As students return to school, will they escape into a movie or a book?

When’s the last time you watched or even thought about the movie The Princess Bride (1987)?  It’s smart, funny, and whimsical, and the plot and pacing hinge on a book.  It’s the old-fashioned notion of an elder reading to a child, in this case it’s a grandfather reading a bedtime story to his headstrong grandson.  The story, a fairy tale, rouses him and that memorable movie reminds us of the transportive power of reading.

In the midst of August, and with an imminent return to classrooms, students gird themselves for the rigors of classes and reading.  As usual, in terms of this, students feel torn between watching a movie, a passive escape, and reading a book, an active engagement.  With that in-mind I wondered how movies portray reading and books in positive ways.

In a world where Netflix, videogames, Facebook and twitter prevail, books and literature command ever less of our attention.  Some folks just don’t “get” books, and, of course, if your family or friends don’t make a habit of reading near or with you, that could explain it.

What if your friends or neighbors think an interest in books is a sell-out or uppity trait?  Freedom Writers (2007) gives us a rousing and rare take on that problem.  A white teacher comes from a suburb into a harrowing neighborhood in Long Beach, CA wearing pearls, and tries to persuade her students to read.  For some communities and people the pleasures of reading are far from their work-a-day struggles.  But an assignment to read “Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl” reaches and touches them; some of them see their poor, urban plight reflected in Anne’s ordeal.

Reading isn’t cool to everyone; they’re not used to using or appreciating their imaginations, at least not in that way.  That’s a crisis that some research points to: NEA Reading at Risk.  Folks are concentrating on surviving, paying rent and the simple pursuit of a safe and stable life.

Well, what if you can’t read?  That is a problem.  A crisis.  To the presumably “average” and basically educated American that disability is absurd.  We can “all” read.  But what if you couldn’t, at least not fluidly or with self-confidence?  Stanley & Iris (1989) provides a poignant and sometimes pointed wake-up call for the skill, which we who can often take for granted.

A disparate and less sentimental but bittersweet story about a consequence of illiteracy.  What if a book granted you a power, a connection to, or a feeling of gratification that something else just couldn’t do or would be a poor imitation of?  The Reader (2008) is a compelling and profound tale, whether read or watched, about a teenager in post-war Germany who reads some of the classics to a beautiful, but disturbed older woman, with a troubled war-time past, in exchange for sex.  He reads to her, and then she has sex with him.  The act of reading has a pivotal and turbulent effect on the young man that stunts his growth as a man in subtle, profound and unforeseeable ways.  All of this happens because he reads to her?  Yip.

What do you get out of movies that are about but not necessarily adapted from books: each story is a portal to an adventure, to a different world, or a foreign but surprisingly similar one, that engages you in ways that a movie probably can’t in all of two hours.

Movies about thinkers rarely become money trees.  Movies are about entertainment, appealing to the masses, and making money, not teaching.  It is nice though to see the occasional one that tips its hat to the hero who reads, thinks, and uses his or her wit as a weapon instead of just brawn.

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