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Literary Elements in Film

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 10 years ago

Literary Elements

Characterization | Setting | Themes, Motifs, & Symbols
Point of View | Tone and Mood


"What we accentuate is the modernity of the characters. There are people like this in the world today. There are Miss Havishams-slightly clinically insane shut-ins who are in deep need of therapy."
-- David Snodin, Producer

In a film, how do we get to know a character? We register who he or she is, often without even realizing it, by taking in close-ups of the actor's face, his or her facial expressions, or the music playing in the background. Other elements, such as the character's age, size, dress, speech, how he or she moves, etc., also influence our understanding. We may perceive on first viewing that a character is dangerous by the harsh or darkened lighting on the actor's face, by the reaction shot that shows another character's fear or uncertainty, and by the ominous sounds on the soundtrack.

Simple things like camera angles can telegraph a great deal about a character's feelings and personality. The first time young David is alone with his evil new stepfather in David Copperfield, the camera shoots Mr. Murdstone from a low angle so we see from David's point of view what a huge, threatening presence he is. In Goodbye, Mr. Chips,the camerawork highlights Mr. Chips's nervousness and insecurity as a new teacher by posing him against the grandeur of the buildings, spying on him through windows, and watching him from behind. Use the activities below to understand how characters are portrayed on the page and in film.


  1. Choose a major character in a film to analyze as you watch. Notice the things you would notice in a novel -- this person's behavior, actions, gestures, appearance, dialogue, and feelings, and how other characters react to him or her. But notice also what the language of film tells you about this person: How is he or she lit? What is the character wearing? How does the director physically situate this person in relation to other characters? Keep a chart in which you take notes on these aspects and any others that occur to you as you watch. For example, because we watch the main characters in David Copperfield and The Road from Coorain grow up over the course of the film, different actors must portray these characters at different ages. See if you can identify the many ways the directors manage to keep a sense of continuity of character regardless of these changes.

  2. What does the way a character is introduced for the first time in a film tell us about who that person is? The first time we meet Bathsheba of Far from the Madding Crowd, we are looking at her face reflected in a hand mirror -- an apt introduction for a character whose beauty and willfulness ensnare and nearly destroy three men. Note how the various characters are introduced in a film, then compare that to their introduction in the literary work. What are the differences? Which do you think is stronger?

  3. Test how well an actor makes clear what is going on in the mind of his or her character by writing the interior monologue of this character during a scene in which this person is quiet. Next, read your monologue aloud with the sound turned down during the scene. Or flip this exercise, and take an internal monologue from a work of literature and read it aloud while a partner tries to convey these feelings through acting. For example, there are many scenes in Almost a Woman in which the main character must choose between her two identities: Negi, the subservient Puerto Rican daughter, or Esmeralda, the American teenager. Choose one of these scenes from the film and write the interior monologue that shows what she is thinking as she negotiates these conflicting personas, or act out a written scene from the memoir in a way that makes her confusion clear.

  4. In small groups, cast the major characters in a literary work you are reading by making a list of important traits for each one, then selecting a well-known actor who could portray those traits successfully. Now view a film version. What do you and your group think of the casting choices that were actually made? Why?

  5. One hallmark of classic literature is that the characters seem deeply human and multifaceted -- the very opposite of "stock." As Shakespearean director Trevor Nunn puts it, the most admirable people can be flawed, and the most despicable can be redeemed. Which characters in the film you are viewing are the most complex? Why? How does the filmmaker show this complexity?

  6. What characters in the film or literary work you are studying remind you of other characters you have seen on screen or read about? Choose a character from the work you are studying and make a list of other characters from literature, film, or even television with whom you think this character might be friends, allies, or have something in common; or make a list of characters with whom you think this person might clash. To take this further, you might even write a dialogue between your character and one of your other choices.

  7. Certain universal character "types" are instantly recognizable, no matter what century or culture they appear in. The producer of Great Expectations, David Snodin, says that Dickens's story is very contemporary despite its setting in the 1800s. "What we accentuate," he says, "is the modernity of the characters. There are people like this in the world today. There are Miss Havishams -- slightly clinically insane shut-ins who are in deep need of therapy....There are a lot of Pips -- uncertain young men who don't quite know what their lives are about." What characters in classic works can you name who would be instantly recognizable to a 21st-century audience because they are a "type" that is universal? In what other films or books do versions of these types appear?

