Literacy and film: learning about storycraft with M Night Shyamalan’s The Village

The auteur’s 2004 film works brilliantly in the classroom. I’ve explored some possible ways to use this great film below. 

The Village (2004), M Night Shyamalan’s beautifully shot, atmospheric film, is great for the classroom. It’s a rare beast: often gripping, always provocative and certificated ’12’, which means it can be used from Year Eight upwards. The narrative has lots of things for students to discuss and react to, so there’s lots to learn from.

‘Literacy is the repertoire of knowledge, understanding and skills that enables us all to participate in social, cultural and political life. Many now recognise that this repertoire has to include the ability to ‘read’ and ‘write’ in media other than print: in moving images and audio, and in the hypertext structures of the digital world.’

‘Reframing Literacy’, British Film Institute.

The film depicts a community living in an isolated village. The village is surrounded by woods inhabited by creatures with whom the villagers have developed an uneasy truce. A series of events prompts Ivy, the daughter of village elder, Mr Walker, to journey to the nearby town in search of medical supplies. True to form, Shyamalan has crafted a narrative that twists and turns in unexpected ways. Some of these have divided critical opinion about the film, but with retrospect, the film feels satisfyingly cohesive.

Ivy Asks

Capitalising on students’ media literacy and modelling the process of reading and responding to a media text works well. It can familiarise students with aspects of narrative theory, encourage them to think in an exploratory way about the text as a construct and help them to think carefully about the impact of creative choices. It’s also a way of modelling using terminology precisely, of helping students to encounter and use helpful terms as part of a process, rather than learning them out of context.

If you’ve not seen the film, it’s worth pointing out that you can read on with impunity, as I’ve carefully avoided the revelation of any obvious spoilers, whilst offering a series of suggestions and approximations of ‘dialogues’ based around my own experiences of teaching it. This hasn’t been an easy predicament. At times, I’ve had to limit the scope of my comments and exemplars to avoid revealing the plot twists for which Shyamalan is renowned, but in writing a digest of the teaching and learning sequence, I’ve aimed to make this useful reading for those who haven’t seen the film as well as for those who have. If you’re inspired to watch it after reading on, returning to this post should be even more illuminating.

Screening the film and gathering students’ responses and reactions through discussion.

‘…it’s not about passively consuming a vision from a director, producer or actor. It’s about understanding themes, narratives and plot twists and using those to advance yourself as a person and as a learner…’

‘Teaching literacy through film’, National Literacy Trust.

The film can be screened in its entirety over two lessons, as the running time is one hour and forty nine minutes. However, the film could also be shown in a series of stages: from the beginning up to the creatures’ visit to the village, then the middle section, which deals with the aftermath of the creatures’ visit and the development of Ivy and Noah’s relationship, and then the final sequence when Ivy journeys to the towns.

Ivy and the Escort

Having watched the film with students, it’s valuable to start by asking them to think about stories the film reminds them of. Some students might point out the similarities with Little Red Riding Hood, popularised by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. There are several similar motifs, such as the colour red, the setting of the woods and the cloak that Ivy wears on her journey to the towns. In making these connections, we reactivate prior knowledge and flag up similarities and differences between printed stories and moving image stories. Both narratives, for instance, have quest elements; both feature a female protagonist; both, it could be argued, served as cautionary tales, albeit in different ways.

After watching the film, students invariably have lots of questions which are worth exploring. Discussion around the film’s plot, and the reactions it prompts from the students, which can be quite visceral, is one of the most satisfying things about teaching this film. It’s a good idea to scaffold the process of how they react, asking students to devise questions and to express feelings and thoughts using stems such as ‘I wonder…’,  ‘What if…’ or ‘I’m confused about…’.

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Exploring aspects of narrative

‘In English, pupils’ moving image-based knowledge of genres, narrative structures and character function can contribute to their self-confidence as readers and writers.’

‘Moving Images in the Classroom’

Establishing narrative structure

Building on prior learning about narrative (I’ve blogged about teaching this through short fiction), I ask students to use hexagons to map the structure of the film. Key aspects can be provided as pre-printed hexagons and blank hexagon cards can be used by students to note aspects of the plot which they can then tessellate with the pre-printed ones.

Narrative Structure in The Village
Key aspects of narrative structure as tessellating hexagons.
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As students work in pairs or small groups to map the narrative structure, I circulate and use questioning to prompt students to think about how elements of structure work in the film:

‘How does the opening of the film establish intrigue about the events that are yet to come?’ I ask.

‘The death of the child makes me feel that other bad things might happen,’ a student replies.

