Differences Between Novels and Films – Ways to use Films and Videos in Literature Teaching

Sofia Mitri


A lot of novels have been adapted into films. Nevertheless, each medium uses different ways in order to tell similar stories. The advancement of technology impacts on foreign language teaching and learning, as educators are provided with various ways to interact with literature. That is to say, printed texts are not deemed the only way to teach literature today. This paper lays emphasis on the differences between the ways ilms and novels can tell stories as well as the different experiences between seeing films and reading books. It mainly focuses on differences with regards to their nature, ways of narration and the effects they bring about. Despite the distinct characteristics of each medium, the process of reading and viewing seems to engage learners for multiple reasons. In the third section of the paper, some ideas for constructive uses for films and videos in literature teaching will be suggested.

Keywords: novels, films, tell stories, different experiences, English language teaching



The ever-changing role of literature in the context of foreign language teaching throughout the 20th century is explicitly illustrated in Kramsch and Kramsch (2000). They state that after its appearance in various “avatars”, it has been eventually used for providing “an authentic experience of the target culture” (Kramsch & Kramsch, 2000, p. 553, 569). In addition to cultural and language enrichment, literature exposes students to unexpected language uses, motivating and involving them personally. The variety of situations and predicaments presented can stimulate strong “emotional responses”, offering at the same time the opportunity to learners to explore their own feelings (Moody, 1971, p. 11). According to Lazar (1993) the way learners assign meaning to what they read is closely related to a number of factors, varying from their psychology to the cultural, social and political environment they live in. The teacher, therefore, before introducing literature, should be aware of its “conceptual and linguistic ease or difficulty”, as well as its relevance to the types of students in the class (Carter & Long, as cited in Aebersold & Field, 1997, p. 164). More than ever before today’s teachers are taking advantage of the new technologies, which can provide learners with various ways of experiencing literature. Apart from the “prose form of the novel”, literature could also be taught through the “visual form” of films (Montgomery, 2007, p. 295). However, the two media – the novel and its screen adaptation – convey the same story in different ways. It would be interesting, therefore, to discuss in this paper the differences between these two modes of representation, as well as some constructive uses for films and videos in language teaching of literature.

Differences between the way novels and films tell stories

1.     Visual image vs verbal sign

The substantive difference between films and novels lies in the distinctive characteristics of these two media, that is, the use of visual image and verbal sign. The philosopher Charles Pierce in order to determine the relationship between two things when one thing can represent another, employs the terms “sign” and “icon” (Montgomery, 1992, p. 193). According to Montgomery (2007, p. 298), the novel as a medium of representation, depends upon “linguistic signs” which tend to have an arbitrary relationship with the things designated by them. For example, the letters that compose the word C-O-W in a text have no apparent relationship with the word signified by them. In the case of film, by contrast, an image can much more directly represent a real object (Monaco, 1981). Therefore, the film image is primarily “iconic”, while ords in prose are “symbolic”; to put it differently, “the film image implies a close relationship between signifier and signified, compared to the arbitrary relationship of verbal language” (Giddings, 1990, p. 6). As a consequence, while the viewer of a film is provided with a close approximation of reality, the reader of a text invents the image suggested by the written description (Monaco, 1981).


2.     Narration

Although both novels and films tell stories, the medium through which the narration is realised differs considerably. Chatman (1978, p. 19) suggests two fundamental components of any narrative; the ‘story’ which is “the what in a narrative that is depicted” and the ‘discourse’ or ‘plot’ which is the “how”. To put it differently, the former refers to “the events of the narrative, and the actions and responses of characters”, while the latter refers to “the ways in which the story is presented to us in terms of its order, emphases and logic” (Speidel, 2012, p. 82). Nevertheless, the narration in films requires another one essential component, the “style”, which is the film’s systematic use of cinematic devices (Bordwell, 1985, p. 50). In films, therefore, the narration is accomplished through the interaction of ‘syuzhet’ – plot – with style “in the course of cueing and channelling the spectator’s construction of the fabula”, that is, the story (Bordwell, 1985, p. 53).

Novels are narrated either by a “first-person narrator”, that is a person inside a story, or an “omniscient narrator” who is not part of the story (Monaco, 1981, p. 172). Whatever the readers encounter in a text is filtered through the novelist’s point of view which is consequently expected to impact on the way the story is perceived. It seems, therefore, that in novels the relationship is between the “tale” and the “teller”, as opposed to the one between the “tale” and the “image” in films (Monaco, 1981, p. 29). In other words, according to Montgomery (2007, p. 298), the narrative film can be considered as “a story without the level of narration”, since the narrator is so weak that they seem to disappear (WGBH Education Foundation, 2011). Sometimes the narrator’s point of view is maintained through the use of a voice-over that can communicate a character’s inner thoughts and feelings.

