet Response

but after replying, I realized there is so much more to say on the topic…

Reading Literature/Reading Film

This course, which I co-wrote with a colleague, was the brain-child of a course we had both taken separately called Shakespeare Alive! Each summer, the professor, Mike Shea, focuses his entire course on an in-depth analysis of one of Shakespeare’s plays. I took the Romeo and Juliet course; my colleague studied MacBeth. A portion of these courses takes a look at differing editions of the actual text and how editors (in making decisions about interpretation, stage direction, diction, etc…) actually can alter the reading of the text. Another portion of the class looked at how differing adaptations created various interpretations of the text.

We took our experiences as students in Shakespeare Alive and developed it into our own half-year, English elective course offered to junior and senior high school students.

Making/Viewing a Film

In our research of movie making, we looked at various approaches to viewing film, the components of which ultimately go into the making of film.

Literary Approach– concerns devices of literature including setting, character, plot, theme, motif…

Theatrical Approach– also termed Mise-en-scène is literally everything that goes into a scene including acting, costume, make-up, props, set, lighting.

Cinematic Approach– techniques the film maker uses to convey the goals of the film such as camera angle, shot type, lighting, sound, editing.

All of these devices are inherent in the goals of directors during the making of a film; his/her use of them ultimately determine how we SEE (both visually and perceptively) a film.

In considering how these devices are used when viewing a film is how we determine it to be a good film or not.

Reading Text

The primary pleasure of reading is in our ability to use our imaginations. The construction of style and plot (through the devices of diction, syntax, use of motif, theme, imagery, symbolism) colluding with our personal repertoires of experience (personal, educational, environmental) is how we conceive of a story. Whether it’s good or bad, by our standards. Whether or not we can connect to it. Whether or not it will be memorable.

We are active in what we take away from a novel.

When Literature meets Film

Directors/producers often decide to adapt literature onto film because it already has a fan base to draw from to garner talk about the film before it’s even released– free publicity, if you will. Some directors choose to make a very tight adaptation of a story which means the film attempts to remain as faithful as possible to the intent of the novel, short story, play… it’s drawn from. Conversely, some make a very loose adaptation– maintaining some characteristics of the story while deviating in an obvious way from others.

Using the approaches mentioned above are the vehicles through which these adaptations are achieved. Some are fixed (low key lighting literally demonstrates an ominous environment). Some are completely interpretive (different actors use varying techniques to draw upon the portrayal of an ominous character).

Depending upon how we interface with the various components of a film and how we perceived a piece of literature prior to viewing the adaptation will be the determining factors we base our judgment of the film as successful or unsuccessful.

Should movies be faithful to the literature from which they are adapted?

Yes and no, depending upon your preferences, interpretations and expectations.

They are inherently different discourses. They are not, by nature the same. We draw upon different proclivities in approaching each.

The Hamlet Project

One of the anchor texts for my course is Hamlet, arguably one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays and a cornerstone of all literature.

When reading the text, various arguments emerge:

Hamlet Qs

There are not black or white answers to these questions. It depends on what you key into as a reader. It depends, based on your own repertoires, how you conceive of these various themes and how they interface with your reading of Hamlet.

Next, take into account that we create our own interpretations of Hamlet, just as the director needs to make a choice of how Hamlet will be portrayed on film, and the actors involved in the performance make choices in their portrayals of the characters. This layer upon layer of creation is what makes this question (Should movies be faithful to the book?) become so rhetorical.

An analysis of many Hamlets

My first attempt to introduce students to an adapation of Hamlet is in showing them the Michael Almereyda version (2000) starring Ethan Hawke set in modern day, New York city. Instead of ruling the country Denmark, Hamlet’s (Hawke) dead father (Sam Shepard) is the former CEO of the company Denmark, now run by his uncle, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan).  Because it is set in modern-day but retains the language of Shakespeare in addition to about one-third of the play being lopped off, students recognize this as a very loose adaptation. It is off-putting to them. But, the reason I show it first is so they don’t adopt the images of a closer adaptation to what Hamlet “should” look like.

