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Teaching the Film as Literature

Michael Vetrie


Films that Engage Students

Scenes to be used as Journal Starters

Or Lead-ins to Essay or Literacy Concepts


After leading my students through the writing and discussion prompts of The Godfather that I have outlined above, I like to pause and take time to try to have my student fully comprehend the complexities of the metaphor. Whenever I can, I try to utilize the film, to do so.

First of all, what is a metaphor? Rather than define it for my students, why not let a great poet define metaphor while he is teaching a simple postman to understand the concept since any film you show has a built-in, high-interest appeal?

A rich and romantic comedy, Il Postino/The Postman takes place in Italy during the time Pablo Neruda was in exile from his homeland. A simple man (or so he appears at first), Mario the postman is in love with the most beautiful woman in town. He has a job delivering mail to only one customer, Neruda. As the two men grow close, the poet inspires Mario to find the right words to win the heart of his love. The choice of this film clip is also an opportunity for you to introduce Pablo Neruda to your students. You might begin a unit on his poetry with this scene.

Il Postino/The Postman


Mario stands and waits at the gate to Neruda’s house. Neruda is sitting on the porch working. Finally he looks up and motions Mario in. Mario give Neruda the mail, Neruda thanks him and concentrates on opening his mail. Mario doesn’t leave, but stands at the gate. After a moment, Neruda looks up again and asks him what’s the matter?

“Don Pablo?” asks Mario.




“No,” says Neruda, “You’re standing as still as a post!”




Mario surprises Neruda by saying, “Nailed like a spear?”




Neruda carries the game on by replying,

“No, immobile like the castle on a chess board.”




“Stiller than a porcelain cat,” continues Mario.




Finally Neruda stops the game by saying, “Elementary Odes isn’t the only book I’ve written. I’ve written much better. It’s unfair of you to shower me with similes and metaphors.”




Mario is puzzled and Neruda repeats, “Metaphor.”




“What are those,” asks Mario.

Neruda smiles and then says, “Metaphors are—How can I explain?”

(A question that teachers in all ages, perhaps, have asked.)




“Is it something you use in poetry?” asks Mario.

“Yes, that, too.”

“For example,” insists Mario.

Neruda laughs and says, “For example, when you say, ‘the sky weeps,’ what do you mean?”




“That it’s raining,” answers Mario.

“Yes, very good,” exclaims Neruda, “that’s a metaphor.”




“It’s easy then!” says Mario. Neruda nods and Mario asks, “Why has it got such a complicated name?”




“Man has no business with the simplicity or complexity of things.


And so the film has defined the metaphor for us. And you can have fun discussing with your students the meaning of that expression. (Define fun, eh?)

After Mario asks Neruda how he could become a poet, Neruda tries to discourage him, joking that being a postman is more original because he gets to walk a lot whereas poets are all fat. But Mario won’t be discouraged.

“Yes, but, with poetry, I could make women fall for me,” he says.


WRITING PROMPT: Is it true? If boys could write poetry, perhaps like rap or hip-hop,

could they get girls to fall for them? Do you think poetry attracts girls? If not, what does?





Since Mario won’t be discouraged in his quest for metaphors, the poet thinks for a moment and then explains how to think of metaphors,

“Try and walk slowly along the shore as far as the bay and look around you.”

“And will they come to me, these metaphors?”

After being assured by Neruda that they will come to him, we cut to the next scene, the shore, where Mario, in backlighting, is walking along the shore, seeking inspiration as the music plays in under the scene. Next, we see Mario writing his poetry in a wonderful scene at 0:51:56 ,where he sits in his room struggling to write. In the following scene, we learn of his success in using the power of metaphors to get a girl. (Right click to start or stop film).


Il Postino/The Postman



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As the scene opens, Beatrice, the girl Mario loves, is staring out the window of her room as her mother questions here about what Mario is doing. “Metaphors,”

Beatrice responds. “He said my smile spreads across my face like a butterfly.”

Beatrice continues to tell her mother about the metaphors Mario used when finally the mother can take no more.