The gravestone

‘Tell me what you thought about the flashback device used in the film, when Ivy encounters one of the creatures in the woods as she journeys to the towns,’ I ask.

‘It all started to make sense.’

‘How come?’

Well, we’d never found out what was in ‘The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used.’

The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used

‘Why hadn’t we found out?’

‘Because we were only meant to find out later on.’

Another effective approach is to provide students, again working in pairs or small groups, with a selection of screenshots. I ask them to consider which one ‘represents’ each stage of the film’s narrative structure. Can they establish exposition, trigger, rising action, climax, falling action and denouement?

Narrative Structure Screenshots
A selection of screenshots to explore narrative structure.

Again, questioning is really helpful here in encouraging students to relate what they already know about narrative structure to the film itself:

‘What might the ‘trigger’ of the narrative be?’ I ask.

‘Could it when Lucius goes into the woods?’ a student responds.

‘But what motivates Lucius to cross the boundary into Covington Woods?’ I probe.

‘Curiosity? Bravery?’

Then later:

‘What part do you think is the climax of the film?’ I ask.

‘Maybe the scene where  Ivy traps the creature?’ says a student.

‘Why?’

‘Because this is the moment where there’s the most tension…  Ivy’s in the most danger at this point,’ replies the student.

Exploring characters

‘How is it you are brave when all the rest of us shake in our boots?’

It’s worth focusing on Ivy and Lucius to begin discussion about character. Early on, it’s  Lucius who we assume will turn out to the be the reluctant hero: he appeals to the elders to allow him to visit the towns, his curiosity gets the better of him and he steps into Covington Woods, he heroically rescues Ivy when the creatures visit the village. However, it’s Ivy herself who fulfils the ‘quest’ element of the film’s narrative.

With students working in pairs, I provide four screenshots, each showing a different aspect of Ivy and Lucius:

Character Analysis - Ivy
Character Analysis - Lucius
Character screenshots.

Students work together to annotate and explain each of the screenshots, which is then followed up with feedback and questioning:

Can you think of any examples from the film where Lucius is timid?’ I ask.

‘When he’s with Ivy. Or with Ivy’s sister,’ suggest a student.

‘Why is he so shy?’

‘Perhaps he’s  embarrassed. Or maybe he’s nervous because he struggles to talk about his feelings.’

‘Can you think of any examples from the film where Lucius is brave?’ I ask.

‘When he rescues Ivy,’ says another student.

‘How does their relationship change here?’

‘They realise how much they love each other.’

In a follow-up whole-class discussion, I ask the students to feedback. I guide students toward more precise ways of describing Ivy and Lucius’s characters, encouraging them to agree a consensus on which words best describe each character trait:

‘Can you describe Ivy in your own words?’ I ask.

‘She’s really nice,’ a student responds.

‘How so?’

‘She spends time with Noah,’ replies the student.

‘Do you think she looks after him, perhaps?’ I ask.

‘Yes, she’s really caring.’

‘Caring is a good work to describe Ivy,’ I say. ‘What did you think about Ivy at first?’

‘I thought that maybe she was weak – like she was going to get taken by the creatures.’

‘Why “weak”? Say a little more about that.’

‘She’s blind.’

‘Do you think she really is weak?’

‘No, she’s strong and brave because she wants to go through the woods to the towns, even though she thinks the creatures live there.’

‘Does this make her a hero?’

‘Yes. She’s determined.’

Moving the discussion on to other characters, it’s helpful to consider how other narrative archetypes are utilised in the film. We might initially assume the creatures are the primary antagonists of the film. Later, we might question the extent to which Noah Percy is the antagonist of the film. Perhaps later, the elders of the village themselves might be considered the antagonists.

‘Who do you think the primary antagonist of the film is?’ I ask the class.

‘Probably Noah,’ responds a student. Lots of other students nod along.

‘Why?’

‘Because he stabs Lucius. And then later… what happens with Ivy.’

‘What about Mr Walker?’ I ask. 

This intruiges the students. Mr Walker himself is an interesting character. He provides much of the moral dilemma at the heart of the film. Ostensibly, he is a righteous man, and at his core, a moral leader. But to what extent is he aware of the implications of his decisions? Is the film about moral hubris? These are interesting questions that provoke further engaging discussion.