This version portrays a Hamlet who is not only trapped in his melancholia but, more so, misled by the ghost of his father, as the director uses video motif to show how Hamlets emotions get the better of him in his plight to avenge the King.

The next Hamlet I normally show is the Franco Zeffirelli version (1990) which is a closer portrayal of what most imagine Hamlet to be, set in a dark castle in Demark. The roles of these characters maintain the integrity of the text, though some of this text has been omitted as well.

Hamlet (Mel Gibson) seems to suffer more from the Oedipus complex in the version, especially in the scene after killing Polinius (Ian Holm) when grappling with his actions to his mother, the Queen (Glenn Close) in her bedroom.

From there, I move to the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) who also plays the role of Hamlet, which is set in Denmark during the Victorian era, which I believe is an attempt on the director’s part to demonstrate the timelessness of the story. This is the tightest adaptation I have seen; the run time is approximately 4 hours as compared to the approximately 2-hour run times of the aforementioned adaptations.

Branagh definitely portrays a Hamlet is who more in control of his emotions, particularly in the “To Be or Not To Be” scene where he stands erect looking at himself in the mirror, holding a knife. The Mise-en-scène and high key lighting contribute to our perception of him as a man plagued by the loss of power.

The Campbell Scott and Eric Simonson version of Hamlet (2000) is set more during the romantic period, based on the setting and costumes, which contributes to this Hamlet’s (Campbell Scott) portrayal of a sentimental dreamer conflicted physically and emotionally, particularly in the “To Be or Not to Be” scene, as he draws blood after nicking his wrist with a blade. The Mise-en-scène in this adaptation is vastly different than the Branagh’s, as it is filled with the color red, symbolizing blood, and is the only adaptation in which Hamlet literally takes action upon himself.

hamlet scott

While these are only some of the adaptations we view in Reading Literature/Reading Film, you can begin to see how vastly different even adaptations of the same play are depending upon the goals of the director and how we, as viewers, see them.

Likewise, while I have provided my view the interpretations of the various Hamlets, they are in no way fixed interpretations that every viewer sees in the same way.

Our goal as readers and film viewers is ultimately to become engaged, transported to a different place and time for a while, and to be entertained. Literature and film are discourses that make us think, and if they’re good, perhaps, they change the way we see things. Filmmakers are no more tied to make a faithful adaptation of film as an author is to write a good book. They put the way the see it (the story– no matter where from it is derived) out there for us to be the judge.

Other Adaptations to Consider

If you are looking for adaptations to compare/contrast to their literature counterparts, here is a list of those I use in class in addition to some my students have used for projects:

Into the Wild

The Color Purple

Forest Gump

The Hunger Games

Harry Potter

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

White Oleander

Stand By Me

The Other Boleyn Girl

Memoirs of a Geisha

Heart of Darkness

A Clockwork Orange

The Godfather


The Shining

One Day

Perks of a Wallflower

The Help

The Secret Life of Bees

The Great Gatsby

Shawshank Redemption

A Chorus Line

Mrs. Dalloway

Little Altars Everywhere/Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood

War of the Worlds

The Hours

The Reader

Girl Interrupted

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Revolutionary Road

Of Mice and Men

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Tom Sawyer


The Scarlet Letter

*almost anything Charles Dickens

*almost anything William Shakespeare

One thought on “Reading Literature/ Reading Film

Add yours

  1. Interesting. So when a director puts an emphasis on one of those approaches, Literary, Theatrical or Cinematic, does that mean they’re putting their own unique stamp on it? Sort of like their own trademark signature? Like JJ Abrams, for example, as he seems to use a lot of lens flare?

    I remember seeing the 1996 Romeo and Juliet and thinking: “Hey, this is pretty fine!” because it’s how I wanted to see it adapted for screen. I’m a fan of modern settings for older works like those of Shakespeare but love to see the blend of current cinematic techniques yet keeping the wonderful language intact.

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