  8. Write, role-play, or film a mock interview with a character from a book in which this person speaks about how he or she was portrayed in the film. How does this person feel about the actor who was cast? The way he or she was costumed? How important lines were read? Aspects of the book which were cut?

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Trevor Nunn originally rejected the idea of directing a production ofThe Merchant of Venice, considering the play "problematic and distasteful" for the portrayal of the Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Yet Nunn also felt that this hesitation was "at odds with my view that Shakespeare is the greatest humanist who has ever lived. How could it be that such a humanist could have written an unsavory and possibly racist tract?" He began to think of a way to test both the propositions of the play and his view of Shakespeare's humanism. One of his solutions was to simply change the setting so that context forced the audience to confront these issues head-on:

We should present the play as if it concerned events that occurred in between the two world wars. Why? Because it was that very period when anti-Semitic thought and anti-Semitic behavior was becoming current and even -- it's ghastly to think it -- voguish and the subject of wit and amusement. I wanted to put the play there so it couldn't in any way shrink from the reality of the Holocaust, which was just coming down the pike.

Though setting is often the aspect of narrative that viewers take most for granted, a great deal of painstaking work goes into creating sets, props, costumes, and makeup that are both historically accurate and dramatic.

Use these exercises to discover just how much setting can reveal.
  1. What does a filmmaker's use of setting say about the people and the society the story depicts? To investigate you might team up with a history class to watch a film and make a long list of everything you can find that depicts a particular setting or milieu (for instance, working-class life in Victorian England). Include social, cultural, political, and historical aspects -- details about everyday life, work, customs, styles, leisure-time activities, inventions, famous people, sport, food, politics, class, race, gender, etc., that define a time and place. Then form small groups and make some observations from this list of details about the culture and values of the people who lived in this time and place. What was important to them? What connoted status? What were the society's taboos? Which groups had power? Which groups didn't? What other conclusions can you draw? Finally, think about how we should judge a film like this that depicts a time and place different from our own: should we judge it by today's standards or try to view it with the mindset of the period about which it was made?

  2. Before you see a film, draw or create a diorama of some visual historical aspect that must be gotten absolutely right. You will have to research the item first. For example, you might design the parlor of a house for a Jane Austen novel, or the costume that a young woman might have worn to the ball in Anna Karenina. Now watch the film to see how the set or costume designer interpreted this same aspect.

  3. Play with the idea of setting as Trevor Nunn did, whether to confront a problem in the original text or to find a new setting that highlights some of the themes and ideas in an interesting way. If you were making a film of a work you are currently reading, or if you were making a new version of a film you have recently seen, where else could the story be set? Why and how would that setting work? What would have to be adapted? For instance, how would a contemporary Our Town look and sound different but still feature the same themes and characters?

  4. View various film treatments of the same setting and compare and contrast them. For instance, you could pair Goodbye, Mr. Chips with other stories of private boys' schools (The Emperor's Club, Dead Poets Society), or Doctor Zhivago with other films about the Russian Revolution (Reds). Make a list of a few images that appear in both and that seem to represent this time and place in many films. What do you think these images stand for?

  5. Sometimes in a film or work of literature, the setting is so important that it almost functions as another character. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, the mysterious moors are essential to the mood and plot of the story. Choose a film or work of literature in which that is true, and describe the setting as if it were a person: What traits does it have? Which character in the story does it most resemble? How does it highlight the themes of the story?

  6. With a history class, choose a historical topic that is significant to a film or literary work you are studying (for example, child labor in David Copperfield, or spiritualism in The Hound of the Baskervilles). Imagine you are a history consultant to the film. Write a memo to the director in which you recommend ways to make the portrayal of this topic realistic or detailed. If you've already seen the film, write a review that analyzes the historical issues or accuracy of this topic.

