Monday, January 25, 2021

Analysing Literature Through Films

 Analysing Literature Through Films

Analysing Literature Through Films English and Cultural Studies courses in both the UK and the United States have long shown a willingness to incorporate cinema as part of their teaching syllabuses, not so much because of cinema’s relationship to more traditional forms of artistic expression, such as literature, but because of its status as a discipline worth investigating on its own merits. However, the analysis and utilization of films in the Spanish EFL classroom is still something of a chimera, even at undergraduate level. This chapter is primarily an attempt to analyse the film Possession in order to suggest ways in which cinema can be successfully exploited in an English Philology degree within the framework of Spanish universities, but I hope that its pedagogical applications for any other English degree will also become evident. I am mainly concerned with investigating the didactic possibilities of literary adaptations, understood as the meeting point of literary and filmic forms. Analysing Literature Through Films Such a view, however, is not free from problematic considerations, the first of which emerges from the opposition occasionally yielded by the more conservative sections of some universities’ English departments, which may object to what I consider to be a legitimate treatment of cinematic forms as academic subjects.

Whelehan (19993) explains this opposition in the following terms: Although the study of literary adaptations on film and TV is becoming more common and indeed more ‘acceptable’ as a feature of English and/or Media Studies in higher education, it is still surrounded by knee-jerk prejudice about the skills such study affords, its impact on the value and place of the literary ‘original’ and the kind of critical approach it demands.

A second issue, discussed by scholars such as McFarlane (1996, 2000), Thomas (2000) or Whelehan (1999), is that of the ‘fidelity’ of the filmic version in relation to the initial work. Whether it is the general public commenting on elements that may have been ‘changed’ from the original, or more serious academic evaluations appraising how the book has been translated onto the screen, we all feel entitled to express an opinion in our capacity as spectators. Furthermore, it appears there is a general tendency to question the validity of any transformation, adaptation, change or manipulation the film makers ‘may have taken the liberty’ of applying to the original novel.

For Analysing Literature Through Films , I would like to highlight two main issues from the above quotations. Firstly, discoursal practices are identified as such when the production of a communicative activity through language, whether it is expressed via a written or cinematic medium, is viewed in its specific social context which would comprise the political, economic, personal, ideological, artistic, etc. circumstances surrounding such a communicative activity. Secondly, Stockwell and Fairclough insist on defining ‘discourses’ as ‘constructions’ ‘involving participants’, hence laying emphasis on the composite nature of such a creation as implemented by members of a particular society, in our case writers, readers, directors, spectators, and so on. My defence of cinema as a type of discourse will overcome both the high/low culture dichotomy and the fidelity issue, since it will be possible to look into cinematic adaptations of fiction alongside filmic work not based on literary narratives under the umbrella term Discourse Analysis. Dissecting films into their various components in the manner normally reserved for linguistic/literary studies will consequently be of relevance if cinema is ultimately viewed as part of an interdisciplinary approach which makes use of tools and techniques normally set aside for other genres. This chapter is divided in two sections: the first proposes a brief analysis of the filmic procedures I consider especially significant in the process of meaning creation; the second focuses mainly on the methodological possibilities of such an exercise. The worksheet in the appendix is designed to suit the particular objectives of this lesson but it can similarly be adapted to fit different aims, students’ diverse English proficiency levels, etc. I will be referring to the various sections of the sample worksheet in the analysis that follows.


Looking at Possession

Selecting this film responds to a wish to present undergraduates with a recent filmic adaptation of a late-twentieth-century novel. Possession has been scripted from the novel of the same name by the English author A.S. Byatt, published in 1990. It can be primarily labelled as a literary film, more specifically an adaptation, since the general theme, topic, main characters, settings and plot have been respected. Section 1 of the sample worksheet, therefore, sets off by asking students to provide their own definition of what constitutes a literary adaptation, and to support such claims with examples from the novel and film. Analysing Literature Through Films, I believe section 2 would be the one which students doing English degrees would, more than likely, be less familiar with, since technical filmic procedures tend to be ignored when and if films are ever used in the classroom. Omitting such a description would result in an incomplete appraisal of cinema’s potential at the discourse level. Camera movement, for instance, can be used to indicate a whole array of meanings. Sometimes camera angles are used to introduce a flashback in time, as in the scene where Roland Michell (the main male character of the modern half of the story) is working at the museum and is seen sitting on a swivel chair, rolling up and down the room whilst looking up some information. The significant angle I am referring to shows Roland literally sliding backwards in space as his chair rolls down towards the back of the room, and, metaphorically, also in time since such a camera movement leads on to the scene of Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte’s first meeting (the two protagonists of the Victorian half of both novel and film). Another instance of camera work is exemplified by the various cases of ‘transition’ or the sliding of the camera between the plots. Both stories, which set off as a rendition of four separate lives, become more and more entangled with one another as the film evolves. For instance, the intricacy of their connection is graphically marked by the way the camera slides from Maud Bayley (the female protagonist of the modern period) to Christabel LaMotte within the same shot and background in order to emphasize the strong connections linking the present and the past. Both women are standing facing the Thomason Foss in Yorkshire, looking out straight at the audience.

