Why So Serious?

The title to this blog post is a nod to one of the great lines, delivered perfectly by the late Heath Ledger as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.  This is without a doubt one of my favourite movies, and Ledger’s line “why so serious?” perfectly encapsulates the starting point for this post; Why is the current zeitgeist of popular culture and texts so heavily dominated by dystopian futures, misery and grief?  As a film The Dark Knight is set in a particularly dour Gotham City; gone is the bright, colourful and flashy Gotham of the Schumacher films; it is a city in many ways devoid of hope and joy.  Yet, despite the bleak tone adopted by the film, it was loved by many (it still resides in the top 25 of the highest grossing films of all-time).  The conclusion that can be drawn, is that dystopian themes are entertaining.  However, the question of relevance to this post, is not as concerned with the continuing popularity of dystopian themes, but rather how can they be effectively implemented into the classroom environment to help educate students.

As previously established, this blog intends to develop pedagogy through three approaches; excitement, engagement and education.  With regards to the topic of dystopian themes in texts, there is little need to analyse the first two approach; students, much like wider society, are already highly engaged in dystopia genres and texts.  A teacher only needs to wake up a students iPad and more often that not, they will be greeted by a wallpaper of Katniss Everdeen (the Hunger Game Series) or Rick Grimes (the Walking Dead series).  There is no question that if a teacher uses a text (be it a novel, video or otherwise) that relates to dystopian futures, the students will excited and engaged.  However, the problem that often presents itself is with regards to the education that is intended to develop from its use.

When it comes to set texts such as the Hunger Games, the educational objectives can be relatively met, as the unit of work has been developed around the use of the text and will have a wide range of resources to compliment it.  The challenge is when using dystopian texts beyond the prescribed situations.  Dystopian films have a great range of possible educational outcomes beyond just being studied as a text; they present a meaningful way to create real connections to ideas and concepts for the students to unpack.  This can be particularly relevant to Social Science themed subjects.  A great number of topics in social science subjects touch on ‘neon light’ issues in our society, and when trying to bring examples into the classroom discourse, the ‘real’ world can be confronting for students.  Instead, the use of dystopian films provides opportunities for the teacher to get students to really reflect on the topics and concepts learnt by applying them to the extreme scenarios generated by dystopian films.  Here are a few examples to exemplify this are provided below:
Minority Report (2002) – Based on a Philip K. Dick novella, the movie follows John Anderton (Tom Cruise) as he attempts to solve a murder that has yet to committed.  I have used this movie when teaching about due process in Legal Studies.  The movie opens up questions about when is it right to take action for something someone has yet to do.  It can then be connected with the growing trends in law enforcement to use profiling tactics to identify potential criminals.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) – This modern remake of the classic Planet of the Apes films, this follows the parallel stories of the ape Caesar (voiced by Andy Serkis) and a human survivor named Malcom as they try to survive in a postapocalyptic San Francisco.  I have used this movie in a Senior Biology class to generate excellent discussions about the theories of evolution and in many ways de-evolution.  The students have also link previously learnt concepts about viruses and diseases to further their discussions.

V for Vendetta (2005) – Based on a graphic novel of the same name, V for Vendetta is set in a totalitarian society where V is a vigilante who is trying to upset the power of the government.  This movie has been very useful when teaching students about the functions of government.  It helps the students to visualise the cause and effect of different government regimes, allowing them to analyse the impacts it has and to make connections to past examples of real government regimes.

These are just a few of the dystopian-themed films that can be used to develop student’s learning outcomes (particularly their analytical skills) in a range of classroom environments.  Tasteofcinema.com offers a list of 20 great dystopian films that can offer further inspiration and opportunity (here is a link to the post).

Imagine if you have just finished teaching your students about government structures and the effect that they can have on society (a relatively dry topic at the best of times), but you come into the classroom and put V for Vendetta onto the screen, and tell them their task is to develop a case to defend the actions of V against the ‘crimes’ he has committed…  Excited – Engaged – Educated.


One thought on “Why So Serious?

  1. Hi Luke,
    Interesting! I love all these movies and I’m sure that the approach you have to responding to them is a good one. They are pretty serious movies – there are no people falling down or performing slap-stick comedy in them anyway. I guess they all have that bleak, moody feel to them too. Well done on your observations.


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