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A Death in the Family
Masterpiece Theatre A Death in the Family
Teacher's Guide [imagemap with 7 links]

Investigations and Extensions

Film Critic
Between 1942 and 1948, Agee wrote hundreds of film reviews for both The Nation and TIME Magazine. In the first movie column he wrote for The Nation in 1942, James Agee introduced himself to readers this way:

I suspect that I am, far more than not, in your own situation: deeply interested in moving pictures, considerably experienced from childhood on in watching them and thinking and talking about them, and totally or almost totally, without experience or even much second-hand knowledge of how they are made... It is my business to conduct one end of a conversation, as an amateur critic among amateur critics.

          -- The Nation, December 26, 1942

In the spirit of Agee, write an amateur critic's review of the film you have just seen based on his novel. Think of your review as "one end of a conversation." What would you tell a friend at lunch about this film? What did you see, and what did you think of what you saw? Which scenes held your interest and which did not? What do you think you will remember about this film one week or one month from now? Which performance or performances stood out?

What do you think Agee would have thought about this film if he had been alive to see it? Pretend you are James Agee and write a paragraph or two about your response to the film and whether or not you liked it.

Comparing Works and Characters
Identify a film or a novel that can be compared to A Death in the Family: another work about the American South or by a Southern writer, a work set in the same historical period, or a work that is similar in plot or theme (childhood, coming of age, family, death, faith and doubt). List the main characters from the novel or film, then choose one of the following activities:

  • Two sides of a coin: Match up characters from each work who have something in common. Challenge classmates to guess why you placed them together.

  • Meeting of the minds: Again, pair two characters. Write a dialogue in which they learn by talking together what experiences or attributes they share and comment upon them.

  • Funny math: Add one character to A Death in the Family from a different film or novel. Or add one of the Death in the Family characters to an other film or book you've studied. How might the story change as a result?

Worth a Thousand Words
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee with photographer Walker Evans, is an acclaimed book about three sharecropper families in Alabama during the Depression. In it, Agee wrote:

All that each person is, and experiences, and shall never experience, in body and in mind, all these things are different expressions of himself and of one root, and are identical; and not one of these things nor one of these persons is ever quite to be duplicated, nor replaced, nor has it ever quite had precedent; but each is a new and incommunicably tender life, wounded in every breath, and almost as hardly killed as easily wounded: sustaining, for a while, without defense, the enormous assaults of the universe. (page 56)

View the Walker Evans photographs up close. Spend some time studying the faces and clothes in the photographs. For instance, study the face of the little boy with dark eyes and a worn-out shirt who is holding someone by the arm. What does his expression reveal? Whose arm do you think he is holding, and how do you imagine he feels about that person? What makes you think so? What did James Agee want the readers of the book to understand about the individuals in the photographs? How do the photographs support Agee's words? Why do you think he and Walker Evans wanted to document the lives of these families? From your experience, when do media such as photographs or film have a greater impact than words? Give an example.

How does this excerpt from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the faces in the photos relate to the themes and events in A Death in the Family, which Agee wrote almost two decades later?

Using magazines, newspapers, or the Web, find and show photos of modern-day people who capture some of the feeling of the Walker Evans photos. Or pretend you are the casting director for A Death in the Family and bring in photos of people who you imagine would fit the parts well and explain why you chose them.

A Playful Adaptation
At your library or through interlibrary loan, locate a copy of All the Way Home, Tad Mosel's 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning stage adaptation of A Death in the Family. Compare the play to both the novel and the film. If a friend asked you to recommend just one version of A Death in the Family to read or view, which one would you select? Why?

A Poet's View
While best know for his prose writing, James Agee began his writing career as a poet. As Agee critic Kenneth Seib writes, "He was a natural poet: all of his writings reveal an instinct for exact words, striking images, detailed observations, and rhythmical lines." His careful choice of words, sensitive ear, and attention to detail and imagery can be felt in both his novel, A Death in the Family, and in the film adaptation you have just seen.

Recall a scene from the film you remember well. On paper, record the images you recall. Now list words or lines from the dialogue that have stayed with you. Picture the scene in your mind and add to your list visual details from the scene and words to describe the emotions or mood of the scene.

Rearrange the words you recorded into a list poem. Try to place words near each other that create a rhythm or a contrast. Place words or phrases near each other that build toward an important idea or create a picture in the reader's mind. Play with a few versions of your list poem, reading them aloud. Then write a final draft of your piece.

For a challenge, write another list poem about a place you know as well and love as much as James Agee knew and loved the Knoxville of his childhood. Reach for "exact words, striking images, detailed observations, and rhythmical lines."

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