“When a man starts to touch you with words,” the mother says, “he’s not far off with his hands.”


How well do the above scenes explain and introduce the concept of metaphor? As a follow-up to the scenes, you could ask your students to attempt the following writing and discussion prompt:


WRITING PROMPT:  Put yourself in the place of the postman.  Test your poetic abilities

by describing your girl or boy friend (or your dream girl or boy friend) using only a metaphor

or simile.





The above scenes from Il Postino define metaphor as it occurs most often in literature. The banter between the two men is highly literary as they make their comparisons using the richness and complexities of poetry. With language, it’s possible to be complex because of its intricate and imprecise nature. In film, where what you see is what you mostly get, it’s not quite so simple. Metaphor is defined in literature as a comparison of unlike things in a highly connotative sense; yet in film, it is defined as an index because it indicates only an inherent relationship to what is being compared, somewhat akin I think, to the position corelationships have to cause and effect. An event may move up or down with another event but it does not necessarily mean the second event is caused by the first event. Is this just fine tuning language? Perhaps.

Nurda’s first metaphor in the above scene, “You’re standing still as a post,” would be difficult to create in the film. In literature, the metaphor of the post can be suggested in order to illustrate the degree of stillness of a person by comparing them to an inanimate object. The literary visual that is created in the mind of the reader is exceptional, and of course, highly connotative, and forces our attention on how still or unmoving the person is standing, probably in no other manner so effectively.

The best that could be done in the film is to have one scene with a person standing very still slowly dissolve into another scene featuring a solitary post. The approach would be heavy handed and certainly comic. In the semiologists’ terms, if we started thinking of this as an index rather than a metaphor, then we go for the inherent relationship of a still person to something in the scene that is quiet and still, something that subtly suggests still and unmoving.

Monaco in his exceptional book, How to Read a Film, has selected a scene from the Ingmar Bergman film, Shame, to illustrate the dynamics of an index. As we can see in the illustration that follows, the money on the bed, the woman’s expression, the hand of the man dropping the money; all are positioned to suggest a relationship between the money and the woman that seems, just from observing the still photo, to imply that she has committed an act of great shame, which suggests an act of prostitution.


The index equates strongly with the metaphor. In literature, the writer is challenged to use the poetry of language to create in the mind of the reader a visual very similar to the one that we see in the illustration above. But because of the differences in the imagination of readers, the image created by the writer with words could actually be stronger (more connotative) than what we see as an index of a film image.

In the image above, we see the woman, a blond. Her expression suggests strongly her shame; the money appears to be flung onto the bed. It appears to be a great deal of money. There is little misunderstanding.

           What you see in the film is what you get. As an example, consider the written word, book, as a signifier. What it represents is the signified. There can be a great deal of distance between the two, and therefore a great deal of misunderstanding. What kind of book is it? What is its shape? Its color? Size? Is it fiction? Nonfiction? A coloring book? A bible? What are the connotations attached to it? All this needs to be explained with language.

A visual representation of a “book”, however, is almost identical to the source. Signifier and signified are nearly the same. You simply show a book. It is there in time and space. There is little misunderstanding or confusion. This, however, makes the wonderful mixtures and richness of metaphors you find in literature more difficult to create in the cinema. The writer in literature has only to be careful that the relationship between the objects being compared are similar enough to establish the connotation in the mind of the reader, yet not too heavy-handedly to be obvious, and then step aside and let the reader do all the work. In the scene above, a writer might say, floating in her shame, she ignored the money, released her breath, and filled her lungs with her disgrace, slowly drowning in the depths of her despair…”

The film has a more demanding challenge, as seen from the above illustration. For example, how do you translate the wonderful metaphor (in simile form) we discover in the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird?

Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by

nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet

talcum. People moved slowly then. They ambled across the square,

shuffled in and out of the stores around it, took their time about



..Like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum... How does one create such a simile in the film? Is it even possible? Would we even want to? How did the translators of the novel to film, for example, handle this scene from the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird? (Right click to start or stop film.)

