To kill a mockingbird seeing the film through the lens of film language and media literacy

To kill a mockingbird seeing the film through the lens of film language and media literacy

Frank W. Baker

In the second installment his four part series for Screen Education, American media educator Frank Baker provides teachers with a framework and background for the study of film and how media literacy concepts can be applied.

Frameworks For Analysing Film

Before students can begin to study film, they must be provided with a focus.

There are many ways to look at a film. Posted below is a suggestion for teachers. Throughout this guide for teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, you will find numerous resources that touch on many of the characteristics listed below.

Students might be assigned different elements upon which to research and study.

* Narrative (the story, storyline, what the storyline is based on; binary oppositions; disruption of an equilibrium and how a new equilibrium sets in)

* Characters (heroes, villains, helpers, main characters, supporting characters, and how characters function and contribute to our understanding of the story)

* Setting (physical environment in which filming occurs, indoor or outdoor setting, its significance)

* Theme (general statement about the subject)

* Signs (anything perceptible that has significance beyond its usual function or meaning; an object, a sound, a person, an act, a color)

* Genre (romance, comedy, suspense, a combination of different genres)

* Acting (the performance of actors, whether it is convincing or not)

* Costumes (formal clothes, informal clothes, their color, and their contribution to the film)

* Make-up (style, color, whether it is exaggerated or plain, the effects it creates, colors)

* Camera angles, movements, and positions (tow camera angle, high camera angle, dose-up, extreme close-up, tilted camera, and how these affect our understanding)

* Sound and vision (sound effects, soundtrack music, visual effects)

* Lighting (illumination in a scene) (1)

Another Approach (2)

Questions to consider while introducing, studying and analysing film:

1. Who is telling the story? Why is it being told? Does it appear to have a purpose? (media agencies, authorial voice, writers and auteurs, marketing, economics, ideology)

2. How is it experienced? Who ‘consumes’ it, where and in what way? (readers and media audiences–private and public experience, narrative structures)

3. How is it made? (film technology, publishing and episodic publishing–the differences they make to the production process as well as to the finished product)

4. How does it construct meaning? (film language and written language–expectations of audiences and readers, codes and conventions, narrative structures)

5. How does it represent its subject–especially with reference to period? (representation, use of stereotypes, representation of the past)

Media Literacy

What is media literacy? (See Diagram 01)

Media literacy refers to composing, comprehending, interpreting, analyzing, and appreciating the language and texts of … both print and nonprint. The use of media presupposes an expanded definition of ‘text’ … print media texts include books, magazines, and newspapers. Nonprint media include photography, recordings, radio, film, television, videotape, video games, computers, the performing arts, and virtual reality … constantly interact … [and] all [are] to be experienced, appreciated, and analyzed and created by students. (4)

Media literacy helps students see the world through a new lens. Media influences the way we see the world. The media ‘constructs’ a world that may or may not truly represent things as they are.

Today, the phrase ‘Twenty-first Century Skills’ is being used in education circles and it includes ‘media literacy’; because, the authors’ say, students need these analytical and critical thinking skills not only to survive, but also to become part of the competitive global economy.

Core Concepts of Media Literacy

In order to best understand the concept of media literacy, it will help teachers/students to study the core concepts. Core concepts are an appropriate framework through which all media can be better studied and understood. These five core concepts are based on those developed by media educators in Great Britain, Australia, and Canada.

(Bold typeface below represents the Core Concepts of Media Literacy. (5) Italic typeface below represents the Application To Film.)

All media messages are constructed.

In film, scenes are shot out of order and then edited (constructed) to make a logical sequenced story. Who is in charge of the ‘construction’–the producer, the director, the cinematographer, the editor? What role does each of these people play in the production of a film? (see Editing)

Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.

In film, a wide, establishing shot (for example) is used to tell the audience ‘here is where the action is taking

place, take a look at this’. Music may also be composed to convey a mood or evoke an emotion. (see also Camera Shots; Lighting; Music; Setting/Art Direction)

Different people experience the same message differently.

The audience brings its prior knowledge and experiences to its viewing of the film and thus may come away with different interpretations and understanding of what it all means.

Media have embedded values and points-of-view.

After viewing the film, some viewers may get a ‘stereotypical’ view of life in the South during The Depression. In what ways does the film convey stereotypes? Are the blacks in the film subservient to the whites? (see Symbolism; Representation)

Media messages are constructed to gain power and/or profit.

This film would not have been made if the studio and producers did not feel they would receive a return on their investment. (To Kill A Mockingbird won several Academy Awards in 1963, and was one of the most profitable films of that year.)

Critical Inquiry

Closely tied to the Core Concepts listed above are Key Questions. ‘At the heart of media literacy is the principle of inquiry’, says Elizabeth Thoman from the Center for Media Literacy. We want students to learn how to ask questions about the media messages they encounter in their daily lives. Listed below are some key questions and the ways students might relate them to the film, To Kill A Mockingbird.

