From Sophocles to Spielberg


In a previous post I used Frye’s idea of literary scholarship as proceeding from an “inductive survey” of the subject to argue that, in the field of Victorian studies, we should still be teaching such classics as Vanity Fair or Bleak House.  I was using Frye’s criticism to defend a particular canon of Victorian literature, a goal that might be seen as conservative in nature.  Here I want to argue something rather different, and apparently contradictory (in the spirit of the “both/and” logic recommended previously on this blog), namely to show how using Frye to think about my Introduction to Literature course encouraged me to incorporate a contemporary popular movie, namely Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, an action that superficially might seem to locate me in the cultural studies camp.  By writing in some detail about how I teach a specific course, I hope to continue, if obliquely, the theoretical discussion of the last week or two.

On the one hand, just as the literary scholar needs to make an inductive survey, so, in some reduced way, ought the student.  On the other hand, if all of literature has certain fundamental structural properties, then in a sense it doesn’t really matter what texts you study, or where you start.  And so in a first-year course I don’t really worry about how much we cover.  I always begin with Oedipus the King, for reasons which by now probably have more to do with superstition than anything else – rather like always wearing the same shirt for a 10K road race.  And I do proceed in a largely chronological order.  But after that it is a matter of choosing some texts that I hope at least most of the students will be engaged by, and that I can use to illustrate the way that literature can be analyzed in terms of structure and texture, or in Frye’s words, myth and metaphor.

The course outline for my most recent Introduction to Literature course tried to articulate the goals of the course to the students as follows: “We will study literary works of a variety of different kinds (plays, lyric poems, short stories, a novel, and a film) and from a variety of periods, from ancient Greece to contemporary North America, by artists from Sophocles to Steven Spielberg, from about 429 BCE to 2005.  The course is designed to develop the ability to read and think critically, and it will emphasize (i) the structural principles which literary works have in common; (ii) the need for close reading of literary texts in order to identify the distinctive features of any given text.”  My “theoretical approach” adopts Aristotle’s generic categories (as does the Norton Introduction to Literature) and draws heavily on Frye along with an eclectic range of other critics and theorists.  It didn’t take many years of teaching to discover that Frye was a very reliable guide when trying to work out how to teach the basic principles of literary study.  Some of the other theorists I was enamoured of in graduate school were less helpful; I remember a friend who was teaching her first course as a TA in the late 1980s saying to me, “I set out to deconstruct the students’ liberal humanist notions about literature, and then I discovered that they didn’t have any.”

I always like to include one novel in the introductory course, preferably one that is not too long, for the practical reason that Saint Mary’s University has a significant percentage of ESL students, and all students, whatever their degree programme, must take Introduction to Literature.  Last time I taught the course, I decided to teach H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.  Most young people are familiar with science fiction, and the “alien invasion” is an especially popular topic, so I thought it would be interesting to study the literary work that stands behind so many recent films.  I was also influenced by the fact that Steven Spielberg’s film of 2005 adapts the story to contemporary New Jersey, and contains numerous references to the events of September 11, 2001.  I thought we would study the film in addition to the book, in order to explore the concept of adaptation.  Students are usually astute film critics (in fact, they scored remarkably well on a detail quiz about the film, as compared with the book), and I always hope that discussing which conventions transfer from fiction to film, and in what ways the two genres are different, will bring about a greater awareness of literary conventions.

As Frye notes, science fiction is a form of romance, but H. G. Wells is also a master of what Frye calls “low-mimetic realism,” often with a pronounced comic dimension, as in his novel Kipps. While War of the Worlds is culturally important for its role in the history of science fiction, it is also a novel about a writer living in the Home Counties, and it is full of vivid period detail.  It is an accessible but rich work, and it is a rather frightening story as well.  Similarly, Spielberg’s film works on several levels.  Among other things, it is about class and family dynamics in the contemporary United States, including a comic dimension based on the class difference between the character played by Tom Cruise and his ex-wife’s new husband.

