Film & Literature: Parameters of a Discipline

By Self, Robert T | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 1987 | Go to article overview

Film & Literature: Parameters of a Discipline


Self, Robert T, Literature/Film Quarterly


The imprimateur of English departments upon contemporary teaching and research in film is a function both of the many film scholars who serve on English faculties and teach in the English curriculum and of the literary features of central concerns in film study. Eleven years ago in his important essay "Literature and Film: Marking Out Some Boundaries" Harold Schneider wrote that, "insofar as language departments teach courses in the Art of Film, in Filmmaking, and in the History of Film, I believe they have wandered into alien fields, those best left to Speech and Drama, Film and TV, and Art Departments."1 A lot has changed since then. Some 139 departments of English taught film courses according to the 1973 American Film Institute's Guide to College Courses in Film and Television; a decade later the AFI Guide set that number at close to 200 - more than a 40 percent increase. Throughout the 1970s graduate programs in film began to graduate a significant number of doctoral students, many of whom found jobs in English departments. At the same time, many young literary scholars turned to film study as a natural extension of their research in literature. Many of this young generation of scholars have established research programs that are not only making the study of literature and film an increasingly sound and respectable discipline; their published research has given us a bibliography of secondary sources greatly expanded beyond the classic studies of George Bluestone and Robert Richardson.

Theory and practice in literature and film as a field have significantly developed and matured in the last decade. The context of scholarship which shapes the parameters of literature/film study is the current debate over the nature of texts, the nature of meaning, and the goals of interpretation. As an emergent academic field of research and teaching, defensive about its place in the curriculum, literature and film has shared in that "crisis of criticism" which "has forced critics of all persuasions to make explicit the philosophical postulates that ground their activity - to be self-conscious about what they are doing."2 This self-consciousness urges many perspectives: rhetorical and ideological, sociological and historical, formalist and aesthetic, psychoanalytical, phenomenological, structural, semiological. Certainly many of the major issues in film study are literary issues as well - point of view and the nature of identification with a fictional character or theme, the aspects of classical and modernist narrative structures, close textual analysis and reader-responsiveness, critical interpretation of the meanings of fiction or the deconstructi ve impossibilities of interpretation . Literature/ film teaching and scholarship encompass the literary modes of signification; the articulation systems and styles of fictional, poetic, and dramatic representation; the narrative structures of representation, the sociological rituals of literary discourse, and the mutually influential interaction between films and literature in adaptations.

When I first began teaching, as an English teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina in 1965, film was already accorded parity as a fourth literary genre in the freshman literature course along with drama, poetry, and fiction. This approach is similarly the basis of several introductory literary textbooks: Literature: The Human Experience by Abcarian and Klotz (St. Martin's, 1980, Elements of Literature by Scholes, Klaus, and Silverman (Oxford, 1982), An Introduction to Literature by Barnet, Berman, and Burto (Little Brown, 1977), and To Read Literature by Donald Hall (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1981). The variety of texts developed to aid students in the writing of essays about literature further reflect the extent to which literature and film have become professionally and pedagogically linked: Sylvan Barnet 's A Short Guide to Writing about Literature (Little, Brown, 1979), Margaret Bryan's and Boyd Davis's Writing about Literature and Film (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1975), and Edgar Roberts's Writing Themes about Literature (Prentice-Hall, 1977) all include major sections on film. …

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