Outlaw Readers and the Power of Words
by Nancy Graham
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Brave Writer movie clubs draw a robust and enthusiastic bunch of cineastes. Our conversations call for close observation of composition, camera movement, light, sound, music, and performance. Naturally, we also look at literary elements such as story, theme, character, and narrative voice—so movie clubs prepare the participants for literary analysis as well as media literacy!
We had three movie clubs in a row this spring at Brave Writer—Monster Mash, Enchanted April, and the one that just wound up: Outlaw Readers and the Power of Words. For this last club we viewed and discussed four movies—all of them adapted from novels—set in times and places in which reading is forbidden in one way or another. The first three dealt with book burning as a strategy of oppression and censorship: The Book Thief, set in Nazi Germany; Nightjohn, set in the American antebellum south; and Fahrenheit 451, set in an imagined future in which firemen rout out books and burn them. In our final movie, Dead Poets Society, a band of young men at an elite prep school have their love of poetry ignited by an unconventional teacher, inspiring them to meet for midnight poetry readings and make choices that defy the expectations of their parents and the school administration.
We have such great conversations in our movie clubs. Below are some thoughts from some Outlaw Readers club members, ending with a couple of intriguing questions for you to mull over.
Timothy (age 15) on The Book Thief:
When I close my eyes I see the scene were the car is driving along in the snow, there is nothing there it is like the car is driving along on a blank sheet of paper, there is nothing written on it no trees no houses not even a smudge of a road, a blank world. The scene is sort of like her new life, she is driving away from the old one to the new one, it is blank, waiting for her to start again from the start she has new parents, a new house and new friends. The only thing she has from her old life is a picture of her brother. Everything else is left behind.
Julio Wagner (age 16) on Nightjohn:
I think that the literacy of slaves was considered dangerous because if a slave knew enough as much as their master/owner did, they would have a sense of control and free will about them, as I think John displays in the movie. And it’s that last bit of idea that led me into this next one. The moving scene where John is punished and after starts writing in the dust with a stick. John says, “A, stands up on its two feet…” It’s that saying that really stands out to me, as it shows strength and will power for the will and commitment of acquiring knowledge.
Olivia Vazquez (age 10) on Fahrenheit 451, in which characters save books from burning by memorizing, therefore “becoming” them:
If I had to choose one book to save, I would choose “I’ll Give You the Sun” by Jandy Nelson, which is a story about twins who drift apart. This is one of my favourite books because it switches from one point of view to another over the course of a few years, and I like how the characters evolve throughout the story. Although I would rather save this book, the book I would most like to become is “Beauty” by Robin McKinley because I like the way it is written and because it possesses poetic qualities. “Beauty” retells the story “Beauty and Beast” and is about Honour (widely known as Beauty), who was once rich then tragedies made her life take a drastic turn.
Josie (age 18) on Dead Poets Society:
I think what Mr. Keating teaches his students is important because of the culture of conformity in the school. There was definitely a lot of pressure on the boys—from both their parents and schoolteachers—to do what was asked of them, and live up to the expectations and wishes of the society they lived in. Mr. Keating taught the students that they could “seize the day” and take control of their own lives. He taught that there can be more to poetry than simply memorizing or studying it.
The conflict between Mr. Keating’s independent, free-thinking philosophy and the high-pressure culture of the school and parents comes to a climactic point late in the movie. One of the students, Neil, kills himself as a response to his father’s demands that he quit acting, a pursuit he is passionate about. The school tries to explain this by saying that Neil’s death was the result of Mr. Keating and the Dead Poets Society, who inspired Neil to try acting. This results in Mr. Keating being fired from the school, and the students gathering in a last show of support as he leaves. I think this is important because it shows that, in the end, Mr. Keating did have an impact on his students.
Ivy Favier (age 15) on the feeling of being moved…
I loved how the last boy to understand Mr. Keating was the first to stand up for him. Though it took him the longest to show it, I think that he was the one who most understood the importance of what Mr. Keating stood for; to be who they want to be and to live life fully, while they still can.
Wow. That was a powerful scene. It made me cry and laugh at the same time. And it gave me that feeling… I’m not quite sure how to describe it… Chills going up my spine. I got that same feeling in Nightjohn, when Sarny told all of the slaves their worth, and when John kept writing after he lost his finger, right when he said that A stands on its own two feet. I also got a little bit of that feeling when Liesel and Rudy shouted “I hate Hitler!” I always seem to get that feeling whenever someone in a film does something extremely brave and meaningful, like in those moments I described. The only way I can think of describing that feeling is the chills running down my back, and sometimes laughing and crying at the same time. How would you describe this feeling? What adjectives would you use to describe it?
The next movie club’s theme: Magnificent Horses! Starts July 25th!