Narratology + Film adaptations = Introduction to Narrative (Spanish 333)

Our undergraduate program in Spanish literature has three courses at the third year level focusing on the study of a given genre: poetry, narrative, drama. This summer I taught “Introduction to Narrative” during summer session. It is a 4-credit course that meets four days weekly for sessions of 1h 50m over four weeks [click here to see syllabus].

In the past when I have taught the course I have had the students read a series of short stories and introduce a critical vocabulary of narratological concepts (plot elements, characterization, point of view, etc.). This time I gave them a selection of classic short stories from canonical Spanish and Latin American authors (Don Juan Manuel, Pardo Bazán, Rulfo, Matute, Borges, etc).

Typically I would assign a series of writing assignments geared to demonstrate an understanding of how the authors make use of the various narratological resources (theme, tone, narration, dialogue, plot, etc) and to what effect. The final assignment was usually a 5-7 page literary critical essay focusing on one or more of the texts.

There are two things I wanted to accomplish in designing this course the way I did:

  • Give the students some models for academic literary criticism
  • Provide an opportunity to produce a literary critical project that went beyond the traditional literary critical essay.

For the first three weeks we read one story per class session from the popular anthology Aproximaciones al estudio de la literatura hispánica (Approaches to the Study of Hispanic Literature). For the first class session, the students were responsible for reading the introductory essay on narratology and familiarizing themselves with key critical terms for the study of narrative. Before each class they took a short online quiz (4 strictly factual true/false questions) to make sure everyone had done the reading. In class we reviewed the stories and relevant critical concepts, and workshopped close readings, applying concepts, selecting textual examples, and explaining their importance for understanding the concepts.

In past classes, when reading students’ literary criticism I have been getting the (unscientific) impression that they do not have a strong sense of what professional literary criticism sounds like. That is, they are unfamiliar with the style, the rhetorical strategies and structural conventions of the genre.

It occurred to me that I have never required my third-year students to read literary criticism. I’d always assumed that assigning them professional literary critical essays would either overwhelm them (if in Spanish) or derail the pedagogical mission (if in English). I myself remember college professors of 300-level survey courses in English literature saying that they preferred we focus on writing our own criticism rather than read what other people thought about the texts.

But it is fair to ask someone to imitate a model they have not seen? Probably not; but in any event, I still thought that assigning long literary critical essays in Spanish might not be productive. So this time around, I compromised. For each short story on the syllabus, I located a published literary critical essay, and included 2-3 short selections in a one-page handout [click here to see one]. These extracts satisfied a number of requirements: they are short enough to be easily digestible for in-class discussion of how to deploy textual examples, they were short enough to satisfy most working definitions of fair use (and so could be included in a course reader without incurring additional copyright fees), and they were mostly in Spanish, the language of instruction for the course.

Because the articles are all about the stories the students read in preparation for the lesson, they help bolster their understanding of the material and give them specific examples for how to approach the texts critically. These models of criticism help to give students an idea as to what they are shooting for. I don’t expect them to start writing immediately like professional critics, but better to aim high.

At the end of weeks 1-3 students handed in a short (min 500 words) critical essay written on one of the week’s four texts explaining the author’s use of at least two of the critical concepts discussed in class.

For the final project, the students (working in groups) produced a film adaptation of one of the stories. Students were assigned randomly in groups of four and were responsible for submitting a script (guión) of their adaptation, then a storyboard (guión gráfico), and then the final cut video in .mp4 or .mov format.

To familiarize ourselves with the new format (video) we watched a series of similar video adaptations produced by AP Spanish students in US high schools. We also read Gerardo Sánchez’s short, self-published Como escribir un guión (How to write a script) and looked at examples of professional screenplays in Spanish. They built their skills in a series of in-class exercises in which they practiced conceiving and scripting short scenes from the readings in formal screenplay format.

The students spent week 4 (the final week) of the course workshopping their project in groups of 4 or 5. They spent the weekend working on their screenplay. On Monday they turned in the screenplay, with the storyboard due the following day. Wednesday they finished shooting and editing their short films. On Thursday, I booked the (very swanky) screening room of the new UO Cinema Studies Lab for a Spanish 333 film festival. Each group gave a short introduction to their film and fielded questions after the screening. The groups decided collectively whether or not they wanted to publish their shorts on YouTube.

It may seem counterintuitive to spend three weeks studying literary critical essays and then not require them to write a substantial literary critical essay. This was an experiment. My hope was that by combining traditional literary criticism with cinematic adaptation, the students would:

  • Reinforce their understanding of narrative and narratological concepts by approaching the material in a creative, productive assignment.
  • Come to a better comparative understanding of literary and cinematic approaches to narrative by having to experience, first-hand, the possibilities and limitations afforded by the film medium.
  • Experience something different in one of their Spanish classes, and maybe even have some fun (is that wrong?)

The adaptations were pretty good overall. I made it clear that I did not want them to spend lots of time mastering the equipment or the editing software. I wanted them to tell a story. A couple of the projects were shot entirely on an iPhone or iPod Touch, with pretty impressive results on both video and audio (the Rulfo adaptation below was shot entirely on an iPhone, including the audio). I’ve embedded two examples in this post, adaptations of story no. 35 from Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (Spain, 14th c.) and Juan Rulfo’s “No oyes ladrar los perros” (Mexico, 20th c.)