Issue 29: Film & TV: Gateways to Reading


“I always feel with the Classics people should be made to prove they’ve read the book before they’re allowed to watch the television version.”

Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

In the novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, the titular heroine is obsessed with the Pride and Prejudice TV series starring Colin Firth, for which Bridget is publicly shamed by her snooty colleague and said colleague’s equally snooty friends. Although it’s a comic moment in which the reader is meant to side with Bridget, it does underscore the fact that using film to introduce great literature to readers has long been a matter of contention, and not just with parents and educators. Bridget Jones’s embarrassment at being outed for getting her first dose of a great literary work via a screen speaks to a longstanding prejudice against film itself (and, heaven forbid, TV) as a form of expression that is allegedly inferior to that of the written word. Such an opinion brings to mind the famous Northanger Abbey speech in defense of the novel, which in Austen’s day was also deemed trash rather than art.

And yet, how many of us have quietly, and perhaps secretly, found our next great read, perhaps even our next great area of historical interest, after having first seen a movie such as the Roger Michell-directed Persuasion or a TV series such as The Crown or Victoria? The fact is that high quality film and TV adaptations do sell books, and plenty of them, to viewers who are eager for more, and to those who may finally give a chance to a great author they never thought they would like. Why else would publishers put out huge printings of all those movie- and TV-tie-in editions?

Many innovative educators have caught on to how valuable a tool film and TV is in getting students to read—and dare we say, enjoy—great literature, history, science, and other subjects. And not just reluctant readers; in fact, a site devoted wholly to teaching gifted students has a section on how to introduce literary devices and explore cultural milestones via film, and shows educators how to demonstrate connections between classic film and blockbusters such as Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and George Lucas’s Star Wars: Episode VI.

But shouldn’t educators have their students read the book before they see the movie? Although most avid readers—and surely teachers are part of that number—would prefer to read the source material before seeing the movie or series, it isn’t always practical for every reader. Especially if the source material’s setting, mannerisms, and language seem, at first glance, to be antiquated or otherwise alien. We who adore Jane Austen may be able to speak her language in our sleep, but to the uninitiated ear, a good film adaptation can be an effective ice breaker.

Thus, a little sidebar on Austen adaptations that may work their magic on students, friends, or you:

•          Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet: This adaptation cleverly manages to preserve the author’s signature wit and comic style along with all the drama of lost love, grief, and financial difficulties.

•          Northanger Abbey starring Felicity Jones: Along with its timeless themes of learning discernment, both in friendship and in romance, the casting of a young Felicity Jones would likely appeal to fans of the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which Ms. Jones also stars in. It may even make devotees of Austen approach a re-read of this underrated part of the canon with a new perspective.

•          Emma with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller: A very youth-oriented approach that takes some liberties with period mannerisms and thus may well be more relatable for the typical twenty-first-century student than most historicals are likely to be.

Teaching the Text: Literary summary + analysis + humor - soporifics = Thug Notes.

So how does one go from the relatively easy part—selecting and screening a film or series for students—to the potentially sleep-inducing perils of teaching the text itself? The people behind the educational web series entitled Thug Notes would suggest trying their videos, for starters. Self-styled as “classic literature, original gangster” and hosted by Sparky Sweets, PhD., who is actually actor and comedian Greg Edwards, Thug Notes summarizes and analyzes literature in a clever, humorous, and downright disruptive format.

With a huge YouTube subscriber base and accolades from media and educators alike, Thug Notes is well worth a look. In a typical lesson/episode, Dr. Sweets presides with both pithiness and humor while in full gangster persona, complete with hip-hop language and bleeped-out profanity, and aided by clever animated sequences.  After warming up the viewer with a summary, the host’s analyses go deep, especially for such a short form, bringing out the universal themes and profundities that any teacher would wish their students to take with them after reading the book—and clearly the aim is to get students to want to read the book, and/or to understand what they are reading or have just read.

In its defense of Thug Notes, The New York Times quoted the web series’ host: “Mr. Edwards, speaking in character as Dr. Sweets in an interview with The Tampa Bay Times…, described Thug Notes as ‘my way of trivializing academia’s attempt at making literature exclusionary by showing that even highbrow academic concepts can be communicated in a clear and open fashion.’” Speaking to The Independent, Mr. Edwards also said: “I hope Thug Notes inspires teachers to explore alternative methods to really engage their students. On a larger scale, I also hope that people realise that comedy is a powerful tool for education!”

Those interested in browsing the Thug Notes catalog will find a wide array of episodes analyzing the classics, including such works as Gilgamesh, King Lear, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice. There’s a dedicated Shakespeare section and even a banned books section, which includes The Hobbit, The Crucible, and The Odyssey. There are also a number of contemporary novels covered by Thug Notes, including such titles as The Life of PiReady Player One and The Hunger Games. There are even a few children books, including The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, Horton Hears a Who!, and The Cat in the Hat.

Wondering just how Thug Notes tackles Pride and Prejudice? Look no further than the following episode:

But is all that profanity (albeit bleeped-out) really necessary? asked Jacob Salamon, CEO of Wisecrack, Inc., Thug Notes’s production company, about that very thing. Mr. Salamon said of the series, “It’s edgy, and kids want to watch it. And at the end, the joke is that we’ve just delivered them really great literary information and knowledge.” Mr. Salamon also said, “We do get requests all the time for cleaner versions from teachers. This is something we’re debating internally. One consideration is that we might make educational tools, like a work kit that is specifically made for them.”

In the meantime, with two million subscribers and counting, Thug Notes has struck a chord. But don’t take my word for it; watch some episodes, and see for yourself.


© Laurie Viera Rigler - author of the Jane Austen addict series and other time-bending tales


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