Novel and Film in English Language Teaching

Ning Ding (Trista)


Using literature in English language teaching has aroused a lot of attention recently. In this paper, the ‘literature’ will only focus on the novel and film forms based on the novel ‘the little prince’ released in 2015 and the 2015 film version. The paper will be illustrated from three aspects, which are the main differences between novels and films, the different experiences of seeing films and reading novels and the constructive uses for using film clips(videos) in literature teaching. The main reason for this decision is because of the argument pointed out by Montgomery (1992) that the visual form of film and the prose form of the novel are two mainstreams for people to experience fiction in the twentieth century.

Key words: film, novel, English language teaching


According to Collie and Slater (2011), there is a question attracting people’s attention recently, which is given that there is no compulsory examination requirement for students.  Is it really necessary for a language teacher to use literature in the foreign language classroom teaching? Although there is one argument that the language appeared in literature is far away from what students frequently use in daily life, abandoning literature off syllabus thoroughly still causes a certain amount of unease (ibid). It cannot be denied that literature can help students get a sense of achievement, motivate their learning attitudes, enrich teachers’ teaching materials and improve students’ language proficiency if language teacher can choose suitable literature materials (Lazar, 2012. According to Lazar (2012), literature means that using bountiful and multi-layered language to illustrate meanings, including the fictional ones such as novels, short stories, plays, poems and films. In this article, it will only focus on the novel and film forms based on the novel ‘the little prince’ released in 2015 and the 2015 film version. There are two reasons to make this choice. The first one is based on the argument pointed out by Montgomery (1992) that, the visual form of film and the prose form of the novel are the two mainstreams for people to experience fiction in the twentieth century. The second reason is that, using video in language classroom has gained a large amount of support from different experts such as Bao (2008), Stempleski and Tomalin (1997), Wilson (2000), etc, especially that film clip as a video material has been paid a lot of attention. In the following part of the article, it will include three main parts, including the main differences between films and novels, the different experiences of seeing films and reading novels and the constructive uses for using film clips(videos) in literature teaching.

1. Main Differences between films and novels

1.1 Adaption

This part will illustrate the adaptation from the perspective of fidelity, including the arguments for fidelity and the related reasons. Given that films and novels are two different production forms based on the same storytelling function, to some degree they are similar to each other (Giddings, Selby and Wensley, 2002). For example, novel succeeds the drama while film share the same fundamental rules of narrative prose and copy stage drama (ibid). The feature gives chance for people to adapt the novel to the film, but due to the reasons like time, cost and targeted audience, it is unavoidable that the film will sacrifice a lot of plots (Luhr and Lehman, 2002) or add new plots based on the same story (Sherman, 2010). The first scarification is about the deletion of the plots. According to Sherman (2010), normally, novels will include more detailed information such as basic background information about the main characters, the relationships between each other and even some explanations and subtle interpretations. However, in the film, when a three-hundred-page novel is adapted into a two-hour movie, this background or detailed information will be omitted (Giddings, Selby and Wensley, 2002). Also, besides deleting the whole plot in the novel, the film such as the little prince mentioned in the article adds some new characters or rewrites the story line in the production of the film (Sherman, 2010), which aims to give the audience a feeling of freshness. Specifically, the chosen book and movie ‘the little prince’, there are only two main characters in the novel, which is the pilot and the little child—-the little prince while in the film version, the director added two more characters: the girl and her mother. Although according to the interview with Elizabeth Blair (2016), the director said that the aim of adding a nine-year-old girl is to expand the plots and make a larger story based on the attractive plots in the book, this kind of adaptation still causes the comment about the fidelity. According to Morris Beja (1979), a good adaptation should preserve the integrity of the novel or the original work, but this approach only focuses on the perspective of the events or plots of the novel rather than the artistic integrity. Thus, a lot of critics argue that it is impossible to achieve the integrity. For example, (McFarlane 1984) points out that it is an illusion that there will be no changes of the recreation between the film and the book. In addition, a real successful adaptation should not be either the exact repetition of the book or a total replacement of the original text. The adaptation should become the work of art to aim to let the audience or readers to re-experience the work in a different medium (Briand et al., 1972).

The main reason related to the impossibility of the exact fidelity mentioned above is illustrated by Stam (2000) that fidelity ignores the cost and the real process of making films. Due to the limitation of time and the relationship between the high production cost and the consumption, the filmmaker is likely to make the control of the process of the adaption (Bluestone, 2003). Actually, films are a kind of industrial production, which means that it is a profit-driven industry (Briand et al., 1972). A large amount of work and efforts did by different people of various capabilities, even the expensive equipment and the latest technology consist of the filmmaking process, thus it is a relatively collaborative and highly-cost work in filming (Montgomery, 2013). Therefore, it is reasonable that the filmmaker expects the significant consumption of the film, which prompts them to put the consumption into the priority rather than the fidelity when recreating the work in order to meet the requirements of the relatively mass audience compared to the novelists’ targeted readers (Bluestone, 2003). Nevertheless, the novel is a kind of individual and author’s work (Stam, 2000), because each word on each page personally depends on the author himself/herself (Montgomery, 2013).

