Archives For The Road

2006 post-apocalyptic novel that follows a father and son in a journey for survival.

First impressions are made in seconds, which is why a book’s cover design is so important. While there are some wonderful book covers for the texts used in the high school classroom, there are are also some unappealing cover designs. Usually, the less attractive cover is the movie-tie in cover, and as I collect used texts for the classroom, I try to avoid these commercial texts.

Original Cover for hardcover and tradeFor example, Like Water for Chocolate  was published in 1989 by first-time Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel. This book is an independent choice in grade 10, and there are several trade paperback versions available.

The book’s original cover is a lovely tribute to Diego Rivera; a lovely turquoise border frames a painting of a two women preparing food in a kitchen. One woman sits stirring in a bowl on the left side of the painting; the central figure is dressed in white wistfully stares out to the reader as she molds a tortilla.

Cover with movie tie-in

The novel follows the story of a young girl named Tita is unable to marry Pedro, the man she loves, because a family tradition which requires her to care for her mother until the day she dies. The book is organized recipe by recipe, each marking Tita’s longing for Pedro. As Tita expresses herself when she cooks, the foods are bewitched with her emotions.

The movie tie-in cover for Like Water for Chocolate is not as charming. There is a close-up photo of Lumi Cavazos (Tita) and Marco Leonardi (Pedro) staring past each other; the effect is rather unsettling rather than engaging.

Likewise, the post-apocalyptic novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006, also has several cover versions. We teach this book in Grade 11. The original design is distinctive and bold with McCarthy’s name (brown ink) and title of the book (white ink) printed large across the front; there are no illustrations. This dramatic choice impresses the reader of both the book’s importance and the starkness of the world contained within. A father and his young son travel down through the Eastern states of a destroyed America. The environment has been destroyed, society has been destroyed, but the man and the boy struggle on maintaining a last hope for humankind. Their relationship, one of tenderness and compassion, is in sharp contrast to the nightmarish future McCarthy creates.

The film The Road was released in 2009 and the trade book movie tie-in cover depicts a weary Viggo Mortensen (the man) and Kodi Smit-McPhee (the boy) trudging down a road against a grey landscape. The mass-market tie-in is even worse with a close up profile of a filthy and distressed Mortensen. Both movie-tie in covers are commercial attempts to capture the book’s hostile setting and compassionate relationship between father and son.

The original bold cover for hardcovers and trade paperbacks in 2006

The trade paperback movie tie-in

The mass-market movie tie-in cover

However, there are some movie-tie in covers which are more suited for the material within. The covers for the novel Beloved by Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison have undergone multiple transformations, which is confusing at first to many of my Advanced Placement students who may have one of several copies. The 1987 release simply has the title across the cover. This release was an over-sized trade that does not stack well with other books.

Then, there were two paperback covers (1988 and 1994) that shared the same image of a faceless woman in a hat centered on the front.  This design more artistically captured a central theme in the novel. When the book was chosen by Oprah for her book club, the book was released again with a red cover and the word Beloved in gold script across the cover.

1987 Paperback Cover

1988 Paperback cover was similar to this cover in 1994

2004 Paperback cover

Of these three designs, the most appropriate cover was the faceless woman whose ghostly image alludes to the character of Beloved, a child murdered in order to prevent her return to slavery. Opening in a post Civil War South, the main character Sethe confronts the ghosts and people from her past, and the evils of slavery are described in painful detail.

Beloved Movie-tie in paperback cover

The movie-tie paperback cover for the film Beloved (1998) is far more dramatic; the actress Thandie Newton is pictured in side profile, back arched, against distorted tree branch. The result is dramatic without focusing on the film’s actress; this cover is not a blatant movie tie-in.

I rarely buy these movie-tie in paperbacks for two reasons. The art design usually features the actor or actress and not the elements of the story, and these covers immediately alert students that there is a film to watch rather than a book to read! However, the contrast in covers is an interesting lesson for students, and I have asked them which cover they prefer. Can they judge the book by its cover?

There are always some concessions when a film is made based on a book rather than an original screenplay. A plot may be reduced to fit a film’s running time or plot altered to “please” an audience. Of course, there are exceptions of great adaptation of books to film: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and the 1946 version of of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. But there are also particularly heinous film versions of classic works of literature. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was released with Demi Moore as Hester Prynne in 1995, and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome was released with Liam Neeson in the title role in 1993. Both films included scenes that damage the integrity of the original work. Film versions of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein starting in 1931 have brainwashed audiences into thinking The Monster cannot speak or has a square, green or bolted head. Other films have captured the spirit of a text, but renamed characters or rearranged events to the point of confusion such as the 1993 version featuring Daniel Day-Lewis in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of Mohicans. There are students who watch these versions instead of reading, and they usually do poorly on quizzes or tests.

5.5 hours of viewing pleasure

Reduced to 2 hours of viewing

Zombies?? Not yet a movie; only a matter of time!

