Essentials of Literary and Film Theory

A Newberry Library Adult Education Seminar

This seminar, scheduled for the winter/spring 2020 term, is now concluded.

This seminar offers a lively survey of literary and film theory basics. Through literary excerpts, film clips, lecture, and discussion, our sessions will explore how writers, filmmakers, philosophers, and artists—from Plato to Toni Morrison—help us appreciate the importance of a good beginning, how characters and their thoughts are represented in literature and film, the effects of patterning and framing, why books and movies often rely on the same plots, and what’s up with adaptations. Six sessions.

Materials List

No materials are required for this seminar, which will be conducted through examples presented at the sessions and drawn from shared experiences. Each week participants will be given a selection of excerpts from theoretical works as well as recommended readings and viewings for discussion the following week.

For the first session, please bring a list of 1) your top five favorite films and 2) your top five favorite works of fiction.

Seminar Description

This seminar is intended as a selective survey of artistic theory for the ordinary reader and moviegoer. The idea is to bring accessible and engaging theoretical perspectives to the kinds of things we all notice when we read fiction and watch movies, and, in fact, to offer participants new features to look for and appreciate.

In practice, this means two main components of each session. First, we’ll read excerpts from fiction and watch scenes from films and discuss what we see. As the seminar develops, we’ll also discuss entire works that all participants are familiar with, such as The Catcher in the Rye or Frankenstein (possibly) and The Wizard of Oz (definitely). 

Second, we’ll read excerpts and summaries of key theoretical texts and expand on their meanings in discussion. I will distribute a handout (with the literary and theoretical excerpts) each week for the following week’s reading and viewing. Participants may also want to read or watch entire recommended works between sessions in order to prepare for discussion.

The seminar schedule is structured so that participants begin with familiar questions and concepts and explore logically connected new insights as we move along. Viewpoints and conceptual tools introduced one week will be used again in subsequent conversations. The overall goal is to leave participants, each week, with new perspectives and enhanced ways of reading and watching.


Week 1 – What is “Theory”? Basics of form, interpretation, and cultural studies.

Week 2 – Opening Paragraphs and First Shots. What we can learn right from the beginning.

Week 3 – Does Art Copy or Express? A look at some longstanding debates.

Week 4 – Interpretive lenses. Key frameworks for finding and making meaning.

Week 5 – How Are Characters Created? Eye-opening distinctions between books and movies. 

Week 6 – Endings and Conclusions. Is an ending a conclusion?

Image: Cary Grant at the end of the film Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (H. C. Potter, 1948) reading the novel, Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (Eric Hodgins, 1946), modified.