“It was a pleasure to burn.”– Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451
One of my favorite first lines in literature. I love Ray Bradbury’s language and themes in his 1953 novel. To be fair, I love reading dystopian novels period—but this one has always been one of my favorites.
This week, I began Fahrenheit 451 in my 11th grade AP Lang class. It has been a while since I’ve taught this text. Last year, though I assigned it, we spent less than a week discussing it because of the strike. I wanted to do the text justice this year, so I needed something new.
I was originally very excited by the fact that HBO released a new version of F451 with Michael B Jordan and that they released an edited version safe to show in classrooms. Though their direction was interesting, it severely diverted from the text, and it did not prove to be the “something new” I needed for 2019.
In came my “Meal Ticket.”
I stumbled upon the Netflix-produced, Coen-Brothers-directed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs at the suggestion of my fiancé. It was disturbing. And amazing. And perfect for an English class.
(Okay—not completely perfect. It is rated R. Several of the short films within this film are excessively violent and not appropriate for the classroom.)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a bizarre film. It isn’t quite a movie, and it isn’t a television series. It is a set of six short films in one. There are no character or setting overlaps. The only common threads between the stories are the fact that all are set in a lawless old west and the line of dark humor.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is comparable to a small anthology of short stories–the really good ones that English teachers love to teach. The dark themes and surprise twists reminded me of O’Henry stories I read as a child and Flannery O’Connor stories I read in college.
Anyway, I digress. As I watched the third story, “Meal Ticket,” I knew that I had found something to bring into Fahrenheit 451 this year. Warning, the next three paragraphs have spoilers.
“Meal Ticket” stars Liam Neeson as an entrepreneurial, self-focused entertainer and Harry Melling (Harry’s cousin Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter) as Neeson’s armless, legless artist companion. The two characters travel together in a wagon that converts into a small stage. They travel from town to town in the west providing the entertainment of the artist’s beautiful recitations of famous poetry and plays, from “Ozymandias,” the tale of Cain and Abel, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Declaration of Independence, and Puck’s final soliloquy in A Midsummer Nights Dream informing the audience that the entertainment is over as “our revels here are ended.”
In the story, the two men utter no words to each other. Neeson’s character takes care of Melling’s, but only in the same manner that one would take care of a work animal—not even a pet. The main dialogue is Welling’s repeated speeches.
As time progresses, the audience becomes less interested in the artist’s recitations. Simple “lower-brow” forms of entertainment (in the form of a calculating chicken) start to take away paying audience members. Neeson’s character sees this, seizes an opportunity, and moves to the newest way to make a buck.
Note: If you do choose to show the film to your class, be aware that the characters visit a brothel about 10 minutes into the film. There is no nudity as the film cuts out the actual hanky panky entirely and rather focuses on the repercussions. There is also alcohol consumption throughout the film.
How does this relate to Fahrenheit 451? Plenty.
This short film brings up questions such as: How much value do we place on human life? What are people worth when they “can’t” contribute to society? What is our duty to other people? How do we value art? Do we value learning and thinking? What is our society worth? What is wrong with our own culture? What is the impact of violence on our culture?
And finally, I think the most important question of all:
What is the human cost of our desire to move to the “next best thing” as soon as we are bored?
I showed “Meal Ticket” to my students on Thursday, and they were entranced. They were disturbed by the story, but it generated discussion about all the questions I mentioned above. It opened a conversation that will continue as we ask the same questions in reading Fahrenheit 451 in the next few weeks.
After watching the film, I borrowed Karla Hilliard’s recent best practice blog idea of a lit letter. My students examined two of the poems that the artist recites, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 and Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” as well as one of my favorite poems, “Storm Warning” by Adrienne Rich.
After reading and discussing the poems, and after viewing the film, my students wrote me a letter about their thoughts on the texts. I’m looking forward to reading their insight and reflections when they turn in the assignment on Monday.
You never know when Netflix will provide your next moment of teacher inspiration. I encourage you to check out The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for your own English Teacher pleasure, and maybe you’ll find some insight for your classroom as well.
WVCTE is wondering, what text connections have you found between modern texts and those on the curriculum? What films have recently made you think? Tweet us @WVCTE or find us on Facebook.
Jeni Gearhart is a member of the WVCTE Executive committee and has been teaching at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County for the past 7 years. She is a graduate of Grove City College in Western Pennsylvania. Though not a WV native, she loves to call this place her home, especially since recently becoming a first-time homeowner. Currently she teaches AP English Language and 10th grade Honors. Jeni loves books and coffee and exploring new places. If given a million dollars, it would probably be spent buying more books, or perhaps a pet unicorn. On second thought, the million dollars would probably pay of college debt and replace the pink stove in her fiancé’s kitchen.