In addition to linguistic communication through dialogue or voice-over, films seem to release the narrative through the use of their own distinctive tools and structures. According to Bluestone, they provide “endless spatial variations, photographic images of physical reality, and the principles of montage” and mise-en-scene (as cited in Giddings, 1990, p. 20). Montage is considered as the modification of time, whereas mise-en-scene is the modification of space (Monaco, 1981). The latter refers to everything that takes place in front of the camera while filming, including “setting, props, costume and make-up, lighting, performance, […] cinematography and special effects” (Speidel, 2012, p. 88). These elements can greatly drive the narrative forward. Lastly, another notable way to develop a narrative in films is through flashbacks – which show “earlier events” – and flashforwards – which show “events that happen in the future” – (Phillips, 2005, p. 270). On the other hand, a novel can transport readers back and forward in time through a new chapter (WGBH Education Foundation, 2011).

It is, therefore, essential to learn how to analyse the different techniques which realise cinematic narration in order to be able to ‘read’ a film. In this sense, Monaco (1981, p.  121) employs the metaphor of language to describe a film, arguing that “film is very much like language”. Only experienced viewers are able to analyse what they see and hear in depth bearing in mind some of the film’s “codes” and “conventions” or, in other words, rules (Speidel, 2012, p. 81).


3.     Sound effects

The presence of sound in films is deemed “a distinct advantage” (Monaco, 1981, p. 178) as it has outstanding effects on the “possibilities of cinematic narration” (Speidel, 2012, p. 100). The pervasiveness of sound can intensify a mood, making the viewers feel more emotionally involved. Phillips (2005, p. 70) considers that sound effects have the potential to “create or enhance any situation”. Specifically, hearing a sound without being aware of its source can create a sense of mystery or suspense, boosting the audience’s imagination. At the same time, an unexpected sound can have a humorous effect, enhancing a film’s light moments. Besides, a sound “acts to realise both space and time”, creating a “locale” and so providing viewers with a clear understanding of the events (Monaco, 1981, p. 179). On the other hand, in the case of the novel, readers’ interaction with words is seen as the only medium which enables them to perceive meaning. However, what at first sight seems to be the novel’s weak side can constitute one of its most outstanding advantages, in terms of cultivating readers’ infinite imagination. In other words, without the presence of sound effects, readers are expected to imagine the sounds, voices and music and so become the creators of their own film.


Differences in experience between reading a novel and seeing a film

The film and the book tell things differently and so the experience of the audience seems to differ considerably. The length of time that the audience needs to devote to reading a novel and seeing a film constitutes another difference between the two media. Originally, the novelist is not time constrained, while the filmmaker has to condense the events into two or three hours (WGBH Education Foundation, 2011). Accordingly, readers, unlike viewers, are equipped with a wide range of information and more specific descriptions of characters and settings. Furthermore, reading a novel tends to be “a solitary act”, which provides greater control of the process, as well as “variable levels of attention” (Montgomery, 2007, p. 297). The individual reader is able to pause, skip, reread and reflect upon the story. The viewer, by contrast, is involved in “a collective experience” in which no interruption is permitted (Giddings, 1990, p. 4). This continuous process of viewing leaves no room for review or in general for control by the spectators. It could be inferred, therefore, that being in no position to recap, they receive what they see.

This difference in the ways people experience a novel or a film is directly related to the two different modes of engagement. Interestingly, Hutcheon (2013, p. 22) considers that the “showing mode (a film) immerses us through the perception of the aural and the visual”, whereas “the telling mode (a novel) immerses us through imagination in a fictional world”. Similarly, according to Miller (as cited in Giddings, 1990), visualising something after reading its description constitutes a different experience from seeing a picture of it.

In addition to images, viewers’ experience is determined by the presence of music in films. Since music is not specific, it can deeply depict the general emotional climate. Through music, various feelings like affection, worship or hopelessness are suggested but none of them in particular. Experiencing, therefore, the same music, different listeners can make their own interpretations based upon their specific background and desires. This complex nature of music enables it to speak differently to different listeners, eliciting feelings that “no language would acknowledge or express and […] no situations in life could completely exhaust” (Edman, as cited in Phillips, 2005, p. 178). Even silence in films is sometimes purposely employed either realistically, to illustrate for example the loss of hearing, or symbolically as in cases that death is suggested, intensifying an emotional impact (Phillips, 2005).


