College Try: Timing is Everything
It is natural for college professors to knock movie adaptations of great books, and no wonder: Hollywood's record of dumbing down classic literature, not to mention popular culture's overweening claims on student attention, can make showing a film seem more hindrance than help.
Yet film adaptations have their place. I would argue that right movie, shown at the right time and in the right way, can be richly educational. But let me propose a caveat: Never lead off with the movie.
To the hapless educator trying to interest students in material that is less user-friendly than, say, "Spider Man," it's tempting to use the film version of a book as a sort of canapé to whet student appetite for the main course.
But this doesn't work. To lead off with the film is to invite students to treat it as a substitute for the book. (This is especially true if the film is old. slow-paced, or otherwise lacking in state-of-the-art production values. About technical filmcraft young people are terrible snobs. For them, sitting through an antiquated movie is hard work, almost as hard as turning pages.)
To lead off with the film is also to give it a prior claim to authenticity, and to reduce the book to source material - or worse, corrective. The process of reading and discussion thereby becomes one of finding fault with the movie. This is no fun and often prompts students to say, "We're sure you're right, Professor Scoldtongue. But we liked the movie!"
Thus it follows logically that the right time to show the film is after the book has been thoroughly digested. If the film is halfway competent, it will provide the pleasure of allusion, as students recognize characters, details, and themes.
To students who have difficulty visualizing from the page, the film will also provide the pleasure of illustration (which, contrary to the print-worshiping McLuhanites among us, is a perfectly respectable pleasure that has been around for many centuries).
But most important, showing the film after reading the book puts the burden of correction on the students. And in my experience they take great delight in parading their superior understanding, using the text as the standard by which the film's every deficiency may be rooted out.
This isn't a reason to show lousy adaptations. The more elusive a film's deficiencies, the harder the students must work to root them out. Again, these observations are based on a tiny sample: my own students. But here is my rule of thumb: when good books are followed by good movies, the classroom comes alive.