The director manages to convey an eerie effect of closeness between both characters when the camera moves slightly to the left of Maud Bayley and shows someone who stood at the same spot one hundred years before, Christabel LaMotte. Analysing Literature Through Films, Commenting on the relevant part played by the techniques known as flashback and flash-forward would virtually imply a description of the entire film since the story evolves around such movements in time. Every other technical procedure discussed so far is, in fact, aimed at a portrayal of shifts backward and forward in time and space, requiring work both from the director’s perspective to achieve a convincing leap on every occasion, and from the point of view of the audience who have to change their analytical schemas to adapt to the new situation. Analysing Literature Through Films, The first temporal shift I would like to discuss stands out since it constitutes the opening shot of the film. Only those spectators who have previously read the novel will be able to locate this scene temporally as belonging to the Victorian half of the narrative. On the other hand, those spectators not familiar with the book will initially have no reason to question the Victorian framing of this introductory scene as that of the whole film.

Randolph Henry Ash is pictured walking in the countryside while he is heard reading what apparently is a poem of his. The scene dissolves to reveal a different setting, namely an auction being held at Sotheby’s where presumably the poem Ash has just read is being sold. This transition is also helped by superimposing the auctioneer’s voice on to Ash’s. The story unfolds to introduce the main characters of the modern period, so, for a while at least, we can assume that the first scene is a flashback in relation to Roland Michell and Maud Bayley’s narrative. This apparent focus on modern times, however, does not last very long, as Ash and Lamotte’s story swiftly returns to the screen. Such a presentation of events forces us to reevaluate what originally have been considered flashbacks, and to reformulate them as parallelisms, whereby both life accounts are being unveiled to the spectators as if they were occurring alongside each other, although at two different stages in time. Possession, therefore, can be defined as a succession of events physically separated in time and space but simultaneously affecting two storylines. For instance, when the correspondence between LaMotte and Ash is finally discovered, the film flows in and out of each story so that the words written by the Victorian poet are read by Michell as if they were his own, as happens with LaMotte and Maud. Analysing Literature Through Films, Similarly, the episode during which, in Whitby, Ash buys Lamotte the famous brooch later inherited by Maud, is presented next to Roland and Maud making enquiries in what appears to be the same jewellery shop. Using parallelisms, therefore, can be highlighted as the main technical strategy the director takes advantage of to disclose the two stories to his audience. I would argue against the use of the terms flashback and flash-forward because selecting the former or the latter would seem to imply choosing one story line as taking precedence over the other when, in fact, it is the joined presentation of them both that primarily characterizes this film.

Defining Possession as composed of a series of parallel structures similarly affects the initial high-culture/low-culture dichotomy discussed at the beginning of this chapter, whereby written forms seem to be allocated an apparently superior cultural value that is absent from the cinematic version. The label ‘literary adaptation’, thus, may work under the presumption of an existing, and, invariably, better original – that is to say, it could work under the impression of one genre being prioritized over the other. I would like to argue that studying literature and cinema as discourse can overcome the need for such a prioritization, since good cinematic versions can not only replicate but also enhance and enrich the intrinsic worth exhibited in the novel. Analysing Literature Through Films, Possession, the film, has benefited from technical procedures in so far as instances of transition, for instance, allow a clearer display of parallelisms than is possible in the novel where, due to the obvious linear nature of the written medium, the portrayal of the two storylines is necessarily presented via flashbacks. Rather than spoiling or doing any disservice to the novel, I consider that the director’s version greatly emphasizes this particular aspect of the book. Section 3 of the worksheet aims to make students aware of the possibilities that the analytical tools normally employed to study other genres can have for the description of cinema. For instance, a semiotic perspective using Peirce’s theory of the sign (Fiska, 1982: 45) can prove very useful, but due to restrictions of space I will not develop this aspect here. However, the metaphorical use of language, be it in a verbal, pictorial or technical form is worth considering. Metaphor use for A.S. Byatt is, in fact, something of a hallmark in her career, something which Wallhead (1999) summarizes in the following way :

Invited to lecture at the University of Granada in 1988, Antonia Byatt talked about how she viewed the craft of the novelist and how she went about her work. She revealed that three strategies or factors were important to her: a meticulous recording of almost every experience, a curiosity about most things and above all, metaphor. She acknowledged that she felt the indispensability of metaphor in the novel – not only embellishing metaphors in the detailed fabric of the text, but large, structuring metaphors to give both cohesion and coherence, and also vividness to the main themes.