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In the opening scene of the film (03:08-03:38), the director makes the choice of using the narrative device of the voice-over so as not to lose the vivid imagery of the novel. The narrator simply speaks the metaphor. Since there is no effective way visually to create …ladies who look like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum, she simply says it.

The film clip of the baptism scene I have featured from The Godfather illustrates how a metaphor is more commonly discovered in films. Meaning and understanding in a film are based upon the ordering and sequencing of various units of still photos at so many frames per minute.

That’s how film tells its story. What is chosen to come first, what second, and so on, gives the film it’s meaning. The smallest unit in the film is known in film terms as the shot. How the director chooses to put the different shots together (depending on what shots he could have chosen) is how the director tells the story.

The metaphor becomes most obvious when it appears that the director has linked together a group of shots for a specific reason. Because we tend to find relationship and meaning in most patterns, we then begin to look for a relationship between the collections of shots, which we call, from the French, a montage. A montage can become a metaphor when other scenes intrude, interrupt or juxtapose themselves next to or in the middle of the montage, so as to suggest a deeper relationship. The metaphorical relationship is again suggested, as the montage appears to have a beginning, middle and end. As we saw in the montage of the baptism scene in The Godfather, the juxtaposing of certain scenes together can have highly connotative values.

Here is a writing prompt that will test what we have discussed to this point.



From The Godfather



            This scene begins just after Michael has assured Kay that he had nothing to do with the killing of his brother in law. Michael has agreed in the Baptism scene to become godfather of his sister’s son. Michael is accused by his sister of killing her husband. Kay wants to know if this is true. (Right click to start or stop film.)




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Writing Prompt:  Is this an example of an index in the film?

If so, can you explain how the index works, using this scene? Discuss.





Analysis of the Scene

Kay is standing in the foreground, with Michael in deep background, framed by the opening of the door to the study, a room that was once used as his father’s study when the father presided over the extended family as godfather. It is very clear that Kay is standing outside this inner sanctum, framed so appropriately by the massive door jamb. The study is the place where the crime syndicate’s business is discussed and acted upon, and very few are allowed inside, including Michael’s wife, Kay.

At this point in the scene, with this framing and the history in the film of this room and all that has taken place in this room, it is apparent that there is a strong suggestion that Kay is going to be left out of Michael’s life in the future. As the scene continues (with the godfather theme slowly rising in the background), several men come into the room (we still see them through the framed doorway) and kiss Michael’s ring and call him Don Corleone. Kay turns and observes this.

           And then, in case we miss the significance of Kay’s isolation, one of Michael’s lieutenants comes up and closes the huge door to the study. The scene cuts to a shot of Kay, doubt and fear in her eyes, as the shadow of the door slowly sweeps across and makes a perfect wipe of the scene, closing Kay out of Michael’s life forever, and leading to one of the most dramatic endings of any film.



            Depends on Whose Reading List

           Rubin “Hurricane” Carter writes from his jail cell an autobiography that tells how his dream of becoming a top contender for the middle-weight boxing title was shattered by his conviction for a triple murder and his frustration at the years of fruitless attempts to clear his name. Finding the book in the 25 cent bin of a book drive, an African-American young man, who is being mentored by three Canadians, reads the book and is convinced of Carter’s innocence. He begins a correspondence with the Hurricane, leading to a visit in jail.

           The boy and his Canadian mentors are convinced of Carter’s innocence and do whatever they can to work for his exoneration and freedom. The story is about prejudice and racism; the struggle of a man against a justice system that would like to forget its racist past. The film is engaging to my students because it deals with the struggle of an underdog against the establishment, a position that many young teens of color, especially those who live in an inner city or attend an urban high school, find themselves facing every day. 

           My students have experienced first hand the failures and flaws in the justice system. And many of them have experienced the county jail first hand or from their relatives’ first hand experiences, and so they empathize with the Hurricane as he struggles against the rules and control of the power structure in the prison.

