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Teaching Screenwriting Students Confidence

Teaching Tuesdays: “Discovering the Story: A Film Adaption of Randall Kenan’s “The Foundations of the Earth”” by Elisabeth Benfey, from NCLR Issue 21 (2012) 

By Daniel Moreno

Back in 2012 Elisabeth Benfey sent us an essay illustrating her students’ experience with adapting Randall Kenan’s The Foundations of the Earth to the audio visual medium. Given the approaching release of our pedagogy theme in our Fall Online 2023 issue, this is the perfect time to return to Benfey’s essay. 

Her idea for the course came when she realized just how many acclaimed writers live in North Carolina and wondered, “What if we asked them for permission to adapt and produce a few of their stories into screenplays in my production class?” It seemed smart because the authors could be easily reached and the students would be able to “rely on tested material, with a structured narrative in which fully formed characters speak in well-shaped sentences, living and struggling in accordance with the rules of the idiosyncratic universe created for them.” 

Benfey followed through with the idea, but at first, the students were reluctant to face Kenan’s story’s difficult dramatic subject, but after accepting the screenwriting challenge and dealing with it for half a semester, “the students’ confidence as screenwriters seemed to increase with each new draft. Every week their screenplays, (…) although still faithful to the original storylines, showed a gradual separation from the text. The students showed a growing sophistication in the way they wrote. The style became more terse and economical. They increased the pace of the action by trimming scenes (…) and cutting unnecessary dialogue. They had started trusting the storytelling power of the image.” 

At the end of the course there were screenings for the students’ short films which were attended by the authors and hundreds of students, and Benfey reported resounding success: “None of the students involved in the film had ever screened a movie they had worked on. (…)When the applause came, many of them could not contain the nervous energy and jumped on stage to take a bow, to congratulate each other, to thank the actors and the writers.” She was proud of her students’ achievements: “There is nothing quite as rewarding for a teacher as the realization that one’s students own the learning experience.”  

Read the whole essay on ProQuest or in our 2012 print issue, featuring “North Carolina Literature into Film”.