This writer’s concern with exploiting metaphorical language is not only respected but also translated successfully into cinematic discourse. Plenty of examples reinforce this urge in the film, the title itself being an example. Synonyms normally associated with the word ‘possession’ include terms such as ‘control’, ‘custody’, ‘ownership’, ‘occupancy’. Analysing Literature Through Films, If we take these as conveying the main sense, we could then explain the choice of such a title by reference to the ownership of the letters that trigger the story. The word ‘possession’ can also be used to indicate ‘being under the control of a spirit or some kind of ghost’.

According to this second meaning, the audience is likely to be questioning by what or whom the characters are possessed, as well as being tempted to favour a possible interpretation whereby the modern couple are being haunted by the Victorian relations. Instead, both Byatt and Neil Labute, the director, take advantage of the metaphorical, semantic duality of the term. This is much more the case in the movie, for which the title is reminiscent of the long cinematic tradition of horror films dealing with paranormal phenomena, evil presences and haunting scenarios. The way in which this possible metaphorical interpretation ends up dissolving, however, needs to be pointed out, for any strange connotations of the term vanish in favour of the type of ‘romantic possession’ the characters seem to be experimenting. Analysing Literature Through Films, Further examples of metaphorical instances affect not only the use of words, but also scene-selection and camera angles. In this respect, Roland Michell’s eagerness to search for a truth that is based on veritable historical facts brings him to a literal and metaphorical immersion in words. Being a biographer, Roland leads a life in which words are not mere marks on a page, but represent a link to the world outside, with clear consequential connections to reality itself. This metafictional aspect of the film will be developed in more detail below, but suffice it to say here that, in the film, the words that shape reality seem to be endowed with a role other than the purely linguistic. For instance, Labute succeeds in graphically representing Michell’s special relationship to language in the scene where he is working in the library, sitting on the floor, and surrounded by rows and rows of bookshelves. Michell’s position on the floor makes his presence appear as a mere accident amongst this ocean of words. His position of immersion is emphasized by the gliding movement of the camera from left to right; there is only a brief pause on the character after which the camera continues its journey along the volumes, making Michell appear to be metaphorically ‘swimming in words’.

Metafictional discourses have been identified in the last two decades of the twentieth century, especially within post-modern modalities of writing. In Metafiction (1984), Waugh establishes the varied ways in which authors achieve the aim of questioning or, at least, bringing to the fore, the fictionality of the words on the page and their links to the real world. A direct consequence of such a quest is the impossibility of accepting the written words simply at face value for they are used as artefacts to examine, discover, discuss and challenge the reality they are produced in.

Possession clearly illustrates the serious consequences that mere signs on a piece of paper, hidden away in a long-forgotten book, can carry. When Randolph Henry Ash’s unsent letters are discovered, they unravel a whole series of events that will eventually change history and the lives of those characters who are directly or indirectly involved in the discovery. Analysing Literature Through Films, Similarly, Christabel Lamotte’s writing fulfils a role other than the merely artistic. Whereas literary language is not usually characterized by its educational or informative function but rather by its emotive or aesthetic one, Byatt makes use of any semantic content in words to foreground their consequentiality. Such is the case, for instance, when Maud Bayley’s expertise on Lamotte’s poetry allows her to remember some lines from one of her poems: ‘Dolly keeps a secret safer than a friend’. These words, initially valued because of their literary worth, do, in fact, provide enough clues for Ash’s and LaMotte’s letters to be discovered, quite literally under some dolls. In the film, the distinction between fiction and reality ends up becoming very blurred. Another instance of how the quest for words affects the characters in the story can be seen in Maud and Roland’s attitude towards those documents they so badly want to get their hands on.

Such are the repercussions those papers seem to have and such is the need to learn what they are, that both scholars turn into thieves. Analysing Literature Through Films, First of all, Michell steals the two pages he finds in a book of Ash’s; secondly, he uses his privileged access to all the original journals, letters, and other documents in the British Museum to take another couple of pages from Ellen Ash’s diary; finally, even Maud Bayley who, up to this point, has reprimanded Michell for obtaining information in such an illicit way, joins in the withdrawal of an unsent package from the French secretary’s office. Behavioural patterns, as well as moral standards, seem to be affected by the need to read certain words. The ultimate, dreadful consequence of these written items is embodied in the suicide of Blanche Glover (Christabel Lamotte’s companion and suspected lover) who, from the start, appears to be the one who really comes to terms with Rocio Montoro the repercussions that the letters exchanged between Ash and LaMotte will have. Finally, the artificiality of fiction and its nature as a construct is clearly expressed through certain words that Labute, subtly but efficiently, inserts. While in Whitby, Roland discusses with Maud the possible origin of the brooch, explanation that Maud deems rather unfeasible.

