The American in the Classroom
Note to Teachers: This film contains partial nudity and mature sexual content. It has not been edited for classroom use. We strongly urge you to preview the film and decide whether it is appropriate for use in your classroom.
After viewing the film, take the opportunity to discuss with students the filmmakers' choice to include these scenes in their adaptation when sexual relationships are merely suggested in the novel (in the case of Newman and Noémie, it is not even suggested). Are these scenes important? Would the film be less effective without them? What does the addition of these scenes show about the viewing audience's standards and sensibilities?
Running time for The American is 82 minutes. We have suggested two ways to break up the program to be viewed over several days: two segments of approximately 40 minutes or three segments under 30 minutes in length.
Start: Program opening
End: Last line in picnic scene as Claire says to Newman, "What have you done to me?"
Start: Newman enters the de Bellegarde home to ask to marry Claire.
End: Program conclusion
Start: Program opening
End: Newman leaves the de Bellegarde house after his first visit. Mrs. Bread: "I'm glad you've come."
Start: Valentin rowing on a lake
End: Valentin is shot.
Start: Newman enters the de Bellegarde house, demanding "Where is she?"
End: Program conclusion
Before Viewing Questions
- If you marry, do you expect your partner will be someone from a social, economic, and national background similar to your own? In general, does our society accept, encourage, or discourage marriage between people whose economic and social class backgrounds are dissimilar? What challenges do two people from dissimilar backgrounds face as they enter marriage?
- Draw upon what you already know about Europe or France in the 19th century. Was 19th-century French society more or less open to freedom of choice in marriage than our society is? Why? What reasons might someone from a French aristocratic family offer for wanting a daughter or son to marry into a family of similar background?
- Brainstorm a list of words you associate with the word "American." Record them in a column. In a second column, make a similar list for the word "European." In pencil, draw lines between words in the two columns that are similar. Use a pen to draw a line between words that contrast. What do you see? Circle the words that best define American character and European character.
- How do Americans view people who have gone "from rags to riches"? Do we make distinctions between people whose wealth is "old" (inherited) and "new" (for example, an Internet "millionaire")? Which kind of wealth is more respected today?
- In 19th-century France, those with "old money" and titles looked down on people who had earned "new money" in trade or industry. Why do you think this was so?
Before Viewing Activity: Background to The American
Send students to the Web to gather background information on Henry James and the historical setting of The American. Divide students into at least four groups and make each group responsible for presenting information to the class on one of the following topics:
- Who was Henry James? Present 10 important or interesting facts about his life and work. Get started at A James Timeline or www.ncteamericancollection.org/amer_james_bio.htm.
- What was it like to belong to France's titled, hereditary upper class in 1877? Compose five statements that a member of a Parisian aristocratic family might have made in 1877. Get started at www.france.com:80/culture/index.html. For additional activities, visit La Vie Parisienne.
- How does Paris compare to American cities? Write the script for a "walking tour" of Paris, visiting four different parts of the city. Get started at sunsite.unc.edu/wm/paris/.
- What would you have seen strolling through the Louvre in 1877? Give the highlights of a tour of the Paris museum as the characters in The American might have seen it. See www.paris.org/Musees/Louvre/.
After Viewing Questions
- Describe the action in the opening scenes of the film, set seven years before the arrival of Christopher Newman in Paris. What do you learn about Claire's family and her place in it? What questions remain unanswered? Director Paul Unwin explains that he wished to give the audience "the sense of this extraordinary and brooding world," creating mystery and tension that contrast sharply with the easy, light appearance of Newman in the next scene. How does the film's opening set up the dramatic action to come as the film develops?
- What was your first impression of Christopher Newman? How do his appearance, his behavior, and his attitude contrast to the aristocratic French society into which he is introduced? As "The American," what does he seem to stand for?
- Why do you think Christopher is drawn to Claire de Cintré? Why is she attracted to him? Did the screenwriter and director succeed in making their mutual interest and their developing love for one another believable and compelling? Which scene between them did you find the most compelling?
Invite students to compare their answers to the first question with the responses given in interviews with actor Matthew Modine, actress Dame Diana Rigg and screenwriter Michael Hastings. You may want to download and print out the interviews or selections from them.
- Why is Valentin an important character in the story? What does his unhappiness show us about his family and their attitudes? Why is he so drawn to Newman? Can you imagine a better end for him than dying in a duel over Noémie? What other ending was possible?
- Do you think Newman was right or wrong to threaten Mme. de Bellegarde with her husband's letter? Were his actions morally justifiable, or is he, as Mme. de Bellegarde calls him, a "blackmailer" acting for his own selfish interests?
- Why did Claire enter the convent after her mother refused to let her marry Newman? In the end, why did she choose to stay there when she might have left with him?
Here is producer Fiona Finlay's answer to the question. Read her response aloud to students and compare her interpretation with theirs:
"Claire could have chosen to marry him. But she just can't. Sometimes people are so damaged that they can't make changes, and that is a terrible tragedy in itself. You don't even need manners to imprison you. You can be imprisoned by what has happened to you in your past, and you can't move on. I think James is good on that. It's pretty frightening actually, isn't it?"
- In the final moments of the film, the narrator describes Newman as "the young American who let the Bellegardes go." Looking back, do you think that Newman, out of his "good nature," let them go, or did the de Bellegardes control events throughout?
Viewing Strategies | Activities and Investigations | Novel to Film
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Essays + Interviews | Who's Who | A James Timeline
Teacher's Guide | Genius in the Family | Henry Wants a Hit!
The Forum | Links and Bibliography
About The Series |
The American Collection |
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