Rubin Carter has a list of authors that he read while in prison.  His reading list is an asset for educators to use in extending the engagement of students past the film and into literature and concepts of literacy.


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Classification: Winter and Realism

The Hero’s Journey


Ruben, The Hurricane, Carter is sitting in the visitor center of his prison talking to a young black boy that has written to him after finding his autobiography in a used book drive. The boy has traveled from Canada to meet The Hurricane for the first time. After telling Carter about his situation and why he is living with a group of Canadians, Carter asks the boy if he sees his parents. The boy replies, he does but sometimes it is hard, and reveals the pain of separation from his parents. Carter affirms, saying, “Yea, it’s hard” and then continues: “You give them hope.”

“Yea, I guess,” says the boy. (Right click to start or stop film.)

“You do, you give them hope,” continues Carter, “‘cause you have transcended. It’s very important, to transcend the places that hold us, you know that? You’ve learned to read. You’ve learned to write. Writing, is pffft,” he emphases with an explosion of air, “is magic. You feel that sometimes? “

The boy nods his head. “Yea, I guess I do.”


You might pause at this point in the viewing of this scene and ask your students to write in their journals their answers to the following prompt:


WRITING PROMPT:  What did the Hurricane mean when he said

the boy had transcended by learning to read and write?  What are

the things that “ hold us” and have to be transcended and how can

reading and writing help? Discuss.






You will find that a graphic organizer such as The Word Concept is useful for working with the class in fully defining a complex word such as transcend. After giving the students time to write in their journals, the next step would be to discuss their ideas. After considering all the possibilities in the answer to the writing prompt, you might continue showing the scene.





“When I started writing,” The Hurricane continues, “I learned that I was doing more than just telling a story. Writing is a weapon. It is more powerful than a fist can ever be. Every time I sat down to write, I could rise above the walls of this prison, look out over the walls, all over the state and I could see Nelson Mandela in his cell writing his book and I could see Huey, I could see Dostoevski, I could see Victor Hugo, Emil Zola and they would say to me, ‘Ruben, What you doing in there?’ and I’d say, ‘Hey, I know all you guys…’” He smiles broadly, shaking his head, “It’s magic.”


WRITING PROMPT: Discuss The Hurricane’s statement: “Writing is a weapon more powerful than a fist.” What did he mean by this? Is it true? Do you agree? Disagree? Write your opinion in the form of a persuasive essay.






WRITING PROMPT:  Find out who the following people are and explain why you think Hurricane Carter would find these people important in his magic discovery of reading:


Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky

Nelson Mandela

Victor Hugo

Emil Zola

Huey P. Newton







If we remember the discussion in the chapter about the concepts to consider in selecting feature films that engage your students, Finding Forrester falls into the category of films that connect to your student’s schemata with little or no advance preparation.   If you were showing this film in its entirety, you would probably have to do little introductory work to prepare your students.  But because we are dealing with a selected portion of this film, it is important that the students understand the relationships between the characters and the significance of this scene and where it occurs in the full film. Take the necessary time to discuss the plot, where this scene occurs in the plot line (what happens before and after) and the interesting developing relationship with the two characters.

The scene I have selected takes place after Forrester has been mentoring a young and gifted 16-year-old inner city high school student by the name of Jamal Wallace, a basketball whiz who has a secret passion for writing.  It is the first time the two sat together and wrote. (Right click to start or stop film.)


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Finding Forrester

Classification:  Spring

Coming of Age


In his apartment, Forrester takes a second typewriter and places it on a table across from his and tells Jamal to sit down. He seems to ignore the boy and begins typing on his typewriter.  After a few seconds, he looks up and tells Jamal to go ahead.    Jamal responds, “Go ahead and what?” 

Forrester looks up from his typing again and says, “Write.”

Jamal, still puzzled, asks, “What are you doing?” 

“I’m writing, like you’ll be when you start punching those keys,” says Forrester still typing.  Forrester ignores Jamal for a moment, and then stops typing and looks over at him and asks him if there’s a problem. 

