Academic Exchange Quarterly   Summer  2003    Volume 7, Issue 2

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Applying Film Theory in Teaching Fiction


Tammy Ostrander, College of St. Scholastica


Tammy Ostrander is an associate professor at the College of St. Scholastica.  She is the chair of the Communication and Theatre Arts Department as well as the Honors Program Director.



To augment the traditional analysis of a literary text, teachers may consider applying concepts from film theory to a literary work.  Often film theory concepts appeal to highly visual students and provide a framework to thoroughly discuss image.  The construction of images can underscore a work’s theme, symbolism, and character development.


Keyword – Novel




The study of literature has a long and rich history in terms of forms of analysis.  Almost any student who emerges from even a rudimentary course in literature will be able to identify literary themes, symbols, narrative structure, and character development as primary issues in the analysis of a literary work.  Today’s students, more than any other population in our history, are also particularly visually oriented.  The impact of film, television, and video games on the general population has created visually savvy viewers and readers if for no other reason than simple saturation.  Although the benefits and disadvantages of an overwhelmingly visual culture can be debated, the impact cannot be denied.  Students often have a highly hewed understanding of visual images; this talent can be applied to the study of literature.  By using some of the concepts from film theory, we can augment the teaching of literature by using the skills developed from a highly visual culture.


Most films have a great deal of commonality with most novels.  Both tend to be narrative in structure, have characters and conflict.  A good film, like a good novel, will also have theme and symbols.  What differs then is how the two are constructed.  The construction of the image impacts the response of the reader and viewer.  Marshall McLuhan, the seminal philosopher on mass media, developed the concept of hot and cool media.  He differentiated between the novel, a cool medium, and the film, a hot medium, based on how much the viewer/reader had to work to complete the image.  In the novel, the reader must picture the images in her mind.  Conversely, a viewer of a film has to do little work, other than stay awake, to complete the cinematic image.  Perhaps this difference can explain why most people believe that the book is usually better than the film.  They have more of an investment in completing the image in the book.  They can picture their Uncle Al or the neighbor’s English sheep dog in the novel; in the film, they see Mel Gibson.


What can be gained by merging the two is a thorough analysis of the image itself, whether cinematic or literary, and how that image contributes to all the other standards of literary analysis.  How does the image assist in character development?  How does the image support the general theme?  These types of questions, since they are inherently visually oriented and therefore extremely accessible to today’s students, might best be answered using concepts from film theory.


Image as Conflict – The Solitary Image


The great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was one of the first directors to discuss the theory of making of film.  As a relatively new art form, Eisenstein’s contributions to the development of film theory were groundbreaking.  Eisenstein contended that creating a good single shot in a film was a matter of visual conflict.  He identified a number of types of visual conflict, but the most prominent were conflict of graphic direction or line, of scales (images are constructed on different scales), of volumes (small items contrasted with large items), of masses (varying intensities of light), and of depth (close and far images).  Eisenstein characterized visual conflict as a type of syntax, a visual grammar.  These elements of visual conflict appear in any film, but are particularly prominent in black and white films.  These concepts may also be used to analyze image creation in fiction as well.


Shirley Jackson’s short novel The Haunting of Hill House provides an excellent example in which we can apply Eisenstein’s concept of visual conflict to a novel.  This work uses these same visual conflicts to create the sense of a “deranged house” (70) and person who are out of balance, off-center. 


Conflict of graphic line or direction:  “… nothing broke the straightness of the hall except the series of doors, all closed.” (38)


Conflict of scales:  “She brought her hand up to the heavy iron knocker that had a child’s face ... and then the door opened without warning and she was looking at a woman…” (36)


Conflict of volumes:  “…two smaller doors flanking the great central double door.” (64)


Conflict of masses:  “On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky…. Her eyes hurt with tears against the screaming blackness of the path…. Eleanor and Theodore looked into a garden, their eyes blinded with the light of sun.” (174-176)


Conflict of depth:  “They were standing by the rail of the veranda: from there they could see down the drive to the point where it turned among the trees again, and down over the soft curve of the hills to the distant small line which might have been the main highway, the road back to the cities from which they had come.  Except for the wires which ran to the house from a spot among the trees, there was no evidence that Hill House belonged in any way to the rest of the world.” (49)


The reader is constantly barraged by these images of a world out of kilter:  dark resisting light, small overpowered by big.  It should come as no surprise then when the main character, Eleanor, succumbs to the madness of the unbalanced house.  She merely mirrors the images around her. 


