“Books are better than  movies”, is a comment often heard when comparisons are made between literature and its adaptations for the screen. Although different media and not easily compared, literature is still regarded as “better” or “finer” than movies, especially in the field of education. To read a book is generally valued more highly than to watch a movie, even if the story being told is basically the same. Written texts have long had precedence in schools, but attitudes are slowly shifting. As society changes and new media forms are introduced, schools are also forced to revise old practices. With the rapid media development of recent years, traditional literacy, the ability to read and write, is no longer sufficient to elucidate the ways in which we interact with and interpret texts. The notion of a text itself has undergone changes, and today, not only written and printed sources are regarded as texts. Pictures, films, computer games and other similar media are now also counted to this category. The new term media literacy has therefore been introduced to cover the vast amounts of input in our modern society.The curriculum of the Swedish school talks about “det vidgade textbegreppet”, which translates roughly into ‘the broader concept of the text’, and is similar to media literacy in that it includes not only traditional written sources, but newer, picture-based ones as well. An increasing amount of weight has been put on this in recent subject curricula to keep up with the development in society, where especially the younger generations pick up on new trends quickly. A fair assumption is that youths today see more films than they read books. This will inevitably lead to a clash when they are expected to read literature in school. How often have not teachers heard the question “Can we not watch the movie instead?” To watch the film adaptation of a literary work is also a well-known strategy for those who do not have time or energy to read the assigned text. This is, of course, a shortcut, almost cheating, but the question is: can they learn the same things from watching the movie as from reading the book? Naturally, it all comes down to what the purpose of the assignment was. If the intent was to practice reading, watching the movie is obviously a poor substitute, but there are many other situations where the answer is not as evident. Are film adaptations a good alternative for students with reading difficulties such as dyslexia? In effect: Can you learn the same things from watching the film version as from reading the original text? Can you discuss literature and literary issues using film adaptations? More and more books are adapted for the screen and many of the literary classics can now be found on film. Can these adaptations be used when teaching literature in school? Which are the possibilities and difficulties, and what differences are there in the reception of the different media? These are some of the questions this essay seeks to answer.

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Media Literacy

Literacy is a vast field of study, which by itself could cover dozens of pages if one were to attempt to give an accurate and detailed description of it. To add to the confusion the term has become even more complicated in recent years, as social, cultural and economical changes have paved way for new technology and media, broadening the use even more, a fact that will be further dealt with later in this chapter. In its original form, literacy is a linguistic theory that deals with different aspects of written language. Very simplified the term literacy can be explained as ‘the ability to read and write’. However, as new media have become increasingly important in our daily communication, the concept of literacy has been further complicated.In Literacy in the New Media Age, Gunther Kress problematizes the notion of literacy. He notes that with the technical revolution of recent years and the rapid development of new media forms there has been a change from a world were the printed word dominated communication to a world where visual communication via images has become increasingly important. Thus, literacy, a theory with its roots in written language and linguistics, can no longer be treated as the sole means for understanding communication. Furthermore,  changes surrounding literacy compels us to reconsider the theory that has dominated conceptions of writing over the last decades. New media forms have decreased the significance of writing when it comes to communication. “Other modes are there as well, and in many environments where writing occurs these other modes may be more prominent and more significant”  Consequently, the linguistic theory of literacy can no longer alone explain the meaning of multimodal messages. “Language and literacy now have to be seen as partial bearers of meaning only”. This means a change from a purely linguistic theory to a theoretical framework that involves semiotic aspects as well: “From a theory that accounted for language alone to a theory that can account equally for gesture, speech, image, writing, 3D objects, colour, music and no doubt others”

