Page to Screen: The Translation of Literary Texts to Film

Module code: EN3136

Module co-ordinator: Professor Sarah Knight

Over the last century, from the early years of moving pictures until the present day, directors and producers have turned literary texts into films. This module will explore how texts change when they are adapted for the cinema. Students will read set texts and watch the films based on these texts in parallel each week. Although the earliest literary text we will consider is from the Old Testament, and the latest from the mid-1950s, our film viewing will be more chronologically focused. We will concentrate, generally, on films released during the first half of the twentieth century, when the medium of cinema was arguably at its most innovative, communal, and popular, in the years before the advent of television and private film rental. 


The module will focus primarily on anglophone films made by companies based in the UK and USA, but we will also consider parallel developments in the continental European cinema, particularly at the height of silent film-making during the 1920s.

A variety of literary sources adapted for the cinema will be explored, taken from several genres, ranging from...

  • The plays of Shakespeare and Goethe to the 'romantic fiction' of Daphne Du Maurier
  • The short stories of Graham Greene to the novels of Nabokov
  • 'Children's fiction' such as L Frank Baum's 'The Wizard of Oz' (1900) to biblical narratives

We will investigate cinematic adaptations strongly indebted to the source text alongside more divergent adaptations that touch only fleetingly on their literary sources.

The module will take a broadly chronological approach, although chronology will be determined by release date of film, rather than by first publication of the literary source. We will start by considering silent adaptations of literary texts made during the first two decades of the twentieth century, such as Murnau's 'Faust' (1926), based on Goethe's early nineteenth-century play, and the Italian, American, and British adaptations of Shakespeare's plays that are included in the British Film Institute's Silent Shakespeare collection. We will then move to cinematic adaptations of the late 1930s and early 1940s based on arguably more populist texts written for children and within the 'romantic fiction' genre, such as 'The Wizard of Oz' (1939) and Hitchcock's 'Rebecca' (1940). Moving on to adaptations rooted in the context of war, we will then look at Powell and Pressburger's 'A Canterbury Tale' (1944) as an extremely loose adaptation of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and Laurence Olivier's near-propagandistic version of Shakespeare's 'Henry V' (1944). We will then consider Carol Reed's 'The Third Man' (1949), based on a short story by Graham Greene, a film set firmly in the aftermath of war. Produced in the same year was Cecil B DeMille's typically grand-scale and escapist film 'Samson and Delilah', very loosely based on the biblical Book of Judges, a consummate example of the 'sword and sandal' epic. We will also look at Stanley Kubrick's film 'Lolita' (1962), based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel first published in 1955. If possible, we will also look at later adaptations for the purposes of comparison, such as Peter Greenaway's 'Prospero's Books' (1991) alongside the 1908 silent version of 'The Tempest', and Adrian Lyne's 'Lolita' (1997) to compare with Kubrick's film.


The course will be taught in seminars. Students will be required to deliver an oral presentation on a set text and adaptation, or an appropriate piece of secondary criticism or work of theory, or on a related text from their own reading, to be agreed with the module tutor. Where necessary, the tutor will provide students with photocopies of the relevant texts. Students will be expected to attend weekly film screenings. By the end of the module, students will...

  • Have gained a sense of the various ways in which a literary source can transfer to the medium of film
  • Have gained an understanding of the history of cinema in the first half of the twentieth century
  • Be able to consider film adaptations within their social and historical context
  • Have gained experience in presenting their readings formally to their peers, and had the opportunity to participate in focused discussion within a smaller student group


  • One 5,000-word essay