Students will always look for any “easy” way to complete an assignment and watching a film is certainly easy, but they cheat themselves of a wonderful reading experience. For example, there are many excellent versions of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. A student can commit to the 5.5 hours of the BBC 1995 mini-series starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle or spend two hours watching the more recent 2005 film starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.Watching either film however, does not provide an appreciation for Austen’s language, her use of comic understatement. In the text, Elizabeth Bennet is confronted by her distant cousin, a Mr. Collins, who insists on proposing marriage. Despite her initial protestations, he relentlessly presses his case saying, “You may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.” At that moment, Austen slips in the most hilarious one-sentence statement: “It was absolutely necessary to interrupt him now.” How cleverly Austen chose that word absolute: (adj)  not mixed or adulterated; pure, complete; outright; (noun) something that is free from any restriction or condition. Elizabeth does interrupts him…with comic genius.

When I want to add a popular contemporary novel, I do consider about how a film adaptation will impact student understanding. Should I invest department funds in this text when there is a well-publicized film available? When I introduced The Road by Cormac MacCarthy, there was no film. Once the film was released in 2009, however, I worried if students would have the same appreciation for the text. Thankfully, they do, thanks to a very bleak film production.

The book offered for independent reading

Snow Flow film; will students watch rather than read?

This past year, I accumulated 20 used copies of Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Little Fan for my world literature curriculum. Several girls liked the story of friendship between women who have endured the Chinese custom of foot-binding, and a teachers’ book club also used the texts. The investment was $20-$30 rather than the retail cost $8.91/copy or $178.20 at Amazon. Unfortunately, the movie release is scheduled for this weekend, July 2011. I wonder the impact the film may have on my students. Will they read the book because of the film? Will they read the book despite the film? Will the film matter at all in their understanding?

Currently, classic novels are available as free downloads on the Internet (public domain), and in all likelihood, my department will not be purchasing new copies of the works of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Upton Sinclair, Charlotte Bronte, or Stephen Crane. We will rely on the secondary market to provide copies for students who do not have electronic devices or who prefer reading a paper text. Teachers are painfully aware that there are films based on adaptations on the novels of these authors, but we hope to convince students that the films are no substitute for the original work. The message of the author is best understood in the written word. Absolutely.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006, started my used book journey. The novel charts the journey of a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world as they try to find warmer climates to help their chances of survival. I read the hardcover in one sitting…a very visceral heart-pounding, page-turning sitting. That week, I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to grade AP exams. There were hundreds of English teachers there, and the discussion naturally turned to “what are you reading now?” A teacher from San Francisco described how she had patiently waited on a list for The Road at the library. Finally a copy came available, and she picked the novel up on her way home from the market. Leaning in like a conspirator, she said, “The mistake I made was opening the book before I had unloaded the groceries….things melted on the counter for hours.” I knew exactly how she felt.

Finding a book that high school students will read and enjoy is tricky. The canon offers a multitude of books that are of great quality, and many students will grudgingly admit that they thought the book was good …..after being dragged through the text. Teaching literature in high school can make one feel like a mom serving broccoli to finicky toddlers. “Read this,” I will plead, “this book is good for you!”

However, I knew The Road would be different. There was just enough suspense to keep students engaged. The plot was (deceptively) simple. The setting ominous and gloomy and not unlike their view of the future on occasion.

The problem was the cost of the text. The cheapest paperback copies I could find at the time (pre-movie release) were $11.99 each. I  purchased 70 copies (a chunk of the budget at $839.30), but as enrollment fluctuates, I needed eight more copies that November. I found five copies at the Burnham library in Bridgewater that were part of the Oprah book discussion series. The librarians were clearing them off the shelves, and I purchased them for $1.00 each…a find! The last three copies I purchased through Amazon’s used book offerings.

We taught The Road in November of 2009 with amazing success. The students were paired together in teams, like the man and the boy, and completed quizzes and classwork together.  The vocabulary was enriching not demanding; students actually wanted to know what the words “miasma” and “slut lamp” meant.

My fellow teacher and I were crazed in keeping track of each and every book, and at the conclusion of the unit, collected back 76 gently used copies and one water-soaked blob of text. However, the enrollment numbers for the upcoming class of juniors was larger, and I was determined to find cheap copies of this text. I began hunting The Road.

 The Road trade paperback (2007) has a very distinct cover…all black with bold white letters. This design makes the novel easy to locate in a shelf or on a table filled with other texts. During the summer of 2010, I found copies of The Road at library book sales, Goodwill stores, and tag sales. I have added to the 76 copies we collected back, and the department now has a little over 100 copies of this text -which means that honors and college prep classes can be taught at the same time.

Finding The Road in the used book market also means that copies can be provided for students on IEPs who may need to highlight or write in the book. We can also provide extra copies to special education teachers and aides. They also have been engrossed in the book.

For the past two years, The Road has been an excellent addition to our 11th grade curriculum. The students read the book without complaint, and there are now enough copies that will carry us into the future. Which future I do not know…. McCarthy’s vision or another? The journey continues!