1.2 Verbal sign and visual image

Another featured difference between the film and the novel is there sign system, which means that ‘As mediums of representation, the film is made of icons while prose is made of signs,” (Montgomery, 1992, p. 193). It illustrates the point that words on the page are quite different from the images shown on the screen (Giddings, Selby and Wensley, 2002). Specifically, the way words and images deliver information varies. According to Bao (2008), the images in the film use a much straighter and instant way to convey information compared to the implicit way words have. Wagner (1975) added that the indirect way normally consists of the metaphor or the written image in the book instead of throwing a picture on the screen. However, Montgomery (2013) argues that although the visual images shown in the film seem to be more direct and give less chance for the audience to interpret themselves, the linguistic signs on the printed page also has its weakness which is called arbitrary. More specifically, it is not necessarily for the author to illustrate the relationship between the written sign (letters) and the entities signified by it (ibid). Montgomery (2013) used a vivid example to support his point of view. The example is that when readers see the word pig on the page, image of a four-legged creature comes to their mind without any specific reason about why the three letters P-I-G should be connected with the creature and their cognition is depended on their convention. By contrast, in the film, the images that are signified closely associated with the icon or what is called signifying material (ibid). In addition, Woolf (cited in Giddings, Selby and Wensley, 2002) claim that film can also achieve the metaphor implications which are always shown in the written form by connecting two disparate images to imply meaning and connections. Additionally, Bluestone (2003) also mentioned the supportive reason that both the perception of exact visual image and the conception of the mental image are from the same root, but in two different mediums.

1.3 Narration

The word narration means that it is a type of text organization and it can be actualized in written way like novels or stories as well as in spoken ways mixed with the actions or movements such as films and plays (Chatman, 1980). The main and basic distinction of the narration between the two media lies in the way they tell the story and actually, it is still related to the point of the visual image and verbal sign. Normally film shows story while novel tells story.  One point which cannot be neglected is that, a film can be also seemed as a narrative of telling a tale but it does not have an exact teller (Montgomery, 2013). The film narrative is usually dominated by a bountiful of visual details which is called visual ‘over-specification’ by aestheticians while novel has only words to play with (Chatman, 1980). However, film and novel narration still have similarities according to Montgomery (2013). Based on the theory that the film narration means telling the story without a teller, Montgomery (2013) claimed further that the voice-over narration can be adopted in the soundtrack of the film. Thus, in spite of the iconicity of the film narration, its images can be ‘signs’ as well under specific circumstances like the novel narration (ibid).

The second perspective extended by the narration is the time. Here the time means the ‘discourse time which is different from the normal ‘story-time’ (Chatman, 1980). The story-time is the time sequence in reality such as the time line from birth to death, while the discourse time order can be changed by starting with a person’s death and adding the flashback or flashforward (ibid). Thus, no matter which medium it is, both films and novels have these two independent time orders which are the basis for narrative.

 2. Different experience of seeing film and reading novels

The discussion in this part is based on the book and film version of ‘the little prince’. Firstly, the main difference of the experience is based on the main distinctive feature: image and sign. Actually, one point of the book version is that, it has some pictures in it so it is not the same as the normal book version. Stam (2000) pointed out that the film with a specific actor or actress and the fixed images will eliminate the imagination of the audience. However, the book only describes the main features of an object, which can give readers enough space to interpret the detailed information themselves on the foundation of the readers’ past life experiences, personal values or thoughts. However, Montgomery (2013) contradicts that semi-darkness environment in the cinema accompanied by the high-quality sound similar to the situation where people are dreaming. Furthermore, he illustrates that this kind of environment makes it easier for the audience to get involved in the plots of the film, even the same identification with particular aspects (ibid). Due to the fact that both book and film version of ‘the little prince’ has pictures, the experience is a bit similar, but the film version add two characters, thus it still gives me the chance to interpret the implications.

