How I used the New York Times’ Anatomy of a Scene

Students analyze satire in Gulliver’s Travels

A few weeks ago, my senior British Lit students were studying Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Our textbook’s excerpt seemed lacking in the scaffolding needed for most of my students, and so I decided for this first year — my first year teaching British Literature — to focus on the story of Gulliver’s Travels as shown in a film version from 1996.

Gulliver's Travels (TV Mini-Series 1996) - IMDb
Gulliver’s Travels starring Ted Danson was produced by Hallmark Home Entertainment

I learned about this particular movie adaptation from a thread in one of the private teacher groups I belong to on Facebook. Another teacher had commented that this version of the story follows the original narrative more closely than any other movie, including the popular 2010 version starring Jack Black.

Intrigued, I decided I wanted to take a glimpse myself, so I began to scour the internet.

Sure enough, I did find it on Amazon and also on YouTube. Even though the YouTube version of it is excellent in video quality and resolution, I did decide to purchase it on Amazon in case it’s ever removed from YouTube.

Anyway, this 1996 version from Hallmark Home Entertainment is excellent. The cast is well-known and diverse, and includes Mary Steenburgen, Peter O’Toole, Sir John Gielgud, Alfre Woodard, Omar Sharif, Kristin Scott Thomas, and more. In addition, the special effects, which are obviously dated, have held up well over time.

Even though my own exposure to Gulliver’s Travels before this unit had mainly been from a children’s storybook version, I found this movie the perfect way for my students to get a taste of Swift’s story complete with his biting satire.

The complete movie runs about three hours long. I initially intended to watch only the first half, which includes the first voyage to Lilliput and the second one to Brobdingnab; however, when the first half ended with the floating island of Laputa flying overhead, my students were so curious, I just decided to watch the entire film, which culminates with the fourth voyage to the Houyhnhnms.

I wouldn’t have done this much movie-watching if I hadn’t also purchased a movie viewing guide on TpT from Sherron McMillan. The guide was definitely needed to help students follow the action, which does admittedly become slightly confusing due to some frequent flashback scenes. It also helps students locate and analyze the satire.

20 Classics #8: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift – LiteraryMinded
Ted Danson plays Dr. Lemuel Gulliver in Hallmark Home Entertainment’s Gulliver’s Travels. Search for it on Amazon or YouTube.

Now, looking back to a few weeks ago, this Ted Danson version of Gulliver’s Travels is an excellent alternative to reading the text, which in my opinion was one of the more difficult texts I had read with my class all year.

Delve a little deeper

After watching the movie, I wanted to delve a little deeper into a study of the mellower Horatian satire that Swift uses in Gulliver’s Travels.

Somewhere in my research I had learned about how The New York Times’ Anatomy of a Scene collection can provide interesting ways to teach texts and films, and specifically, to help students think deeper about the decisions that writers and directors make in the creation process.

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Help students think like an authors or directors

Creating an “anatomy of a scene” encourages students to think more broadly about a text and/or its filmed adaptation. To better wrap my own mind around the concept, I read this article written by educator Julie Hodgson on the New York Times website about how she uses these two- to three-minute videos.

“In these short clips, film directors narrate a scene from one of their movies, walking viewers through the decisions they made and the effects they intended them to have,” writes Hodgson. “These videos demonstrate to students how to step outside of their personal reader-to-text experiences and examine literature from a wider lens — to see a story, memoir, essay or poem from the perspective of its creator.”

Julie Hodgson | The Learning Network at The New York Times

This sounded interesting, so I nosed around on the NYT website and came up with an idea for students to create their own “anatomy of a scene” from the Gulliver’s Travels movie we had just finished.

To introduce the whole “anatomy of a scene” concept, I showed students three examples from the NYT collection. Here’s a link to the anatomy from the movie, A Quiet Place.

I also showed students the “anatomy of a scene” from the 2019 version of Little Women below.

And for good measure, I finished with this clip from the Harry Potter franchise:

After showing them just three examples from the entire 260-plus NYT “anatomy of a scene” collection, it was time to provide some instructions and an example made by Yours Truly.

Here are the instructions I created for this assignment:

  • Imagine yourself as the director of Gulliver’s Travels. You have recently finished shooting the movie and you’ve been asked by the New York Times to narrate a scene for its Anatomy of a Scene collection, similar to the clips from the movies, Little Women, A Quiet Place and Harry Potter.
  • Scan back through the movie using the links on Google Classroom and choose an important 1-3 minute scene to narrate for the class.
  • Make sure to discuss two or more elements of the film, such as setting, characters, mood, camera angles, sounds, costumes, lighting, special effects, props, and any others elements present in your scene.
  • Make sure to also discuss satire. Based on what you know about the story, using the Lit Charts summaries and “The Satire of Gulliver’s Travels handout below, what is Swift commenting on?  How is Swift’s satire evident in your scene? 
  • Record your narration on your cell phone. Also, in the beginning of your narration please tell us the “minutes and seconds” location of your scene, so I can easily locate your particular clip.
  • Turn in your audio file on Google Classroom. If they had trouble doing that, I asked them to email it to me instead. It was the first time I’ve had then submit audio files in this way, so I was a little unsure about how it would all work on the technical end.

Well, whether they turned in their audio files on Google Classroom or merely emailed it to me, this project worked very well! All I had to do was open their file, listen for the location of their clip, open a new tab for the movie, find the clip in the movie, mute the video (or turn the volume down so the audio commentary can be heard), and then play both simultaneously. My computer speakers played the sound as the video played on my slide screen.

It worked!

Just as I hoped they would, the students’ “anatomies of a scene” emulated those on the New York Times site.

They were able to speak as if they were the directors, creating commentary on lighting, setting, props, and whatever else they chose to highlight. As stated in the instructions, they also discussed the satire shown in the clip.

Below, you’ll find the “mentor” audio I made to show students an example of what they were supposed to do.

To show this example to you in this post, I merely played the audio files while also playing the movie on my TV at home. In other words, you’re actually watching the movie clip play on my small-ish TV screen at home. The same goes for the two student examples that follow.

The mentor I made for students:

One student’s anatomy of a scene:

And one more…

This assignment ended up being an easy, fun, and relatively quick way for students to identify and expound on the satire in this particular work of Swift’s.

Have you ever used the New York Times’ Anatomy of a Scene collection? How did it go? Was it beneficial? Feel free to weigh in with your experiences or ideas about this particular post.


…Or try this new poetry lesson!

Enter your email in the box below and I’ll send you this PDF file you can use tomorrow to show your students how to write Treasured Object Poems, one of my favorite poem activities. I know your students will enjoy it!

Image shows readers the paper I'll send for signing up for my email list. The handout gives instructions for a Treasured Object poem.
Treasured Object Poems

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Student and teacher selfie
That’s me on the left with a former student, Hailey B.

Published by Marilyn

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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