Today it shows up in a variety of contexts – musical literacy, cultural literacy, emotional literacy, even sexual literacy, only to name a few. In these cases, the term has come a long way from its original usage, but seem to imply the experience, knowledge and different skills needed to master a certain area. Kress opposes these new uses of the term and argues that “the more that is gathered up in the meaning of the term, the less meaning it has. Something that has come to mean everything, is likely not to mean very much at all”. In his view, literacy is the term to use “when we make messages using letters as the means of recording that message”.However problematic, these uses of the term are frequent, and although not exact, they do in some way offer a handy explanation to the intended meaning. As previously mentioned, media literacy is often used when discussing competencies connected to new media forms. Media literacy as referring to “the knowledge, skills and competencies that are required in order to use and interpret media”, but also notes that it is difficult to give a precise definition of the term. “To talk about ‘literacy’ in this context would seem to imply that the media can in some sense be seen to employ forms of language – and that we can study and teach visual and audio-visual ‘languages’ in a similar way to written language”. However, this has been proven difficult. Attempts to develop a theory of film language, have time and again encountered obstacles. “It is very hard to find analogies between the ‘small elements’ of film (shots or camera movements, for example) and the equivalent elements in verbal language (the word or the phoneme)”. In Narrative in Fiction and Film. An Introduction, Jakob Lothe also mentions this fact. Drawing on the thoughts of French semiologist Christian Metz, he notes that “the closest we get to the verbal-language notion of word in film is not the frame but the shot”, but that a camera shot is much more complex, probably more similar to a complete sentence or even a whole paragraph. Lothe uses the word ‘horse’ as an example. In written language, ‘horse’ is a single morpheme – the smallest unit of meaning, but in a film, this single object cannot be shown without simultaneously carrying much more information, for example ‘over there is a horse’, ‘the horse is black’, ‘the horse is standing by a tree’ etc.To compare film communication to linguistic communication is therefore problematic, since the two have their own different logics. Writing, with its roots in speech, is organized by the logic of time and of the temporal arrangements of its parts, whereas image is ruled by the logic of space and of simultaneity of its visual elements. There is, of course, temporality in films as well, but  the temporal arrangement of the parts in a text works at a different level. Words are put together with other words, forming clauses, sentences and paragraphs which carry the meaning in a specific order. “There is a ‘reading path’ set by the order of the words which I must follow. In a written text there is a path which I cannot go against if I wish to make sense of the meaning of that text” (Kress 3, a critic). According to Kress, images do not have this compelling path. Every single object in an image is filled with meaning that hits the spectator simultaneously, and he or she must choose his or her own path to create meaning.The two media given particularly interest in this essay, literature and film, the book and the screen, are in turn organized by the two kinds of logic previously mentioned. The book is dominated by the logic of writing and the screen by the logic of the image. 

Literature vs. Film

In “Novels, films and the Word/Image Wars”, Kamilla Elliot challenges the division between literature and film mentioned in the previous chapter. She notes that throughout the interdisciplinary study of novels and films, the two forms have indeed been separated as “words” and “images”, more or less impossible to translate either way, but that this polarization has been challenged in other fields, such as poetry and painting. Elliot questionswhy this has not been the case in novel and film studies, as she finds films to be “abound in words – in sound dialogue, intertitles, subtitles, voice-over narration, credits, and words on sets and props”. 

Furthermore, she concludes that “written texts form the basis of most films” and that “novels have at times been copiously illustrated with pictorial initials, vignettes, full-page plates, frontispieces, and end-pieces”. Elliot also notes that even unillustrated novels produce visual effects through so-called ekphrasis1.Citing filmmaker and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, who argued that the Victorian novel shaped Western film techniques, and through this influenced film art in general terms, she finds that the two forms of media are not perhaps as separated as theorists traditionally have made them out to be. Furthermore, Elliot remarks that the influence works both ways and names a number of scholars who have argued “that modern novels were shaped by cinematic techniques, like ellipsis, temporal discontinuity, fragmented vision, cross-cutting, and multiple viewpoints”. The relationship between literature and film seems to be complex, however, as some also claim that modern novels have in fact diverged from films.Elliot reasons that the conventional labeling and separation of literature as words and films as images has other motives than only to facilitate analysis. Pure arts have traditionally been more valued and seen as better than hybrid forms, which might be a contributing factor to the polarization. As has been shown, literature and film are in some ways fundamentally different, but they do share some features. Lothe examines narrative in both fiction and film, and concludes that narrative aspects in films are often “absolutely crucial both for the way the film functions and for its effect on the audience”; but simultaneously, literary and screen texts are very different. The adaptation process is not a way to illustrate literature as much as it is a translation to film language that, although different from the language in literature.


In conclusion, while both books and movies offer unique avenues for storytelling, books hold a distinct advantage in their ability to engage the imagination and foster deep emotional connections with readers. The written word allows for intricate character development, detailed descriptions, and internal dialogue that can be challenging to convey on screen. Readers have the freedom to interpret and envision the story in their own unique way, fostering a personal connection to the narrative that often lasts a lifetime.

Furthermore, books offer a level of depth and nuance that is often lost in the translation to film. Authors can explore complex themes, philosophical ideas, and intricate plotlines without the constraints of runtime or production limitations. This depth encourages readers to engage critically with the text, sparking meaningful discussions and intellectual exploration.

While movies have the advantage of visual and auditory stimulation, they often simplify or streamline the story to appeal to a broader audience. In contrast, books invite readers to immerse themselves fully in the world of the story, allowing for a richer and more fulfilling experience. Ultimately, while movies have their place in entertainment, books remain a timeless and invaluable medium for experiencing the power of storytelling.


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