Today I wrapped up teaching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to a few dozen high school seniors for the second time. And it occurs to me, with only a touch of guilt, that the most satisfying part of this unit is getting the majority of my students to hate the movie.
Here is what I tell them at the beginning of the book, and again each time I show a short clip [there are at least 3 periods during the quarter when mutiny is imminent because I only let them see 10-15 minutes of the movie at a time, to begin with]: "I am not saying the movie is bad. Standing alone, it is entertaining. Jack Nicholson is indeed a BRILLIANT ACTOR. But the movie should have been given a different title."
I read most of the novel aloud (please revisit it sometime to marvel at what kind of language I use in my classroom, then imagine the impact that has on teenage people; next, understand fully why I have at least one glass of wine every evening). After the first 20 pages or so, I show the opening of the film and, following a mini Jack Nicholson-lovefest, they do appreciate that the movie is going to be vastly different simply because it lacks Chief's narrative perspective. We continue reading, getting to know the characters and talking about why the story is an important one to hear. We talk about whether McMurphy is a troublemaker or a renegade [and what is the difference, anyway?]. Note: Our school mascot is a Renegade; we generate a lot of interesting discussion at this point about how some people in our tiny town tend to see us and - hey - are some of us like McMurphy? Weird.
By the time I've read through the beautiful, magical fishing trip in the book and then show that skimpy, brash, pointless scene, most of my students are disgusted with the change in focus & tone. They miss Chief's metaphorical hallucinations; they don't like that the movie McMurphy calls the men 'loonies' and 'nuts' and 'crazies;' they're offended by the absence of key characters & storylines; they aren't feeling terrified by Nurse Ratched, just annoyed.
We are all emotionally spent when we finish the novel - from following and worrying over Mack's transformation, from deciphering Chief's 'truths' even if they never happened, from growing unexpectedly closer to these damaged fictional people. Then we finish the movie. I listen to the gasps and groans from my students as they watch the film wrap up without addressing the points that our class decided were necessary for a story about courage and strength and redemption.
When the lights come up, it is silent for a beat. Then the comments & questions explode: "I can't believe they had McMurphy come back at night, and no one saw him." "Did they really skip the ENTIRE PART about the men checking out?" "It doesn't make any sense that Nurse Ratched could talk." "That. Was totally sh*tty." "Why did they make it a completely different story?"
Like they actually read, and paid attention, and learned stuff, and cared.
Brings a tear to my Renegade teacher eye.