In this example, the theory of visual conflict and how it is used in the novel and in the black and white film version of The Haunting demonstrates not only how the characters develop, but also how the overall theme of the novel is constantly underscored by the images that describe the landscape and house.  The madness of the house as depicted in the constant visual conflicts overwhelms the weak-minded.


Image as Montage – The Sequencing of Images


Eisenstein was one of the first filmmakers to discuss the use of montage as an ideological tool (Kolker).  For Eisenstein, the single shot or image could convey conflict, but a series or sequence of images created an intellectual component in a film. 


Eisenstein’s 1928 film about the Russian revolution, October, provides an excellent example of his original use of intellectual montage.  Within the first 10 minutes of the film, a series of shots of Kerensky are interspersed with shots of a golden peacock unfurling its tail.  Ultimately, what is created by the side-by-side images is a metaphor.  Kerensky is like the preening golden peacock.  Modern audiences often view this sequence and others like it as clumsy and simplistic.  They also find the technique to be alien.  In many ways, it is the visual equivalent of our most rudimentary definitions of a metaphor:  he is a peacock.


A more sophisticated collision of images through montage creates an extended metaphor that can establish the environment in which the story lives.  The sequence of images may initially function as a metaphor.  However, as a sequence of images develops, it begins to produce something much greater than a simple metaphor; a well constructed series of images can produce a character’s world view. 


A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster, provides an example of how a sequencing of images moves beyond simple metaphor to depict the mind-set of the characters.  Consider these contrasting images of the view:


Lucy Honeychurch’s view (the romantic young heroine of the novel)

“… and when she reached her own room she opened the window and breathed the clean night air, thinking of the kind old man who had enabled her to see the lights dancing in the Arno…” (13)


“He carried her to the window, so that she, too, saw all the view.”  (202)


Charlotte Bartlett’s view (the spinster chaperone)

“Miss Bartlett, in her room, fastened the window-shutters and locked the door, and then made a tour of the apartment to see where the cupboards led, and whether there were any oubliettes or secret entrances.” (13)


“… she felt sure that she would prove a nuisance, and begged to be given an inferior spare room – something with no view…” (138)


“She [Lucy] went up to the dripping window and strained her eyes into the darkness.  She would not think what she would have done.  ‘Come away from the window, dear,’ said Miss Bartlett, ‘You’ll be seen from the road.’” (73)


Any one image regarding the view is not sufficient to develop a character’s world view.  However, an extended sequence of repeated images such as those regarding the view in A Room with a View does establish the environment that becomes the central theme of the story as well as the way the characters interact with that environment.  Lucy sees the view as something exciting and full of promise from which she does not shy away.  Charlotte rejects the view and shields herself from it.


For further examples of intellectual montage in film, consider the first few minutes of Natural Born Killers or A Simple Plan.  The opening sequence of Natural Born Killers contains over 100 edits in the span of only a minute or two.  Images of Mickey and Malory (portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are spliced with images of rattlesnakes, scorpions, and wolves.  All are natural born killers.  The opening sequence of A Simple Plan is less frantic but still depicts the use of intellectual montage by splicing images of a fox invading a chicken coop with images of Hank (portrayed by Bill Paxton).  Throughout the film Hank reveals his vicious, vulpine nature.  Using film to develop a sense of the sequencing of images provides a useful skill in awareness of image sequences in a literary text.


The Ambiguous Image


The number of edits also influences the degree of ambiguity of an image.  Simply put, the more edits, the less ambiguous the image, the more the viewer’s focus is directed.  The point of the film, Natural Born Killers, is to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind about the nature of the main characters.  They are unredeemable.    A sharp contrast to the opening sequence in Natural Born Killers is the opening sequence of The Player.  This sequence is an extended long shot lasting about 2 minutes.  A well-choreographed shot, the camera glides from one discussion to another without identifying which conversations are important.  The ambiguity of the opening sequence of The Player establishes an ambiguity that infuses the entire movie.  The movie is a mystery; no one knows who the villain is.  Even at the end of the movie, we are left uncertain about the goodness and badness of the central character.  The longer an individual shot lasts, the more ambiguous the image because the viewer must determine what images among many are important. 


