The elusive concept of style is all around us – from those HGTV buzzwords like “Dutch colonial” and “farmhouse” to the revolving door of fashion trends like vintage, couture, and athleisure. However, despite our constant engagement with style, our students have a difficult time identifying an author’s particular style, often simplifying their observations to bland, surface-level descriptors like “happy,” “sad,” or “excited.” Style is the combination of WHAT an author uses and HOW he or she uses it, much like how an artist uses a basic element like paint combined with an ornate brush stroke style to create the desired effect. If we omit either part, then we remove either the authorial intent or the language itself from the equation.
One way in which I believe film and television have a slight advantage in teaching literary concepts is in this very concept of style. These visual media bombard you with the director’s style through the writers’ dialogue, the actors’ costuming, the physical design and lighting of the set, etc. The following teaching tips may help your students more visually connect with the concept of style, and thus be able to apply their knowledge to analyzing written literary texts.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s groundbreaking musical Hamilton inspired audiences with “the story of America then told by America now” (Miranda and McCarter 33). The original theatrical production (and the current Disney+ film recording) focuses on the life and political ascent of America’s first treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton. What attracted audiences to this story was not only Hamilton’s impressive journey, but also the nuanced literary mastery expressed by lyricist and creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Fun fact: Did you know he used to be a middle school English teacher?)
While many aspects of this musical could be used to demonstrate the concept of style, from the hidden meaning behind the center stage rotating turntables to other little Easter eggs found in his complete annotated libretto), there are two that are especially beneficial.
Context: This is Hamilton’s major “I Want” song in which he reveals his desire to be a leader in the Revolutionary War. He reflects on the sacrifices made by his mother and his country to bring him to America, and ultimately resolves to make his mark on the growing nation.
Using it in the classroom:
- One of the repeated elements in this song is the dance sequence that accompanies these lyrics: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy, and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot!” Break down each of the individual parts of the dance; ask students to speculate on the meaning of each movement before sharing the answers provided by the choreographer, Andy Blankenbuehler:
- Reach from right to left: shows the diversity and expanse of people are united in the search for revolution
- Moving hand to heart: an allusion to the Pledge of Allegiance
- Wrist flip: shows disregard for existing rules and subsequently embracing independence
- Finger pointing: Hamilton points down the first time he sings the song to reflect he is “planting the seeds” for the later twist of death. When he sings the same lyric at the end of the song, he points upward to also foreshadow the way in which he dies (Blankenbuehler).
Note that the goal of this activity is not to arrive at a single “correct” answer, but to understand the way in which Blankenbuehler incorporated specific meanings into each movement. Students should be encouraged to not only recognize the choreographer’s perspective but also to identify their own interpretations.
- Students identify the many examples of internal assonance, consonance, and end rhyme, such as, “sally in / stallion / battalion,” “manumission / abolitionists,” “these / colonies,” “independence / descendants / endless / vengeance / defendants,” and “waitin’ / smashin’ / expectation / action / act of creation.” What is the general effect of these words in proximity to each other? Why do you think Miranda chose to use rap in this particular song, rather than a different type of musical style? How does the musical orchestration of rap complement Hamilton’s message and effect?
- Finally, ask students to brainstorm the multiple meanings behind the phrase “my shot.” Note: If you choose to only listen to the soundtrack, students will miss one of the layers of meaning, so be sure to watch the clip on Disney+.
- What do these theatrical and lyrical elements show about Miranda’s style as a lyricist? As the creative team collaborated to create this scene, what do we learn about their style as creators? How would we define the tone of the scene?
When students break down the individual building blocks of a text, it becomes easier to identify each element that contributes to an author’s style. Encourage students to read around the poem for what its physical blocking might reveal, and to read through the poem for its word choice. What decisions guided the poet’s use of language? What is being said and what is intentionally NOT being said? For example, students may see the sheer volume of sound-based poetic elements (internal assonance, consonance, and end rhyme) and describe Miranda’s style as intricate and complex; others may consider the variety of meanings connected with the phrase “my shot” and characterize the style of Alexander Hamilton’s dialogue as clever, intellectually elevated, or uninhibited.