There is a lot of cultural and intellectual context that is relevant to Wells’s novel, for example, fears of a foreign invasion of England, widely depicted in the popular literature of the time, or the work of Charles Darwin, as championed by Wells’s teacher Thomas Henry Huxley (who became known as “Darwin’s bulldog”).  At the same time, as a work of romance it incorporates many of the conventions of that genre, which are even more apparent in the film adaptation, with its scenes of combat and destruction and its images of ascent and descent, death and return from apparent death.  Spielberg’s film refers to the fear of terrorism in post-September 11 America, and is full of visual imagery familiar from television coverage of the attack on the World Trade Center: billowing clouds of grey dust, a crashed airplane, home-made posters of missing people.  It includes many of Spielberg’s characteristic images and motifs, including familial conflict, vulnerable children, rebirth, and framed point of view (for example, we see part of the alien destruction of Bayonne, NJ indirectly, on the screen of a camcorder that someone has dropped).  In one scene, Tom Cruise is pulled inside an alien tripod that has already captured his daughter (memorably played by Dakota Fanning).  As he is pulled out by other captives is able to leave inside some grenades that he has picked up earlier, destroying the tripod and allowing the human prisoners to escape.  The escape of Odysseus from the Cyclops and the swallowing of Jonah by the great fish are relevant parallels to this scene, and it is an interesting footnote that Wells’s tripods have a possible Homeric source.  An Iranian student made the cross-cultural observation, in relation to Wells’s satirical portrayal of the Anglican curate, that the clergy are frequently mocked in the literature of her culture as well.

I offer this teaching narrative as a concrete example of how I teach literature, “after theory,” and informed by the critical tradition and especially by Frye, and as an example of my own version of “cultural studies.”  In class, we talked about the book and the film each in the context of its time, while seeing them as part of the larger structures of alien invasion narratives, stories about family life (far more obviously in the case of Spielberg), and of romance.  I have no problem discussing Spielberg’s film in terms of the events of September 11, 2001, that is, in terms of its immediate and topical relevance.  There has been considerable debate over his references to the attack on New York, with some seeing the film as cheaply exploitative, and others seeing it in the context of Spielberg’s handling of contemporary political and social issues in Minority Report, The Terminal, and Munich.  I wanted to hear what my students thought about that debate.  But I also have no problem seeing Spielberg’s film in the context of an imaginative universe that includes The Odyssey, the Hebrew Scriptures, and the Christian Bible.  There is no need to restrict classroom texts to canonical “great books,” any more than there is a need to deny the enduring qualities of those books.  They are all part of a single imaginative universe.


Trailer for Spielberg’s War of the Worlds

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 thoughts on “From Sophocles to Spielberg

  1. Peter StirFrye Yan

    Frye on 9/11 Adaptation and Mimetic Criticism:

    Frye was often fighting mimetic criticism, maintaining more or less that stories come from other stories. My students often point to films like United 93 and World Trade center as directly cut/pasted from life. I think Frye would still maintain that anything from life still has to be *formed* into art. While many would consider 9/11 a *tragedy*, indeed the dramatic metaphor used by the Western media, it is not necessarily one.

    For those watching from nations and cultures who hate the U.S., it is a quest romance, where the hero slays the big bad American dragons (the media reported an Afghan rug depicted the planes hitting the towers); or a comedy, or birth of a better world. Some people were dancing in the streets at the 9/11 news. It could be tragedy as depicted in these films. Even a satire/irony for those who think that Bush administration masterminded the whole event.

  2. Joe Adamson

    This is a great post, Russell. Rather than complaining about academic politics and engaging in theory wars, your post suggests a much better alternative: practice one’s own form of cultural studies. I have in fact considered the possibility of presenting for approval by the department’s curriculum committee, as part of the offerings in cultural studies, a course on the social and cultural theory of Northrop Frye: a course organized around perhaps The Critical Path and his other writings on society, culture, and education. I’m not sure if it would meet with approval, but it would be an experiment worth trying.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *