Sabrina Justison has written a series of 30 Cinema Studies for Literature study guides that use movies rather than books as the basis for literature study. (You need to obtain the movies yourself.) You might wonder about using movies rather than books, but the publisher’s website explains:
Cinema Studies for Literature Learning curriculum is geared to the visual learner in high school, to those who are reluctant readers or for whom reading is very time-consuming, and to those who love movies! Good movies tell good stories, and good storytelling requires the use of traditionally respected literary devices and techniques. With a little help from a study guide, many movies introduce the viewer to excellent literature that is being presented in a visual medium.
The publisher has grouped fifteen of the study guides together as the Cinema Studies for Literature Learning Curriculum to create a full-year high school course. You can use this course as your core curriculum for language arts for an average high school student, or you can use the individual guides as supplements for all students.
The 15 movies studied in the Cinema Studies for Literature Learning Curriculum are:
- High Noon
- Places in the Heart
- The Three Musketeers
- What’s Up Doc?
- A Christmas Carol (the version starring George C. Scott)
- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- The Wizard of Oz
- 12 Angry Men
- Field of Dreams
- Moby Dick
- The Truman Show
- The Miracle Worker
The five-page guide that comes with the full-year course explains that this is not considered a college-prep course. However, parents or teachers could add reading and writing requirements, such as assigning students to read the books on which movies were based then write comparison papers (e.g., books such as A Christmas Carol, Moby Dick, The Three Musketeers, or The Miracle Worker). To vary the genres and so that black-and-white movies are interspersed with those in color, the five-page guide has a recommended sequence for using the movies and their study guides. The course schedules about two movies per month.
Other cinema study guides are available for the following movies:
- Apollo 13
- Lilies of the Field
- Life of Pi
- Midnight in Paris
- Mr. Holland’s Opus
- Remember the Titans
- The 39 Steps
- The Fellowship of the Ring
- The Great Debaters
- The Incredibles
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
- The Sandlot
These additional 15 movies might be used for a second year of study, but they are all relatively recent works of the last century and don't include much older works like The Three Musketeers.
Each study guide comes as a set of two PDF files: a student book and a teacher guide. The teacher guides serve primarily as answer keys.
These studies require quite a bit of writing and analytical thinking, much like students are required to do in literature courses. Each study begins with some vocabulary words for students to master. Students have to determine the meanings of these words as they are used in the movie. Then they will either write a definition of each word or use each word in their own sentence or phrase to demonstrate an understanding of its meaning.
While each study focuses on selected elements of literature and drama, throughout the various studies students will learn about themes, archetypes, conflict, motivation, foreshadowing, subplots, dramatic foils, farce, allusions, and much more. For instance, the study guide for A Christmas Carol focuses on mood and motif, and the study guide for The Truman Show focuses on satire and archetype.
Most of the study guides have 11 to 13 pages. The guide for The Wizard of Oz is exceptionally long at 18 pages. The bulk of each study guide presents questions in an editable format. Student can type their answers directly into the study guide on a computer or tablet. The guides have occasional explanatory text, often as a prelude to some questions. For instance, on page 9, the guide for The Three Musketeers presents this paragraph about subplots:
The story of Athos and Milady, their tragic history together, and the ﬁnal reconciliation of sorts that comes about at her execution is a subplot. It is not really necessary to the main storyline, but it adds to the experience for the audience. What do you like about this sub-plot being in this movie? Are there things you do NOT like about it? What are they, and why do you dislike them?
At the end of each study, there are writing assignments that will need to be done outside of the study guide. These might be essays, summaries, or personal responses. Only brief essay-writing instructions are included since these study guides assume that students already know how to write essays.
Students will answer questions and write vocabulary definitions while they watch a movie─pausing as needed─and they can answer some of the questions afterward. They are instructed to watch the movie twice, usually a week apart, and complete the lengthier writing assignments after the second viewing.
These studies should work well for either independent study or group classes, with pros and cons for both. Those studying independently can stop and start a movie to suit their own needs, but it would be difficult to gauge stops and starts to suit the majority of students in a group class. On the other hand, a group class can discuss the questions before students write their responses, which is a more stimulating way to learn.
You might be thinking that studying movies rather than books makes the work easier for students, but I wouldn't describe these studies as easy. The questions force students to analyze and reflect rather than just record information. The instructions say that students can write their answers as notes rather than as complete sentences, but they encourage students to write good notes since they will be drawing on that information to write their essay at the end of each study.
Keep in mind that these cinema studies also indirectly teach students about some history of cinematography. For example, some students might have never watched a black-and-white movie, and the format of a movie like 12 Angry Men stands in sharp contrast to most modern movies with their constant action and special effects. While the study guide for this movie concentrates heavily upon character development, it would also be worth discussing the style of the movie itself.
Some students will benefit from an entire year of cinema-based study for literature, but I think most students should be reading at least some literary works as well. Adding a stronger reading component yourself will make the Cinema Studies for Literature Learning Curriculum more challenging, but then it might defeat the purpose of the course—to teach literary skills to students who are unlikely or unable to do much reading. On the other hand, using these studies as supplements should work alongside almost any book-based course for a refreshing change of pace, even for advanced students.