(Bold typeface below represents the Key Questions of Media Literacy. (5) Italic typeface below represents the Some Key Questions to Consider)

Who created this message?

Who wrote the SCREENPLAY? What are the challenges of adapting a screenplay from a famous piece of literature? Who was the PRODUCER, DIRECTOR and CINEMATOGRAPHER? What are their roles and responsibilities? Could it have been EDITED differently? If so, how so? Where is the SETTING of this film?

What techniques are used to attract my attention? (See.” Language Of Film)

Why was it shot in ‘black and white’? How do CAMERA SHOTS communicate meaning? Identify SYMBOLS throughout the film. Listen closely to the MUSIC; how does it contribute to the film? In what ways does it communicate happiness; feelings about childhood; fear and uncertainty? What role does LIGHTING play? Listen for SOUND EFFECTS and discuss how they influence you during a particular scene.

How might different people understand this message differently from me?

How might different viewers from me, interpret this film differently? Why do they not ‘see’ the same things that I see? How do my life’s experiences filter my understanding of the film?

What lifestyles, values, and points-of-view are represented in or omitted from this message?

How do the producers of this film REPRESENT the antagonist or the protagonist? What do the SETTING, the clothes, the accents of the actors, communicate about the time period or the way of life of these characters? How do the children learn about right and wrong; good versus evil? What role does each character play in communicating values?

Why was this message sent?

Why was this film made? Did the success of Harper Lee’s Pulltzer Prize winning book play a part? Do you think it was risky making this film during the Civil Rights period in American history? Why or why not?

Other questions worth consideration:

* Who produced the film? Why?

* What was the purpose of producing the film?

* What experience did screenwriter Horton Foote have that made him an appropriate choice for adapting Harper Lee’s novel?

* What techniques are used to make the audience believe the story?

* What lifestyles are shown or implied?

* How might other people see this film differently from me?

* Is anything left out of the story? Why? (Compare the novel to the film version.)

More about core concepts here

Media Literacy Core Concepts key_concept.cfm

Center for Media Literacy’s MediaLit Kit

What is media literacy? what_is_media_literacy.cfm

Other resources

Center for Media Literacy

Media Literacy Clearinghouse:

Recommended Readings

Richard Armstrong, ‘The World In A Fresh Light, To Kill A Mockingbird’, Film As Text, Australian Screen Education, No. 35, Winter 2004.

‘Using Film to Increase Literacy Skills’, English Journal, Vol. 93. No. 3, January 2004.

How to Organize a Film As Literature Class

Portions of this study guide have been previously published by the author on his web site, The Media Literacy Clearinghouse:

Literary Dramatic Cinematic Language Work

Aspects Aspects Aspects

Narrative Acting Camera angles Integrated skills with

Characters Costumes Sound and vision a greater focus on

Setting Make-up Lighting speaking and writing.




Literary Aspects Dramatic Aspects

Who are the characters Did the actors make you forget

in the film? they were acting? How?

What is the film’s Were costumes, make-up, and

setting? set equally important to the

success of the film?

What are the main In what scene was an actor’s

plot elements? voice (pitch, volume,

expression) particularly


From whose point-of- Select a scene that must have

view is the story told? been difficult to act.

How did the actor make his or

her body movements appropriate


What is the theme of Describe a scene in which

the film? facial expression was

important. What feelings were

developed? Were words


What is the mood of Did the actors establish their

the film? characters more through

dialogue or through movement

and facial expressions?

What symbols did you How is this film like or

notice? unlike other films by the

director? Does this director

have a recognizable ‘style’?

Was there anything about the

acting, set, or costumes that

bothered you or interfered

with your watching of the film?

Literary Aspects Cinematic Aspects

Who are the characters What vivid visual images did

in the film? you note? What did they make

you feel or think about?

What is the film’s What sounds or music do you

setting? remember?

What did they make you feel

or think about?

What are the main What scenes can you

plot elements? understand even without

dialogue? Why?

From whose point-of- What scene has very

view is the story told? effective or unusual


What is the theme of If the film uses special

the film? effects, do they add to or

detract from your enjoyment

of the film?

What is the mood of

the film?

What symbols did you



(1) Suggested in ‘The Third Eye: Critical Literacy and Higher Order Thinking Skills Are Improved Through a Film Studies Class’, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Nov. 2002, v.46, i3, p.220.

(2) Suggested in INTRODUCTION at (this approach follows the UK recommendations for media studies). For more about the Key Concepts of Film Studies, this site is highly recommended:

(3) Adapted from Teasley and Wilder, Reel Conversations: Reading Films with Young Adults, Heinemann, 1997, Chapter 2. SOURCE:

(4) Carole Cox, National Council for Teachers of English, Commission on Media, 1994, p.13.

(5) Developed by The Center for Media Literacy,

Frank W. Baker is a frequent workshop trainer in media education. In 1999, he coauthored a national study on US state teaching standards that include media literacy. He resides in Columbia, South Carolina.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Australian Teachers of Media

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group