Jamal explains that he is just thinking.  

“No, no thinking, “Forrester says with a wag of his finger.  “That comes later.”

As Forrester types rapidly and the music swells up in the scene, he says:  “You write your first draft with your heart and you rewrite with your head.” 

As he types more, he continues, “The first key to writing is to write. Not to think.”

And with a flourish he takes out his sheet of paper and presents the written text to the puzzled boy, ending the scene. 


What would be the most effective way to use this film in the classroom?  How effective would it be as an introduction to the writing process, the step-by-step progression of essay development:  prewriting, writing, revising, editing and publishing? 

In this scene, Forrester is defining  the importance of separating the writing or creative phase from revision.  Forrester’s comment, “The first key to writing is to write.  Not to think “ could be printed and mounted on the wall in your classroom as a reminder of its importance in the writing process.

The message of this scene is especially important to my at-risk students.  The most common problem they face in creating an essay is writing the first sentence (or paragraph).  With Forrester’s emphasis on the importance of revision, my at-risk students seem more willing to risk writing that first sentence without thinking, a very important step in the writing process for all students, but especially, it seems, for those who demand, but never achieve, perfection from the first sentence on.

            As a conclusion, a later scene in the same film could be used to show Jamal’s accomplishment with his writing, adding reinforcement by demonstrating Jamals success as he follows the mentor’s advice in the writing process.    

The selection and presentation of certain key scenes in different films can be used to offer very attention-demanding audiovisuals of difficult to teach concepts.  In this case, we have a very entertaining and attention riveting demonstration of the writing process, which is usually taught as a dry and prescriptive lesson because we have no other recourse.

Clips of scenes from films can also fit within the language arts curriculum and your standards by being used effectively as a journal starter or a prewriting activity for an essay.

the Film CLIP Applied to

The Reciprocal Teaching Process


The following scene is an example of how elements of the technique of Reciprocal Teaching (discussed in the chapter on organizing a film class) can be used to effectively utilize the film to engage students and bridge the crossover from the visual to the literary. 


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Cinderella Man

Romance:  The Hero’s Journey


In this scene the father returns home after being unsuccessful in getting work at the docks.  He is greeted by his youngest son who immediately knows that the appearance of the father in the morning means that he didn’t get any shift work for the day.  The daughter immediately comes running up to tell the father that the older brother (about 10) has stolen a block of salami from the butcher.  The remainder of the scene deals with how the father handles this theft by his oldest son by forcing him to return the salami to the butcher.  On the way back home, the father discovers what is at the root of the son’s behavior:  his fear that like other families that can’t provide for their children, he will be sent away to stay with relatives.(Right click to start or stop film.)


Before showing this scene, it might be effective to chart a KWL graphic organizer.  The topic?  The Great Depression.  Since this event is at the root of the problems of this family in this scene and the film as a whole, it is important that you know what your students know about the event.   Do they understand and have had any experiences with poverty?  Being hungry?  What would they do in a similar situation if they were the father?  Would they keep the salami?  Punish the son?  As you can see there are many rich and stimulating topics for discussion and writing prompts in this scene. 

After viewing the scene, the following illustration shows what you might ask your students to complete.  If they’ve used RT before, then they will understand the differences between the surface questions and below the surface questions.  If not, then take a moment in class to show the differences.  You might begin with my crude drawing of the Reading Tree illustrated in the chapter on organizing a film class.

The surface questions are the, who, what, where, and when facts that appear in the text.  There is one correct answer and it can be found easily in the text, so that you can actually “point to it.” The below the surface questions are those wonderful complexities that are very similar to Blum’s Taxonomy, the Evaluation, synthesis, analysis, application and comprehension of text.  In Reading Tree terms, the how, why, would, could, and should of the text, where, unlike the surface questions, there is more than one answer and the answer or answers might be very complex.

