In Praise of Folly

We should help students in our literature classes to transcend the too-common notion that “the film was funny but the book was not,” writes Douglas King.

February 1, 2023
A woman laughing.
(shahfarshid/istock/getty images plus)

Early in my career, I taught a delightful class on the post–World War II American novel. Since we met once a week, and since these were graduate-level readers, the course consisted mostly of robust discussions and depended on the students’ engagement with a challenging batch of novels: Sophie’s Choice, Sometimes a Great Notion, The Crying of Lot-49, Ceremony and Antelope Wife, among others.

For our session on Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, I was somehow possessed to supplement our usual discussions by showing a scene or two from the much-maligned 2000 film version. (It was justifiably maligned, although not through the fault of director Billy Bob Thornton and team, who shot and argued for a much longer cut, which then Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein denied.) As for the novel, McCarthy’s prose is characteristically laconic, lacks speech attributions and largely eschews punctuation. It’s also brilliant and pellucid. After we watched a scene from the film featuring Matt Damon, friends and horses, a student (let’s call her Ronda) remarked, “Dr. King, that was hilarious, but it wasn’t funny in the book.”

That simple assertion set my spidey-sense a’tingling, launching an epiphany that still rings and ripples 17 years later. I had no doubt heard similar sentiments before—and certainly have hundreds of times since. But Ronda’s statement crystallizes a seemingly ubiquitous phenomenon that goes to the heart of people’s reading experiences and capacities: people (even, as in this case, high-level readers) generally project excessive seriousness onto literature and miss lighter elements such as humor and tenderness.

Since that class, I have frequently used film in literature courses. In fact, one of my bread-and-butter courses is Literature and Film, which highlights and links the parallel student experiences of reading a print text and viewing a cinematic adaptation of it. When teaching the complex relationships between literature and film, I challenge students to avoid the Ronda perspective and instead engage their imaginative capacities, particularly when reading dialogue. I tell them, “Try not to just read words on a page; rather, try to feel how this character might sound, what she might be doing while she speaks.” Or as a theater practitioner might say, “Find the subtext.”

Yet it seems almost inevitable that people—and not just students, as most humans never get beyond this deficit—will laugh at lines in a film scene containing dialogue, characters and setting taken more or less directly from a book or play that, on the page, they pass by with what I call the “Schindler’s List countenance”: “This is literature and must perforce be a grave matter.”

This issue of reading texts with excessive gravity most commonly manifests through people failing to pick up on humor, but not exclusively so. More broadly, students tend to read literary characters negatively, yet when they see and hear those characters depicted in a film, they find them more sympathetic. Granted, that could be a valid analysis in that filmmakers and actors may have chosen to emphasize more positive characteristics of a character. But, typically, we’re dealing with an extension of the Schindler’s List phenomenon: the character descriptions and dialogue are unaltered from text to film, but the receiver’s perception changes once the magic of cinema fleshes out possibilities for the viewer that the reader had not perceived. The words on a page seem stark and serious, whereas the sensory additions of the film medium bring things to life—notably the lighter tones and valences of character and dialogue.

The Schindler’s List syndrome is exacerbated when we read plays—logically so, since a play reader’s perception of tone and characterization depends almost entirely on dialogue. Thus, students read Tracy Lord from The Philadelphia Story and find her (and almost all characters) huffy, stuffy, unsympathetic and incomprehensible. Yet then, through the cinematic magic of George Cukor, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart—boom—Tracy’s a strong, independent, attractive woman. Her suitors are charming and witty, and Philip Barry’s dialogue becomes funny.

A more recent play like Joshua Harmon’s Admissions yields similar results: “Everyone’s mad and yelling at each other all the time, right? Oh, wait—it’s comedic?” As for Shakespeare or Beckett—well, still greater challenges arise. Even Oscar Wilde’s sparkling dialogue often requires contextualizing for students—yes, Aunt Augusta in The Importance of Being Earnest is “mean and judgmental,” but that doesn’t mean she’s a villain whom we’re supposed to worry about, despise or take seriously.

The Genesis of Seriousness

In my classes, I’m still fighting the battle, challenging students to check themselves if and when they’re inclined to express Ronda’s sentiment that “the film was funny, but the book was not.” I ask that they consider that humor indeed is present in the text as in the film, and they just didn’t catch it while reading. I’ve seen no research on this phenomenon of people missing comedic elements in reading—nor on how to inculcate in readers the imaginative capacity to hear tones and subtexts other than the dreadfully serious—but I have developed a working theory as to its genesis.

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For most people, K-12 schools and teachers have dictated the bulk of our reading experiences by the time we get to college. Throughout our lives, we’ve been mandated to read plays, poems, stories, essays and novels—with significant stakes stemming from how well we fulfill those mandates. We are graded on how successfully we mine texts for their hidden, profound and Serious Meanings. And those grades carry consequences—e.g., as to which colleges will accept us, and thus (so goes the narrative) how successful we’ll be in life. Literature is presented as being wrought with secret symbolism, profound allegory and arcane imagery.

Poetry, in particular, engenders the perception that one must brave a labyrinth of terrors and torture chambers, from which one must extract the jewel of the correct, secret reading—else one has failed. Given this experience— the pressure to attain good English grades by laboriously and earnestly excavating texts rather than enjoying them—it’s no wonder that readers become conditioned to seek, in whatever text they’re assigned, the serious, sober and profound. We easily forget that authors are people who create characters who don’t always spend their lives forever pondering serious matters (even Hamlet’s a pretty funny chap), but who laugh, cry, lust, whoop and sometimes act silly.

Is there any remedy for the Schindler’s List syndrome? If my theory is correct as to the phenomenon’s origins, the university English professor faces the daunting challenge of countering years of unconscious conditioning of students. Your required general education literature class probably represents the last stop on the train, last call to order up a new perspective on how to read texts.

Outside a context in which I could teach/demonstrate a more open reading methodology—which is beyond the purview of my classes—perhaps the best I can offer is to make this essay’s case to students: If the lines are the same in the text as in the film, isn’t it rather absurd to say that the film is funny but the text is not? I have found some anecdotal success along these lines in teaching poetry, by asking students to:

  • Start with the poem’s face value; don’t assume that words have hidden and profoundly symbolic meanings that you must uncover.
  • Anchor your reading by imagining real people in specific settings rather than abstractions.
  • Consider that a given poem might be light and enjoyable, that the sounds and feel of the words may be at least as important as are the meanings. It may indeed be a serious and tricky poem, but they’re not all that way.

These principles may be transferred to prose works, with the message to students that if indeed most of us have been conditioned to expect that any reading assigned for school is Very Serious and Important—and certainly not amusing—let’s try to decondition, to err on the side of a less serious reading. Let’s encourage students to be the people who say, “I’m not sure, but I think this is supposed to be funny,” rather than channeling Ronda and needing a film version to convey the humor that’s ostensibly absent in the print text.

Whether we’re reading Romeo and Juliet, Dances With Wolves, The Hunger Games or Emily Dickinson, let’s open ourselves to comedic possibilities. Literature serves many functions—to instruct, to edify, but perhaps foremost, to entertain. Let it be light!

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Douglas King is a professor of English at Gannon University in Erie, Pa. He teaches a variety of literature and film classes and hopes that his students laugh more than they cry.


Douglas King

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