Examining point of view

As I’ve explored before, feature films, like fictional prose, typically suggest a sense of either omniscience, objectivity and/or subjectivity. In an epic film such as Titanic (1997, James Cameron) the framing of the narrative and the shots (aerial and high-angle) suggest omniscience. Other films, which depict a more personal narrative such as Little Miss Sunshine (2006, Valerie Faris, Jonathan Dayton), often utilise static medium shots which imply objectivity and an ironic detachment. Other films are more akin to a third-person subjective style of storytelling, implied by over-the-shoulder shots and depictions of the subjective experiences of a small number of characters.

Cinematically, The Village approximates a third-person subjective perspective which, in the final act, privileges Ivy’s experiences and responses. There are also some objective, wide-angle shots that suggest scale and relativity and to observe Ivy’s struggle. Of course, Ivy’s blindness creates an interesting paradigm in terms of point of view.

I ask students to annotate sequential screenshots of Ivy’s encounter with one of the creatures. We explore how point of view is used to create suspense and to represent Ivy’s experiences. I project some questions for students to discuss.

‘How is the story told? Whose point of view do you think the story is told from? Does this switch at any point?’ 

‘It’s not really told from anyone’s point of view,’ a student says.

‘Can a story be told from the point of view of someone who is blind? Who literally has no point of view?’

‘It’s her story, though,’ says the student. ‘She’s the one who makes the journey through the woods, so it’s her point of view, even though she can’t actually see.’

‘Perhaps dramatic irony is important in this story,’ I suggest. ‘The sequence where Ivy meets one of the creatures in the woods is shown from her ‘point of experience’ but we, as the audience, know more than she does.’

‘This is what makes it really scary, We know how strange the creature looks. We know how close it comes.’

‘This reminds me of the scene in which Lucius rushes to rescue Ivy. He’s aware of the presence of the creatures, but we, the audience, see more than he does. Why?’

‘Maybe because he can’t see the creature, he can only imagine what it must look like. This makes it even scarier for him,’ ventures the student.

‘And maybe scarier for us,’ I suggest. 

Annotated Screenshots 2
Annotated Screenshots 1
Students annotate sequential screenshots of Ivy’s encounter with one of the creatures.

Setting

‘We may question ourselves at moments such as these. Did we make the right decision to settle here?’

Setting Screenshots
A cluster of screen shots from the opening of the film.

I provide students with a cluster of screen shots from the opening of the film. Students annotate the cluster of screenshots that, with careful illuminating through questioning and discussion, can establish important aspects of setting. Again, I project some questions.

‘How is the world of the film established? What details support this? What clues does the writer give us about the setting of the film?’

‘There has been a recent death – the death of a child,’ observes a student.

‘What else do we learn from the mise-en-scene?’ I ask.

‘It’s like they’re early settlers.’

‘Surely more likely to be a 19th century society,’ I counter. Think about the bowler hats, the iron work. What does the montage that depicts the villagers’ lives reveal about what they value?’

‘There’s clearly a sense of community and order at the villagers’ meal.’

‘What about Mr Walker’s mantra, “…we are grateful for what we have been given…?’

‘There’s something almost religious about it.’

‘What’s the effect of the noises that come from the woods during the communal meal scene?’ I ask.

‘There’s something bad there. It’s a bad place.’

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Motif

‘Bad color! Bad, bad color! Bad c-color…!’

‘What kinds of boundaries do you have in your own lives?’ Are boundaries always physical or can they come in different forms?’ 

Students discuss these questions in terms of boundaries that stop us from getting out – and boundaries that stop things from getting in. We talk about social boundaries, some of which are depicted in the film, such as the courtship of Ivy and Lucius – and in the relationship between Mr Walker and Alice Hunt.

I distribute screenshots of key moments throughout the film that depict boundaries. I ask the students to think about this important motif which occurs throughout the film, especially because it takes on even greater importance after the narrative’s anagnorisis.

‘What examples of physical boundaries can you recall from the film?’ I ask.

‘The boundary that separates the village from the woods,’ a student offers.

‘Why are these physical boundaries important to the villagers?’ I ask.

‘Because it stops the creatures from getting into the village. The wooden posts. The painting of the “safe colour”,’ says the student.

‘But it doesn’t,’ I point out. ‘The creatures can easily transgress that boundary. Could it really be about the elders preventing the young people from going into the woods?’

‘Definitely.’

I move the discussion on a little: ‘What kinds of non-physical boundaries restrict the lives of the young people of the village?’

‘The elders.’ 

‘What about fear?’ I ask.

‘Fear stops the young people from going into the woods.’

Boundaries
Screenshots of key moments throughout the film that depict boundaries.

We discuss other motifs in the film:

‘What is the significance of the outward facing chairs?’ I ask.

‘Looking into the unknown, maybe,’ responds a student.