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Themes, Motifs, & Symbols

In most of the literature presented in Masterpiece Theatre productions, the "big" themes -- love, honor, betrayal, family, evil, revenge, death, deception, class, race, and gender-are explored. Filmmakers choose to make films of these works, many of which are hundreds of years old, because they believe that they still have relevance for a contemporary audience. As Allan Cubitt, screenwriter of Anna Karenina, put it, "I wanted to do something that had the capacity to speak directly to a modern audience about their lives, their love affairs, or their difficult marriages, and not to make a piece that is enjoyable simply because it shows how people used to live."

Film must bring home a theme in myriad small, subtle ways, and everything from the lighting to the makeup must enhance it. For example, The Mill on the Floss is, in many ways, the story of "twos" -- of shifting alliances and pairings in a rural English village. The director emphasizes this so subtly that we barely notice it, but if you were to make a list of how many scenes feature two people alone, lit and staged to emphasize their particular relationship, you would find it is most of the film.

Directors are always looking for an image that can be a metaphor for a theme -- something dramatic and visual that will bring home the overall message, sometimes on a level that may not even register with viewers. When this image is repeated, it becomes a motif or symbol in the film that reminds the viewers of an important idea. In Wuthering Heights, for example, there are frequent shots of windows, and of people looking in at others from outside or looking out from within. This motif strengthens the theme of being inside, loved, part of a family (like Cathy) versus being outside, abandoned, an orphan (like Heathcliff). Captive birds are used as a visual symbol to show the hold General Tilney has over his daughter and sons in Northanger Abbey.In The Road from Coorain, the main character writes the words "Jill is here" at several different points in her life as a kind of declaration of her sense of self. Each of these is an example of meaningful repetition that we might not notice if we are not aware of how filmmakers use thematic patterns.

  1. The opening scenes in both film and literature are extremely important in establishing theme. After you have read a work or watched a film, talk about some of the important themes in it, then go back and revisit the opening. In how many ways did the author or filmmaker establish these themes right from the start? What do you notice now that you didn't notice the first time? In some films, the opening scene might even be so significant as to be repeated, or played upon, elsewhere in the film. In Oliver Twist we see the opening scene of a woman contemplating a suicidal leap twice during the film. The first time we don't understand what we are seeing; the second time we understand thoroughly what led her to such a decision. Similarly, in The Road from Coorain, the ending was changed from the book to echo the opening and show certain themes coming full circle. And in Almost a Woman, the fact that the opening scenes are entirely in Spanish but the ending is almost entirely in English is not an accident, but is a comment on Esmeralda's journey over the course of the film.

  2. Notice as you watch a film how certain images, objects, colors, scenes, or sounds are repeated often or lingered over by the camera. If you begin to notice repetition of any kind, make a list of when and how you see it as you continue to watch. What do you think the filmmaker was trying to say by doing this?
  3. Play filmmaker. What visual image might you choose to represent a theme in a literary work you are currently reading? If you like, make a montage of these images with a video camera.

  4. Switch genres. How would the theme of the book or film you're studying be portrayed in a contemporary soap opera? A rap song? A newspaper article? Try writing it.

  5. Write the script for or role-play a talk show on some theme common to one or more works you have been studying. "Invite" characters, authors, filmmakers, actors, etc., to weigh in on the topic.

  6. List five details from a film that show a particular theme. Then list five from the same literary work, or from a work that shares the same theme. (These details can include props, dialogue, description, music, some aspect of setting, etc.) Which details work best to convey the theme for you? Why?
  7. Take the bare bones of the premise, plot, or theme of a novel or film and brainstorm a list of other stories that share it. Why do you think this is such an enduring premise? For example, the premise "Someone new comes to stay in an isolated place with which legends and mysteries are associated. This person's life and/or sanity is threatened" could fit many films of the mystery, suspense, or horror genres, including The Hound of the Baskervilles, Rebecca, and The Turn of the Screw.

  8. Make connections between a literary work or film and the "real world." Bring several newspapers to class and find as many parallels and connections with the story as you can. Use both images and words, and find thematic connections as well as connections to character, setting, mood, and genre.

  9. Make a movie poster or print ad for a book or film in which something important about its theme is clear, but which is also eye-catching and would be entertaining to your peers. You might also choose one significant line from the film or novel to use in your ad.

