Potomac Review editor-in-chief, Zachary Benavidez, blogs about how he picks books to teach for his Film & Literature class.

This winter session, I have the exciting challenge of teaching a new course, Film & Literature.  Identifying the material for such a course sounds deceptively easy – pick any text with a movie, right?  Wrong.  There are so many books that have been translated into films.  For example, most of Shakespeare’s work and many of E.M. Forster’s have been turned into films (think “A Passage to India,” “Howards End,” and “Maurice”.)  As a community college instructor, I want to expose my students to as many new authors and texts as possible so as to reflect our diverse student body.  As a winter session instructor, I have to consider a semester’s worth of material that can be read in three weeks.   The challenges (like the many possibilities of texts) seem to be stacked against me, but I did my best to create a thought-provoking, diverse list of texts that can be consumed in a short period of time.  Here’s what I picked and why:

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” – Sherman Alexie’s short story is a favorite I often feature in literature and creative writing classes.  It demonstrates the hero’s journey and the friendship between two unlikely American Indian characters, an unusual dynamic duo not often found outside an American Indian Literature class.  The story can be found in Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  The story and its film adaptation “Smoke Signals” are quick ways to start a course on film and lit, as the story itself is fairly short and can lend itself to some thoughtful discussions on the first day; and the film is funny enough to hook the students into the course’s upcoming material.

The History Boys – Alan  Bennett’s play features British students in an all male school preparing for their exams to Oxford and Cambridge.  These sixth-form students have a lot in common with our recent seniors (now college freshmen) who have struggled through exam questions, exam essays, and placement interviews of their own, all the while dealing with personal challenges like friendship and sexuality.  The play and film are set in classrooms, a place very familiar to students, and the characters have to negotiate their time and attention between teachers that have very different teaching styles.  This text is a useful way to talk about character development and the differences between dynamic (round) and static (flat) characters, and how one plays off the other.

Bent – Martin Sherman’s play about homosexuals in the Holocaust answers a question that comes up in The History Boys:  Can you teach the Holocaust?  Should you teach the Holocaust?  The answer for many in a history and/or literature class is yes, if one dares.  Bent features the “pink triangle” group of Holocaust sufferers, specifically two men that fall in love with one another in camp but cannot touch one another.  Such a plot offers a great use for symbolism and meaning.

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play focuses on the Younger family’s inheritance of their father’s life insurance money.  There is great debate amongst the family about what they should do with the money, money which Walter Lee wants to invest in a liquor business.  Mama, who’d rather buy a house for her family, has morals that won’t allow her to invest in liquor; but not being allowed to go after his dream drives Walter Lee mad.  The story deals with issues like family values, personal morals, death and memory, poverty, and race relations.  There is much to talk about in this classic text, and it lends itself to the possibility of many paper topics.  Phylicia Rashad’s stellar performance as Mama in the 2008 film adaptation is a discussion topic in its own, too.

The Color Purple – Alice Walker’s instant classic about Celie’s life in an abusive marriage to Mister in the early 20th century south is evocative of race and women’s issues.  The novel is written in epistolary form and is a useful way to teach literary devices in a literature class.  There are special problems with adapting such a novel to film, however (though Steven Spielberg’s adaptation is first class).

Blindness – Jose Saramago’s Nobel Prize-winning novel is a commentary on man’s need for systems, and the breakdown in humanity that comes with the breakdown of those systems.  It is a frightening allegory, and it is a fine way to end the semester, for it has a distinct point-of-view/narrator, interesting characters and character development, a chilling plot, ample use of symbolism, and not to mention a fine film adaptation with a first-rate cast led by Julianne Moore.

As you can see, each text features some literary element that can be taught and then explained in class.  The stories themselves are time-tested, and the films are (in my opinion) mostly well done.  Let’s hope my students think so too!