‘Why are they facing outwards toward the woods?’

‘Maybe they’re always alert. Like they’re always watching for something.’

‘So maybe it’s about vigilance,’ I suggest. ‘Or going back to boundaries. Maybe it’s about making sure the young people are keenly aware of the boundary between the village and the woods. ‘Where in the film is the colour red featured?’

‘The berries… the creatures.’

‘Can you explain why the director might have chosen the colour red to symbolise ‘those we don’t speak of’?

‘It reminds us of danger.’

‘What other connotations does it have?’

‘Violence. Destruction.’

Genre and sub-genre

What’s really interesting about The Village – and this is something students often find challenging – is the fluidity around genre that Shyamalan plays with, sometimes to subvert and at other times to fulfil our expectations. I screen the opening credits of the film. How is genre established here? Students comment on the imagery of the woods; the colour palette and the use of music.

I give students statements which they sort in pairs: do they agree or disagree? During this process, I ask students to think of examples from the film that support their decisions. Thinking about different parts of the film that represent a different theme or mood is useful activity to develop this. Students label screenshots with mood, emotions and characteristics.

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‘Agree or disagree’ statements.

Making a creative response

The final part of the learning sequence asks students to make a creative response to what they’ve seen in the form of a written, first-person piece of empathic writing. I ask students to think about what might happen in the village as life continues after Ivy returns from the towns. I start by asking students what events from the story a fellow villager, perhaps a teenager or young adult, might reflect on in either a diary or a monologue. I capture students’ ideas on the whiteboard, then we put them into clusters: life in the village; questions a young person might have; recent dramatic events; secrets; the creatures. Planning the monologue can also be enhanced really well with drama activities such as hotseating or eye-witness accounts.

Planning Empathic Writing
I capture students’ ideas on the whiteboard, then we put them into clusters.

I then model the opening of a piece of writing:

Modelling Descriptive Writing

and students continue, using the clusters of ideas we generated earlier as a framework. As students work on their responses, it’s great to discuss their own work in terms of the reading of the film we’ve made and using some of the terminology which they’ve utilised in their discussions.

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Final thoughts

In avoiding spoilers, I’ve focused this sequence around a shared ‘reading’ of those aspects of narrative which the film excels in. It would be equally valuable to discuss the themes and underlying messages too, but that would have given too much away to those who haven’t seen the movie. Without giving too much away, there are some powerful questions raised by the film that students engage with particularly well:

What,’ I ask, ‘is the message of the film? ‘Does it have a moral? Some of us made the connection at the start to Little Red Riding Hood. If that story has a moral about danger, is there a similar – or -different – moral in The Village?’

And then:

‘What is the significance of Ivy’s blindness and vulnerability?’

‘What might other possible outcomes of the film be?’

‘To what extent is The Village a horror film?’

‘Given what we learn about the creatures that inhabit the woods, what might the theme of the film be?’

A study of a film narrative and the discussions that form part of this is a great way to teach how we ‘read’ a story and how to use – in a meaningful way – the meta-language that can help us to be more precise, more exploratory or more critical in our responses. It’s also a great way to teach ‘transferable knowledge’ – knowledge which helps students to lay foundations of understanding which they can then apply to new texts, in different contexts or in different forms of writing.

The Village, with its sometimes divisive plot twists, is perfect for deconstruction in the classroom. If you’ve not seen the film, I’d suggest watching it at home with a blanket to hide underneath and a companion to discuss it with. Both are essential.


Read some of my students’ creative responses to The Village at www.confictionarium.com.


Further reading

On the film…

Morales, Carlos The Village: M. Night Shyamalan’s Misunderstood Love Story

In Defense of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village

Sachs, Ben The Village: revisiting a meaningful plot twist

Sødtholt, Dag The Village.

Dag has blogged extensively about The Village and Shyamalan’s ouevre for the international edition of Montages, the Norwegian film magazine. His work is really valuable: a detailed and forensic exploration of the film which would support any teacher preparing to teach the film.

On literacy and reading…

Teaching literacy through film – The National Literacy Trust.

Reframing Literacy’ – British Film Institute

Moving Images in the Classroom – British Film Institute

James Durran’s approach to whole-class reading was especially helpful as I planned this sequence, and I’d strongly encourage you to read it. 


A note about screenshots and fair use

In preparing the screenshots that accompany this not-for-profit, educational blog post, I’ve evaluated the screenshots selected from the film against the four factors that determine whether the use of the images can be classed as fair use. Fair use defines using copyrighted works for education, research, scholarship, criticism and comment as being protected under the Fair Use Doctrine.