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Lesson Plan Booster: Little-Known Books Behind Popular Movies

Kurt RussleEvery movie on the silver screen began, at some point, on paper (or at least on a computer screen). Someone had to sit down and write out the scenes and dialogue. While some may question the literary value of films such as “Die Hard,” “The Thing” or “Rambo,” all three are—surprisingly—based on critically acclaimed works of fiction.

This discussion guide stimulates students’ interest in reading by examining the connections between written works and movies.


Language Arts - English

Grade Level:        7-12

Student learning objectives: Students will explore links between written works and popular movies. They also will gain a new appreciation for lesser-known works of fiction.

Preparation:  Using the information below, familiarize yourself with a few obscure titles that achieved critical acclaim (if not reader popularity) in print form, then in later years, gained widespread popularity on the big screen. While these books and movies contain content inappropriate for students, consider hand-picking, sharing and discussing particular passages or scenes that might be classroom-friendly.

Blockbuster Film – “Die Hard” (1988)

Many will remember the popular action film “Die Hard.” For the uninitiated, the plot involves New York cop John McClane, who gets trapped in an L.A. skyscraper as terrorists take it over in an attempt to steal a lot of money. McClane, in a role that shot actor Bruce Willis into superstardom, shoots, impales and crushes several terrorists before blowing up the top three floors of the building and tossing actor Alan Rickman out of a window. Oh, and he does all of this barefoot.

Lesser-Known Literary Origin – Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp (1979)

Amazingly, Nothing Lasts Forever is just as awesome as the film. This is not a case of a movie being “loosely” based on a novel. There are minor differences between the two—Anton Gruber became Hans Gruber, and the heroic cop is in town for a Christmas party at his daughter’s workplace, rather than his wife’s. But all the plot twists and pulse-pounding scenes are right there in the book. It’s a mystery why the novel wasn’t anywhere near as popular as the movie.

Blockbuster Film – “The Thing” (1982)

Respected by film-industry insiders and beloved by fans of the genre, John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing” combined elements of sci-fi, thriller and horror flicks. Fans remember special-effects guru Stan Winston’s groundbreaking work bringing the creature to life, but what often gets forgotten is the well-portrayed tension between the characters. Their fear, paranoia and distrust are palpable throughout the film. One scene in particular earned “The Thing” a place in the Hall of Fame of Awesome: after Kurt Russell lights the alien on fire, the creature severs its own head, which then grows a set of legs and scampers away.

Lesser-Known Literary Origin – Who Goes There?, by John W. Campbell (first copyright 1934)

Published in the 1930s, the story is exactly the same as that depicted in Carpenter’s film. Despite receiving critical acclaim at the time, the work remained largely unknown. Some suggest that the reason behind the relative obscurity of Who Goes There? is that praise for the title came from groups such as Science Fiction Writers of America, rather than more mainstream sources. Not even an earlier (1951) film adaptation, which largely deviated from the text, thrust Who Goes There? into mainstream success.

Blockbuster Film – The “Rambo” Series (1982-2008)

While the later entries to the series got a little silly, the first two were gritty depictions of what war does to a man. The first film, “First Blood,” tells the story of John Rambo, a Vietnam vet being hunted down by an overzealous police chief. The film’s sequel, “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” brought Rambo back to Vietnam in an attempt to rescue American POWs. These are additional examples of films that appealed to moviegoers while also effectively conveying the themes of written works.

Lesser-Known Literary Origin – The Rambo Series, by David Morrell (1972 and later)

Rambo has legions of fans because he blows things up in spectacular fashion. His motives, however, make him a gripping literary character. Unfortunately, the book, published in the early 1970s, was largely panned. It wasn’t until the success of the first movie that Morrell extended the series. At the end of the original novel, Rambo dies. Morrell had to revive him because of the demand created by the film.

Introducing the discussion to students:

Success isn’t always instant. For every Mark Zuckerberg, there are thousands of others who had to wait years for recognition, if it came at all. We’re going to discuss some underappreciated works of fiction that remain relatively unknown, despite the existence of popular movies based on these books.

We’ll also talk about differences between books and movies, how well one medium translates to the other, and other issues involving the relationship between the two.

Options for student discussion questions:

  1. What are some of your favorite movies that have been based on books? If you also read the book, did you like the book or movie better? Why?

    Note: A few examples of movies based on books include:

    The "Harry Potter" series
    “The Hobbit”
    “Life of Pi”
    “The Hunger Games”
    “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”
    “The Help”
    The "Lord of the Rings” trilogy
    The “Twilight” series
  2. When books are made into movies, is it true that the book is often better than the film? Is the opposite ever true? Can you think of an example?
  3. What are some differences between the medium of print vs. the medium of film? What can books do that movies cannot, and vice versa?
  4. What book would you most like to see made into a movie? Or, identify a movie whose book version you’d like to read. (For an extension activity, have students select a book that has been made into a movie, read a chapter or two of it, and then take the role of book critic and present a brief review to the class.)
  5. Why do some books make good movies, while others don’t? What makes some popular books bad movies? What makes an unpopular book a great movie? Can you think of examples?
  6. In the examples we discussed (“Die Hard,” etc.), how many years passed, on average, between the year when the book was published and the time when the movie was released? Why do you think it took this long for the stories to achieve popularity?
  7. It often takes writers many years to achieve success as authors. First, there is the challenging process of preparing a book proposal, followed by likely publisher rejections before the book is accepted. How many times do you think authors generally get rejected before being accepted? This article gives examples of famous authors and the multiple rejections they received before achieving success. (Note to teachers: 99% of the reader comments under the article are classroom-appropriate, but be sure to preview them before sharing with students.)
  8. How would you feel if you submitted a book proposal that was rejected? How would you feel as an author if your published book didn’t sell well or gain popularity among readers? What would help you to keep trying as a writer? (For an extension activity, try having students write mini-proposals for a published book of their choice, or an original book idea they may have.)
  9. How would you feel as an author if moviemakers approached you asking to bring your published book to the big screen? What questions and concerns would you have?


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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