Films and videos in language teaching

a)     Reasons for using films and videos in the EFL learning context

The use of video in foreign language teaching made its first appearance at the beginning of the 1980s and since then its place and its practical applications in the language classroom have concerned a constantly increasing numbers of educators. One important reason for making use of multimodal texts, meaning “texts that combine different modalities, that is, words, images, sounds, and/or music” (Gee and Hayes, 2011, p. 111), is that teachers today address “screen-agers” (Rushkoff, as cited in Shaw, 2003), meaning children grown in a context ‘awash’ in digital technologies. These ‘digital natives’ have an inherent interest in films and videos rather than in print books (Shaw, as cited in Muller, 2006).

According to Lonergan (as cited in McGovern, 1983, p. 69), experiencing language in a lively way through the combination of sound and image can “bring an air of reality into classroom”. The realism of films provides students with natural learning situations, contributing to the development of learners’ motivation, which is deemed as the prominent feature of video-based language teaching. Stempleski (1990, p. 10) argues that after learners comprehend “the real thing” in the classroom context, they are likely to be further motivated to deal with authentic materials by themselves.

b)    Some constructive uses for films and videos in literature teaching

Videos or films should not be seen as an end in themselves. Specifically, Willis (as cited in McGovern, 1983, p. 41) argues that viewing a film can develop learners “receptive skills” and only their active participation before, while, or after watching can equip them with “productive skills”.

  •      Comparing novel to film

An engaging as well as useful activity in terms of language activation would be the comparison of “two parallel versions of the same story” (Sherman, 2003, p. 27). Since it is not always possible to have students read the entire story either because of its wide-ranging vocabulary or because of time limitations, the teacher can choose single scenes of the novel and help students understand it before watching the corresponding parts of the film. These parallel scenes offer possibilities for observing potential differences and the reasons behind them. The changes made by the director favour “close-focus listening comprehension and reading activities” (Sherman, 2003, p. 28). That is to say, the students have to read and watch the scenes several times, shedding light on them in order to be able to discuss the current differences. An alternative way of comparing parts of the two media could be if a group of students dealt with the reading of the novel, while another group watched its screen adaptation (Willis, as cited in McGovern, 1983). Conversation between the two groups would ensue with the purpose of establishing differences.

  • Role-play

Foreign language learners are more likely to make a genuine effort to use the target language to communicate if they are provided with a stimulus or a purpose to do so. Video’s vivid depiction of locales and characters can be employed to “set the scene for roleplay” (Allan, 1985, p. 49). This activity is possible to be used in various ways during a video-based lesson. Originally, the teacher can introduce role-play after the first silent viewing of a scene. Watching without listening prompts students to form hypotheses about the events of the story so that they can improvise a conversation. Moreover, Allan (1985, p. 57) suggests role-play as “a final recap of the video sequence”. Students usually feel motivated to take roles of familiar characters, practising in this way communication skills in different social contexts (Larsen-Freeman, 2000). Finally, according to Sherman (2003), a teacher can pause the film at a suitable point, expecting learners to come up with their own ending or enlighten the character who is in need of their advice.

Role-play can also be developed as ‘hot-seating’ or in other words questioning in role. In this activity, one or more students assume roles and after sitting in a specific seat – the “hot seat” – they are questioned by the rest of the students (Winston, 2004, p. 141). This favours a better understanding of characters, behaviours, feelings, thoughts and background (Sherman, 2003).

  • ‘Fly on the wall’

Post-viewing activities permit students to check their understanding of the film as well as practise in written form the acquired language. An interesting activity, suggested by Sherman (2003, p. 170) is the so-called ‘Fly on the wall’ in which pupils are expected to reconstruct a significant scene without prompts, as if they were “flies on the wall” or invisible observers. After writing their accounts, they review the film sequence, checking their rendition. This activity enables learners to develop their descriptive skills by making characters’ portraits in terms of personality, preferences, literacy and so on.



Taking all this into account, it seems that although novels and films tell stories in different ways, the distinct characteristics of each medium make reading and viewing respectively an engaging process. It is of paramount importance to expose second language learners to the living language either through books or videos, since it is a factor usually missing in textbook-based teaching. Introducing authentic language particularly by means of film can be challenging enough for teachers, but at the same time extremely beneficial for students, as they are provided with a wealth of linguistic and paralinguistic aspects of communication. Holec (as cited in McGovern, 1983, p. 30) considers that it is not only the visual element of films, but “the network of interactions between the verbal and non-verbal components” that contributes to comprehension.



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 Sofia Mitri entered the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2011. She graduated from the Faculty of English Language and Literature by obtaining her BA degree with high merit and since then she has worked teaching English as a Foreign Language to Greek young foreign language learners. She is currently studying as a postgraduate ELT student in the University of Warwick. Specifically, she specializes in teaching English as a target language by means of drama.


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