Movies in the Classroom Part 2: Teaching English With Film

Get your learners excited with English through these movies. 

To show movies or not to show movies? Our guess is that Shakespeare would probably approve of teaching English with film.

In Hamlet, the titular character repeatedly procrastinated about whether he should avenge the death of his father by murdering the new king of Denmark, his uncle Claudius. Prince Hamlet suspects that his father was murdered by Claudius.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question,” he muses to himself as he contemplates whether to murder Claudius.

Throughout the course of this tale, Prince Hamlet causes the death of several people, including his mother and girlfriend. At the end of the fictional story, he kills Claudius but dies himself because he had been stabbed with the same poisoned sword that he killed Claudius with.

The most famous Hamlet movie, the 1948 film starring Laurence Olivier, begins with a voiceover that calls the story “the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Procrastinating generally doesn’t cause people to die, but “Hamlet” writer William Shakespeare apparently believed that procrastinating was a very bad trait because he wrote about it on other occasions.

Are you procrastinating about whether to show movies in your classes? In Part 1 of this “Movies In The Classroom” series, an article about movies for Social Studies classes, we presented information about studies that concluded videos help students learn in the classroom and popular movies can be an effective teaching tool in the classroom. We also gave teachers tips on how to use movies in class and provided links to lesson plans for a few movies.

However, we understand that you might, like Hamlet, still be procrastinating about showing your students movies. You might be thinking, “Sure movies in the classroom are a good idea, but it’s way too much work for me to figure out a lesson plan for a movie.”

Well, it turns out that there are a multitude of sources, online and offline, that can help you formulate lesson plans for dozens of movies. Besides the Shmoop website that we shared with you in Part 1, the online sources include:

  • Teach With Movies, which has lesson plans for English, Social Studies, and Science teachers.
  • TeachHub, which has a list of classroom movie resources.
  • ThoughtCo., which has articles on lesson plan ideas and other resources.
  • Teachers Pay Teachers, which allows teachers to buy lesson plans. Type the movie you want a plan for in the search box. Here are the options for finding a lesson plan for To Kill A Mockingbird.
  • Teaching With Movies, which helps teachers integrate these lesson plans into their curriculum.
  • ClassBrain, which includes lesson plans for movies in several academic subjects.

Teachers can also discuss lesson plans for movies with colleagues offline face-to-face and set up discussion groups within their school’s communications systems.

Teaching English with Film: Literature Onscreen

Part I of this series listed movies that could be shown in Social Studies classes in alphabetical order. Today, Part 2 covers teaching English with film. We’ll list movies that could be shown in English classes as well as the writers of the literature the movies are based on. The writers are listed in alphabetical order.

The writers whose works could be taught in English classes via literature and movies include:

Louisa May Alcott: Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women was adapted into a 1933 movie starring Katherine Hepburn that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Winona Ryder was nominated for Best Actress for her performance in the 1994 version of Little Women.

Jane Austen: Austen’s novels provide students the perspective of a different time because they often featured women dependent on marriage. And you can say she was before your time too! Her 1810's novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma were made into movies. Sense and Sensibility (1995) was a Best Picture Oscar nominee while Pride & Prejudice (2005) featured an Oscar nominated Best Actress performance by Keira Knightley.

Charles Dickens: Oliver! won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1968, but Oliver Twist (1948) is the only version of Dickens’ novel listed as one of “The Best Screen Adaptations Of Dickens’ Major Works” in this article although it wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. David Copperfield (1935), Scrooge (1951), and A Tale of Two Cities (1958) are other movies based on Dickens’ works.

Ernest Hemingway: Great actors are featured in movies based on Hemingway novels. Gary Cooper starred in Oscar nominee A Farewell to Arms (1932) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), while Gregory Peck starred in The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) and Spencer Tracy, was nominated for a Best Acting Oscar for The Old Man and the Sea (1958). The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1953 and was crucial in Hemingway winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.

Herman Melville: Innumerable movies have been made about Melville’s 1851 novel Moby Dick. The book is incredibly challenging so watching a movie can definitely help students understand it. Which version should they see? Teach With Movies has a lesson plan for the 1956 version so we’ll go with that one.

Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman is regarded as one of the best 20th century plays by literature scholars. Students might love reading about Willy Loman, but they might also appreciate watching Dustin Hoffman play the role in the 1985 movie. Miller’s The Crucible can be taught in English and Social Studies classes. Movie versions of The Crucible were produced in 1957, 1996, and 2014. Joan Allen was nominated for an Oscar in 1996 for her role as accused witch Elizabeth Proctor.

Toni Morrison: In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She is best known for Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. The 1998 movie starred Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. It didn’t do well at the box office, partly because of its length, but teachers can be selective about which parts to show.

George Orwell: Showing and discussing the movie 1984 in class in that same year would have been an awesome experience, but the movie is still relevant today because of current events. There is also a 1956 version of Orwell’s prescient novel. Students might also enjoy the films based on his novel Animal Farm.

William Shakespeare: You could write an article on the best movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s works. In fact, here is one to consider looking at. Hamlet, a Best Picture Oscar winner, is ranked ninth. Other Oscar nominees on the list are A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), Julius Caesar (1953), and Romeo and Juliet (1968).

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) was listed in our article about movies for Social Studies classes. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. So were East of Eden (1955) starring James Dean and Of Mice and Men (1939). The Red Pony was adapted for the screen in 1949 and 1973. Marlon Brando stars in Viva Zapata! (1952).

Amy Tan: Tan’s novels, including The Joy Luck Club, are often about Chinese-Americans and relationships between mothers and daughters. The 1993 movie about the novel is one of “14 Inspiring Films to Celebrate Women’s History Month” according to this article.

Mark Twain: Numerous movies are based on Twain’s novels The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1875) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Here and here are lists of movies based on the books. Many people are uncomfortable with the characters’ racist language, but Ebert wrote that the Finn book deals decently with the subject of race relations.

Alice Walker: Walker’s novel The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s about an African-American woman who coped with violence, racism, sexism, and other problems while living in early 20th century America. Whoopi Goldberg played the woman in the 1985 movie, which is on this list of “50 Inspiring Films You Should Show Your Students.”

Tennessee Williams: One of the 20th century’s top playwrights, Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. The 1951 movie is on the American Film Institute’s list of the 20th century’s best movies. Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter starred in both the play and the movie.

Richard Wright: Wright’s novel Native Son was about an African-American youth who lived in extreme poverty in 1930's Chicago.

Lesson Plans for Teaching English with Film

Lesson plans for many movies mentioned in this article are on the following Teach With Movies websites:

There are lesson plans for:

  • The Adventures of Huck Finn
  • Animal Farm
  • The Crucible
  • The Color Purple
  • “For Whom the Bell Tolls,”
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • Great Expectations
  • Hamlet
  • The Joy Luck Club
  • Julius Caesar
  • Little Women
  • Macbeth
  • Moby Dick
  • Native Son
  • Of Mice And Men
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • Oliver!
  • Oliver Twist
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Tale of Two Cities

Remember that although many movies are not as good from an academic perspective as the literature they are based on, one of your objectives is to get them interested in that literature. Here’s hoping you have great success teaching English with film—Good luck!

Additional Reading