The wonderful effect of working in such a concept is that it provides students with a simple, step-by-step method for getting to the complex, or higher thinking concepts illustrated by Blum.  By beginning with the surface facts in the text, the students can easily move on to more complex evaluation, as the following illustrations of the film, Cinderella Man, demonstrates.  Each illustration shows the progression of the students as they first work to answer the surface facts and then use that to move to the more complex below the surface questions.



In this step, they simply write down what they can “point to” or simply describe in the scene on the surface or superficially


In this step, they ask the surface questions, the who, what, where and when questions that they have formed from the on the surface descriptions.  After completing all of this, they are much more able to tackle the more complex questions that might require more than one answer than if they had been required to go to this point of asking complex questions immediately upon seeing the film. The results are seen in the next illustration.  

An apt observation emphasizes why film goes so well with Reciprocal Teaching:


Students may not have confidence in themselves as readers, but they are — if anything — overconfident as viewers and tend to be more than willing to share their individual transactions with films in class discussion. (Karolides, page 79)


Add to film the step-by-step progression from the simple to the complex utilized by Reciprocal Teaching and you have students effortless climbing into the higher thinking concepts of Bloom’s Taxonomy.



Film Clips for Journal Starters

You may show the scenes of the following quotations and have your students write.  But the power of film is so strong that you may also simply place these quotations in a journal and have the students write.  Of course, I recommend that you rent the film on DVD and show the scene and then have the students either write and discuss or discuss and write.  I recommend the later if you have self-starting students.  If your students are in the category of at-risk, I would recommend discussing the quotation and then have the students write.

It may be necessary in many of these clips to explain that is happening in the film to the point of the quote and then what takes place after the scene.  In many cases, the scene will stand on its own without any explanation. 


The Outlaw Josey Wales



Director:  Clint Eastwood


“Choosing a way to die, that’s easy; it’s choosing a way to live, that’s the difficult thing to do.”


Explain what you think Josey Wales meant when he said this.  Is this true?  Discuss.









Lloyd Bridges gives this advice to his son played by Ted Danson:  “You’ve got only one life to live.  You can either make it chicken shit or chicken salad.”


Discuss whether or not this is true in your life.  Has it been chicken shit or chicken salad? Why?









Will Munny (Clint Eastwood) says to the Schofield kid:  “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man.  You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna.”  The kid says:  “I guess he had it comin’.”  Munny responds:  “We all have it comin’.” 


This is a great scene that plays well with students, especially those who live and function in a inner city, urban area.  Have your students discuss and explain what Will Munny meant when he said, “We all have it comin’.”




East of Eden




James Dean shares this experience with his father, Raymond Massey:  “Man has a choice, and it’s a choice that makes him a man.”


There is a mystique still attached to James Dean so many of your students will find this a fascinating clip.  Ask your students to personalize this quotation.  Have they found this to be true or not true?  Discuss.





Stranger Than Fiction


Director: Marc Foster
113 min



This is a very interesting film for using both as journal starters and a lead-in to different concepts of fiction.


The story is about a IRA tax man, Harold Crick, who has begun to hear his life narrated as it is happening.  After visits to two therapists, who are of no help in understanding his problem, he finally realizes that his life is literary and he must look to Dr. Jules Hilbert, an English teacher, for help.   Hilbert points out that Crick must first determine whether what’s being narrated is a comedy or a tragedy.


Dr. Jules Hilbert: Have you met anyone recently who might loathe the very core of you?
Harold Crick: I just started auditing a woman who told me to get bent.
Dr. Jules Hilbert: Well, that sounds like a comedy. Try to develop that.


Later, after hearing that the narrator said, “Little did he know, ” Dr. Hilbert concludes that such a comment means there's something the narrator doesn't know, which means there's something you (Crick) don’t know.  “Did you know that?” He continued.  Then he helpfully points out that the Voice speaks in the "third-person omniscient,” which means that there the someone writing Cricks life “knows everything.”  (And this becomes a victory for English teachers everywhere.)


Writing Prompt:  Explain how the “third-person omniscient” works in telling the story in novels.  What are the other “persons” in story telling?  Understanding this, what then is the joke in this scene from the film?  Explain.