Today’s Mentor Text Wednesday post is a guest post from Kristie Keener, a 9-12 teacher at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, New York! The lesson she shares today comes from a combined 11th and 12th grade course called Psychology in Literature. (How cool!)
Do you have a mentor text that has worked well for your students? We’d love to hear about it! Submit a Mentor Text Wednesday guest post!
Mentor Text: 1984 by George Orwell
- Cinematic Technique in Descriptions
George Orwell’s 1984 skyrocketed to the best seller list in January 2017 as editorials spoke of the eerie echoes between Orwell’s “newspeak” and the Trump administration’s use of the phrase “alternative facts.” Suddenly a text I had taught in junior English class at Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, down the street from the Clinton’s house, enticed a whole new generation of readers. Some find Orwell’s dystopia prescient; others consider it antiquated. Regardless of my students’ take on the text’s predictive ability or resonance with our current political moment, all of my students were, suddenly, refreshingly excited to be reading 1984.
To teach the text, I’d gathered information on the life and times of Orwell, sourcing detailsfrom his essays on his childhood boarding school days to what movies looked like during the mid-1940s. Yet as I reread Orwell’s opening scenes, I was struck by the craft of his writing and decided that 1984 would be an ideal way to teach students about cinematic technique in descriptive writing.
For cinematic descriptions we focused on what I call the “saucepan riot” scene, where Winston encounters a mob of proles–members of the proletariat, what Orwell might call the “common man”– on his walk. At first he thinks that the proles have finally decided to rise up against the oppressive INGSOC government, but he discovers that they are only arguing about how a street vendor has run out of saucepans:
He remembered how once he had been walking down a crowded street when a tremendous shout of hundreds of voices women’s voices — had burst from a side-street a little way ahead. It was a great formidable cry of anger and despair, a deep, loud ‘Oh-o-o-o-oh!’ that went humming on like the reverberation of a bell. His heart had leapt. It’s started! he had thought. A riot! The proles are breaking loose at last! When he had reached the spot it was to see a mob of two or three hundred women crowding round the stalls of a street market, with faces as tragic as though they had been the doomed passengers on a sinking ship. But at this moment the general despair broke down into a multitude of individual quarrels. It appeared that one of the stalls had been selling tin saucepans. They were wretched, flimsy things, but cooking-pots of any kind were always difficult to get. Now the supply had unexpectedly given out. The successful women, bumped and jostled by the rest, were trying to make off with their saucepans while dozens of others clamoured round the stall, accusing the stall-keeper of favouritism and of having more saucepans somewhere in reserve. There was a fresh outburst of yells. Two bloated women, one of them with her hair coming down, had got hold of the same saucepan and were trying to tear it out of one another’s hands. For a moment they were both tugging, and then the handle came off. Winston watched them disgustedly. And yet, just for a moment, what almost frightening power had sounded in that cry from only a few hundred throats! (Part One, Chapter 7)
The scene begins with a sound which Winston and our narration follows until we reach a clearing and take in the visual description a mob of 200-300 people in a sort of open-air black market. The narration zooms in their faces comparing them to the desperate faces you might see on a sinking ship. Then a montage of “individual quarrels” including women escaping with their saucepans and some women confronting the stall owner with accusations. Finally we zoom in on two women and linger in their conflict with details of their “bloated” bodies and disheveled hair. Lastly we return to a description of the sound of a “few hundred throats” which drew Winston to the scene. In this last description of the mob sound rising, I imagine a camera tilting upward to the open sky where the cries have travelled upward.
In 1947, Orwell was writing 1984, and he died in 1949. Orwell’s narration with its cinematic zooming, panning
, tilting of the dark scene above reminds me of Hitchcock’s suspenseful camera direction seen in two recent-for-the-time Hitchcock films: Lifeboat (1944) and Spellbound (1945). I have no way of knowing Orwell’s influences and perhaps no writer really fully understands their own influences, but the framing of Orwell’s scene in terms of cinematic angles and techniques resonates with my students. Asking students to channel their understanding of visual storytelling in films to their descriptive writing gives them a tool to slow down the action in ways that cinematic camera angles frequently employ. I also made a video of this close reading of Orwell’s cinematic technique here on my youtube channel, Writer’s CraftBox, for students who need reinforcement.
How We Might Use this Text: Dystopian Narratives and Stronger Analytical Essays
After studying 1984 as a mentor text, I asked students to write their own dystopian narratives using cinematic descriptions. As Orwell wrote a vision of the future 35 years ahead of his own, I asked them to write about a society that they think is possible 35 years into our own future. Often their first drafts were full of summarized action and brief descriptions. Each time, I drew them back to the cinematic technique in the saucepan riot and asked them to write narration so that it appears in the reader’s mind the way that camera shots appear in a filmic storytelling. The results were much deeper in their description and much more intentional.
Later in teaching the use of anecdote in analytical essay writing, I asked students to return to their cinematic technique to deepen the descriptions in their anecdotes and was pleased to see them transfer this skill to even their nonfiction writing.
I’d love to hear about ways that others are using film to deepen student’s writing or ways that narrative technique has deepened student’s nonfiction writing; what have you tried?