Secondly, another different point of the experience is the time consumption. It is significant to note that several-hundred pages of novel will take several hours for a reader to read or may take longer which depends on the readers’ pace (Giddings, Selby and Wensley, 2002). The good thing is that, the reader can take the whole control of the process, which means that he/she can pause or go back or reflect on the plots at any time (ibid). The book version of ‘the little prince’ has 99 pages and it will probably take the reader ten days finishing reading. During the reading process, if the reader forgets the relationship between the creatures and the little prince or he/she wants to do some reflections on the prince’s words, he/she can freely go back or read the chapter again. However, if you sit in the cinema to watch a film, it is impossible for you to control the rate of viewing and neither interruption nor review (Montgomery, 2013). In addition, the plots move in a continuous process and sometimes very fast (Chatman, 1980). However, with the development of technology and digital recording, tools such as the internet, DVD can allow the audience to replay it with their own pace (Montgomery, 2013). When the reader watches the movie version, he/she may choose to download it, which makes it convenient for him/her to watch at any time at my leisure or pause and go back when forgetting the crucial plots.

3. Constructive uses of video (film) in ELT classroom

According to Sherman (2010), better way for English language learners to acquire language is to live in the English-speaking countries, but both Collie, Slater (2011) and Sherman (2010) mention that it is not really possible for every language learner to get the chance to set foot in the country or place where most inhabitants speak the target language. Hence, Stempleski and Tomalin (1990) claim that using video in classroom can help learners learn more about cultural things such as social values, festivals, the minutiae of real life situation through the customs, gestures, body language, dressing styles and even the table manners (cited in Bao, 2008). The passage below will illustrate one specific activity based on the novel and film ‘the little prince’ and give related reasons.

Firstly, the reason to choose ‘the little prince’ is mainly because when I read the book, the prince’s innocence, the adults’ world’s complicacy and the fox’s words give people much enlightenments. Also, Sherman (2010) points out that video or film material teachers choose for students should first of all inspire teachers themselves Another reason is that, both book version and the film contain images which will improve learners’ intellectual skills and help them gain a sense of achievement (Montgomery, 2013). The comprehension is crucial for the English language learners because the appropriate video material should take learners’ language level into consideration otherwise the video use will be meaningless (Stempleski and Tomalin, 1997). The aspect cannot be neglected because Omaggio (1979) once argued that one of the weakness in using video in the classroom is that the long-term effects cannot be observed. However, according to the experiment done by Balatova (1994), the outcomes show that if utterances in the video are relatively short and easily facilitated by actions and body languages, students will concentrate on the video. Recently, a large-scale experiment was done by Wilson (2000), it also proves that students prefer using videos in the language classroom. When it comes to the film, normally the entertainment films are more popular than the linguistic films or documentaries.

Then, the paragraph will talk about one specific activity based on the book and the film version ‘the little prince’. The activity will focus on one part in the two versions that is the conversation between the fox and the prince. As the little prince always shows his affection to the rose, the fox told him the conception of the tame and said one sentence that is widely quoted by people, which is ‘you can only truly see with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye (Saint-Exupéry and Woods, p 71).’ Thus, based on the scene, students can work in groups to discuss or share their feelings about the fox’s words. Actually, there are two reasons here to choose group work as the main approach. The first one is that group work can improve learners’ confidence to express their opinions in a foreign language. The second one is that group work can cut down the uncertainty and difficulties presented in the literary text itself (Collie and Slater, 2011). The secondly, to some extent, a reflective practice t can stimulate students’ opinions which is helpful to cultivate their critical thinking skills.  Critical thinking is an essential skill for students especially teachers who choose to use literature in language teaching classroom. Then, the teacher is likely to let students compare the language in the literary texts with daily language uses. As Lazer (2012) mentions, some of the literary texts are based on the specific historical background and represent the society at that time, so it is a danger for students if they just believe the fallacy and reflect on the recent society. In addition, language itself is sometimes far away from the daily uses because of the written time and age. Thus, if students cannot acquire critical thinking skills, they are likely to make incorrect/inappropriate use of language.

4. Conclusion

To sum up, the article has talked about the film and novel from three main perspectives, which are the difference between film and novel including three aspects, the different experience of watching movies and reading novels including two aspects and the constructive uses of video materials in the language classroom. In conclusion, due to a lot of limitations, most foreign language learners are not likely to get the opportunities to get themselves involved in the target language environment. Thus, video or film as a kind of authentic material have largely enriched teachers’ teaching resources as well as encouraged learners’ acquisition process by showing the cultural background information, bringing the up-to-date linguistic resources and getting students’ more involvement. However, what teachers should not neglect is that although the advantages of using video far outweigh the disadvantages, teachers still need to pay attention to the video material they choose, otherwise, the positive effects may not show significantly. Therefore, using video in the language classroom and taking the requirements from both teachers and students when choosing materials are two crucial elements in using video (film) material in the language teaching classroom.



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Ning Ding is currently a Master student at the University of Warwick, England, doing English language teaching. She graduated from Shanghai Normal University by obtaining double degrees of management and arts. Specifically, her interest is in using literature and drama in English Language teaching.


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