As a response, Maud utters the following words: ‘Now you seem to be writing fiction’. In their search for the truth, they seem to have lost all perspective concerning what is real and what is not. For the spectators and readers, the effects are even more significant as the notions of fictionality and reality become more and more relative. By this moment in the film we are in danger of losing track of the fact that, first of all, the Victorian poets did not really exist, hence the quest has no consequential effects on the truth. Secondly, this is an adaptation of a novel, mainly based on fictional facts too. For a moment, though, Maud’s words are capable of alerting the reader to this conflict, therefore bringing to the fore the metafictional nature of this work.


Methodological application

Here I present some practical applications for the classroom, the first of which is my recommendation to watch Possession in full. Depending on the level of the group (EFL, ESL, etc.), the tutor can decide whether to maintain the subtitles or not. I propose that Possession be used in an English Philology degree programme in which Literary Criticism, Critical Theory or Linguistic approaches all play a relevant part. To allow for enough in-depth discussion, this exercise should be divided in two sessions of an hour each, plus the duration of the film. Students can work in groups of four or five; each member in the group is allocated one section before the final gathering of ideas. Analysing Literature Through Films , The tutor should encourage discussion amongst students by supervising their work with constant ‘visits’ to the various groups while the discussion is going on in the classroom. I would like to emphasize that tutors should always encourage their students to develop a critical stance for the analysis of literature, film, or any other discipline for that matter. This is exemplified in section 5 of the attached worksheet. Students should also be urged to justify their points of view at all times, both with elements from the genre they are analysing at the time, or with perspectives from the theoretical model being used. Cinema viewing is of special relevance for this task since people tend to be more willing to discuss cinematic discourses in which the ludic as well as the didactic and informative elements are combined. To conclude, defining cinema as affected by the way members of a society determine its production justifies my initial defence of film-watching as essentially a legitimate branch of discourse studies for which social, ideological, political, historical or educational factors are as determinant as they would be for literature itself.


Analysing literature through films

1. Literary adaptation – Provide a definition for what you consider to be a ‘literary adaptation’ – Try to spot elements that differ from the novel. Do you consider that those changes ‘work’ for the film? Why do you think some aspects may need changing?

2. Relevant technical film procedures – Movements of camera: Travelling, camera angles and point of view. – Colour and lighting – Soundtrack and special sound effects – Flashbacks, flash-forward, ellipsis, etc

3. Semiotic and semantic analysis – Use of signs: Icons, indexes and symbols – Metaphorical use of image, scenes, words, etc.

4. Metafictional analysis – Read the following quotation by Patricia Waugh: The concept of reality as a fiction has been theoretically formulated within many disciplines and from many political and philosophical positions. Analysing Literature Through Films, One of the clearest sociological expositions is in Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s book, The Social Construction of Reality (1971). They set out to show that ‘reality’ is not something that is simply given. ‘Reality’ is manufactured. It is produced by the interrelationship of apparently ‘objective facticities’ in the world with social convention and personal or interpersonal vision. These social forms operate within particular historical structures of power and frameworks of knowledge. Continual shifts in the structures of knowledge and power produce continual resyntheses of the reality model. Contemporary reality, in particular, is continually being reappraised and resynthesized. It is no longer experienced as an ordered and fixed hierarchy, but as a web of interrelating, multiple realities.

5. Further questions for discussion – The film ends up producing a ‘reality’ which greatly differs from the one originally accepted as the true one: Ash was considered to have written his love poetry with his wife in mind; the discovered letters tell us otherwise, though. How do we define ‘reality’ then? Is Ash the devoted husband or is he the lying lover? Or is he both? – If we decide on one ‘reality’ (husband or lover) as true, does that mean the other one is ‘fictional’? After all, his relationship to Christabel LaMotte is mainly (apart from four weeks in Yorkshire) a ‘writing/written relationship’ during all their lives. – What about Ellen Ash’s perspective? Do you think she chooses to ignore her husband’s relationship to Christabel LaMotte? Blanche does try to show Ellen proof (once again, words on the page) that such an affair does exist but the words (reality?) are thrown out, literally, on the street, and metaphorically, out of her life.

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