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Point of View

"It was a tragedy, right? No other word for it."
-- Jago, from Othello

Exploring the use of point of view in film is very different from exploring its use in literature. In a novel, everything we learn about is filtered through a point of view -- either one we trust, or one that is unreliable. In a film, the point of view can shift quickly. We might begin looking at a scene of empty fields as a disinterested observer. The camera might then show us a little girl standing in this field, and through the use of an eye-line match (a shot of a person, followed by a shot of something he or she is looking at, followed by a shot of his or her reaction), we can see that she sees a venomous snake. We then see the reaction of the child as the snake comes closer and she cries out. Suddenly, the film will cut to a shot of her father as he hears her cry out and comes running. In those few frames we have seen from three points of view: omniscient observer, little girl, and father.

Because the illusion of reality is so strong in movies, filmmakers have invented "codes" to inform viewers when the point of view changes. Besides the eye-line match, there are techniques such as the voice-over, the flashback, slow motion, distorting lenses, and even special sound effects to tell us we are in a character's imagination, not reality. In Northanger Abbey, the camera circles and goes fuzzy and the music begins to pound when we enter Catherine's fantasies. InWuthering Heights, we see a character reading a diary before a flashback to know we are now seeing events as if Cathy were narrating them. In David Copperfield, David is heard in a voice-over at the beginning of some scenes telling us his thoughts and feelings. In one of the most experimental uses of points of view, Jago (the Iago character) addresses the camera directly to tell us what he feels aboutOthello, the story he is narrating: "It was a tragedy, right? No other word for it."

  1. Choose a key scene in a film and identify the point or points of view from which the action is shown. From what other point of view could this scene be told? How could the director or screenwriter make sure the viewer sees this different point of view? Storyboard, film, or write a script to depict this.

  2. Experiment with point of view after you have viewed the film version of a literary work you have not read. Choose any character, and write a diary entry as if you were that person in the film. Read it aloud and have your classmates guess who is writing and at what point in the story.

  3. In literature, a narrator can give the reader information about what a character is really thinking, even if that character is silent, or is saying something entirely different. In a film, the actors must usually make these emotions clear to the viewer without the help of any "asides." You might team up with a drama class to take a critical scene from a work of literature in which the author uses narration to explain how a character feels and to try to make these feelings clear solely through acting. Have a partner watch and tell you what the character seemed to be thinking.

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Tone and Mood

From the first scene in The Turn of the Screw, the filmmakers manage to imply that there is something insidious just below the sunny surface of the action. Critics have long found Henry James's novella ambiguous. (Are there really ghosts in the house, or is the governess mad?) The director of this film played with both of these notions by shooting many of the scenes so that the camera seems to watch this governess in a way that could imply either. Throughout, with a combination of eerie lighting, music, and camera angles, the director creates a mood that leaves the viewer unsettled and frightened.

But directors also use their tools to bring comic relief. At one of the lowest moments in David Copperfield, as David toils in the blacking factory, we hear the horrible sounds of other children working and moaning in the background. But then the music changes and the light brightens, and we get our first glimpse of Mr. Micawber, who will become David's great friend.

In a story like this, where tragedy and comedy constantly play off each other, every element of filmmaking must work together to manipulate the viewer's emotions.

  1. How are different moods created in film? How does a director make us feel suspense? Sympathy and pathos? Choose a strong emotion that you experience while reading or viewing a story, and list all the ways you can find through which the emotion is created. Now watch or read a version of this same story in another medium. How is this same emotion elicited in this medium?

  2. Choose a scene or chapter from the novel and create a soundtrack of songs or music that would enhance the mood of that section.

  3. The use of dramatic music in Northanger Abbey is so important to the mood of the film, that the entire meaning might change if it were replaced with something upbeat and light. So critical is the music throughout Almost a Woman, that the filmmakers use it in places to replace dialogue and voice-over in conveying information. Suggest a scene in a film you are viewing in which the music is very important, then suggest how it could be entirely reinterpreted if a different kind of music were playing.

  4. Filmmakers use color and lighting very deliberately to enhance mood or to be symbolic. What particular uses of color (or lack of color) do you remember from the film you are watching? How did it affect you? What "message" do specific colors seem to carry?


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