The effect is much like stream of consciousness writing.  In the following example from Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, the unconnected thoughts of the character mirror the structure of the opening scene from The Player, touching first here and then there on a wide range of subjects:

It was all over for her.  The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow.  She had gone up into the tower alone and left them blackberrying in the sun.  The door had shut, and there among the dust of fallen plaster and the litter of birds’ nests how distant the view had looked, and the sounds came thin and chill (once on Leith Hill, she remembered), and Richard, Richard! she cried, as a sleeper in the night starts and stretches a hand in the dark for help.  Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her.  He has left me; I am alone for ever [sic], she thought, folding her hands upon her knee. (49)

In both the long shot and the stream of consciousness sequence, the viewer or reader is left with a certain ambiguity about what is important and how are the pieces connected.  Retaining ambiguity in film is a particularly difficult enterprise.


In the short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, the central crux of the story is the question of whether or not the very old man with enormous wings is an angel.  Throughout the story, Garcia Márquez is able to craft an image of the old man that is both detailed and yet ambiguous.  The old man is described at length:  he is smelly, lice-infested, and in serious need of dental work.  He fails several tests that the local scholars devise for him to prove or disprove that he is an angel.  He does not speak Latin and refuses to eat mothballs, the standard food of angels.  Finally, the very old man is able to fly away from the small village, the mystery of his angelhood unresolved.


In Tales Beyond Solitude, an interview in which Garcia Márquez discusses the differences between the art of the cinema and the art of the novel, the crafting of this particular image for film is examined.  Once the image becomes visual in a film, the ambiguity is lost.  The more edits or shots, the less the ambiguity.  Although the tests of the angel are depicted in the film version of the story, the robed old man with gigantic feathered wings looks very much like our notion of an angel.  Garcia Márquez discusses this issue of trying to retain the ambiguity needed to propel the central question of the story when the visual image is so completely unambiguous and the technical devices (edits) further define the image.  Ultimately, the film crew decided to add an unexpected scene to the film to increase the ambiguity they believed was lost in the transition from novel to film.  The very old man is viewed washing his clothes on the beach; he has removed his wings and laid them out to dry beside him while his very human arms and hands do the work.


This contrast between the film image of the very old man and the literary image draws attention to how the image was crafted.  This particular example also draws attention to the concept of ambiguity as a powerful literary tool.  A close reading of the text reveals a delicate balance between the desirable vagueness that creates the central question of the text – is the old man an angel – and a well-defined image that the reader can picture in her mind.  Too much ambiguity and a reader may not engage in the text; too little, and the central question is lost.  Using this lesson from film theory emphasizes the importance of a well-crafted ambiguous image.




These techniques from film theory specifically focus on image and how the images contribute to the overall structure and theme of the story.  With visually oriented students, using visually oriented analysis can generate a rich discussion of a literary text.  Further, asking students questions about converting a piece of fiction to a film can further stimulate discussion.  Would a film of this novel be better in black and white or color?  If color, how much color saturation?  Are there any particularly rich images for film or particularly problematic ones?  What visual metaphors could be used?  Should a certain scene contain many edits or only a few?  How would the story of the novel have to be altered to make a successful film?


Applying film theory concepts to literature shifts the focus of analysis from the traditional methods to a much more visually-oriented process.  Film theories also emphasis image.  These concepts augment the traditional analysis of a literary work by showing how the central theme, primary symbols, and character development is underscored by the images constructed by the author.




Works Consulted


Eisenstein, Sergei.  “Film Form.”  Film Theory and Criticism:  Introductory Readings, Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 5th ed.  New York:  Oxford U P, 1999.  15-42.


Forster, E. M.  A Room with a View.  1908.  New York:  Bantam, 1988.


Garcia Márquez, Gabriel. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  Studies in the Short Story.  Eds. Virgil Scott and David Madden, 5th ed.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980.  233-237.


The Haunting.  Dir. Robert Wise.  Perf.  Julie Harris, Claire Bloom.  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1963.


Jackson, Shirley.  The Haunting of Hill House.  1959.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1984.


Kolker, Robert.  Film, Form, and Culture.  Boston:  McGraw-Hill College 1999.


Márquez: Tales Beyond Solitude.  Dir. Holly Aylett.  Prod. Sylvia Stevens.  Ed. Virginia Heath.  Home Vision, 1989.


McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.  New York: 

McGraw-Hill, 1964.


Natural Born Killers.  Dir. Oliver Stone.  Perf. Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.  Vidmark Entertainment, 1994.


October.  Dir. Sergei Eisenstein.  Music:  Dmitri Shostakovich. Corinth Video, 1990.


The Player.  Dir. Robert Altman.  Perf. Tim Robbins.  New Line Home Video, 1993.


Woolf, Virginia.  Mrs. Dalloway.  1925.  Orlando:  Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997.


Smith, Scott.  A Simple Plan.  1993.  New York:  St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1994.