Context: This song is the closing number of Act I. The Revolutionary War has just ended, and George Washington is appointing Hamilton to lead the Treasury Department.
Using it in the classroom:
- Divide students into 7 partnerships or groups. Each group listens to one of the following songs from Hamilton on their own: “Wait for It,” “Helpless,” “That Would Be Enough,” “Satisfied,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “My Shot,” and “Alexander Hamilton.” As they listen to each song, identify the narrator’s voice. Who is the main narrator of this song? What is the narrator’s general tone? What is motivating their feelings?
- As a whole class, listen to “Nonstop,” which ultimately combines melodic phrases and lyrics from each of the previous songs. What does each individual song contribute to the message of the piece? Whose voices are all present? Whose voices have been excluded?
- Consider the combination of all the individual narrative voices. What does the chaotic ending of the song show about Miranda’s narrative style?
It is worth noting that “Nonstop,” like the majority of Hamilton’s songs, prominently features hip-hop and rap to tell a story about the American Revolution – an obvious anachronism for 18th century America. However, this style of writing is more than simply an engaging hook for contemporary audiences; it also helps students to distinguish this story from other historical writings, which more clearly defines Miranda’s style. How is this retelling of the American Revolution different than nonfiction accounts in history textbooks? What does each approach to the content offer readers?
According to Oskar Eustis, the artistic director of New York City’s Public Theater, this creative blending of traditional content with contemporary diction is reminiscent of a favorite English author:
Lin does exactly what Shakespeare does. He takes the language of the people, and heightens it by making it verse. It both ennobles the language and the people saying the language. That’s precisely what Shakespeare did in all of his work, particularly in his history plays. He tells the foundational myths of his country. By doing that, he makes the country the possession of everybody. (Miranda and McCarter 103)
This directly reflects Miranda’s style, which underscores the entire purpose of these songs, which was to share a more inclusive story of America that shines a spotlight on the contradictions and chaos of independence.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s popularity is certainly not limited to Hamilton; students may be familiar with his other works that feature elements of the same style (most notably his wordplay and complex use of sound-based poetic elements), but also some significant differences that lend themselves to conversation. For example, Miranda’s musical In the Heights is set in his hometown of Washington Heights, and features many stock characters and familiar turns of phrase in the lyrics that are an authentic representation of his Dominican American neighborhood. Unlike Hamilton, the purpose of In the Heights is not to revisit a familiar story and make it more accessible to those not a part of his culture; on the contrary, Miranda introduces viewers to a very specific and personal setting as a way to pay homage to that culture. The same can be seen in Disney’s Encanto, when Mirabel’s grandparents sing “Dos Oruguitas” – a poignant love song completely in Spanish. By choosing to write the entire song in Spanish, a language of limited fluency for most American viewers, Miranda honors the purpose of his lyrics as one of representation and authenticity. As a more casual example, Miranda’s song “Bigger” (performed by Neil Patrick Harris at the opening of the 67th Annual Tony Awards) yet again reflects Miranda’s signature wordplay (both in song and in rap), but also reflects the comedy of Neil Patrick Harris’ hosting delivery and the dramatic, over-the-top essence of the Tony Awards. In this way, Miranda’s style remains consistent with his intricate use of sound-based poetic elements, but his style also shifts slightly with each text to more clearly reflect its purpose.
Just like pieces of an author’s style might be evident across their entire canon of work, a film director can easily show their signature style across the breadth of their work. Consider the sampling of the following directors’ works:
- Guillermo Del Toro: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water
- Tim Burton: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands
- Baz Luhrmann: Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge!
Consider showing excerpts from a variety of one director’s films. Once students see the repeated elements between films, they will see how the same style is applied to multiple plots. For example, pairing excerpts from Pan’s Labyrinth with surrealist artistic selections from Salvador Dalí and René Magritte would give students a very tangible introduction to the abstract style of magical realism found in art and literature.
Consider the specific use of del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth, an allegorical film that follows young Ofelia through a magical labyrinth as she also navigates a war-torn and violent new life with her mother and new stepfather in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. One of the most thought-provoking characters in the film is the magical faun that serves as a guide in Ofelia’s quest. As the film progresses, we see del Toro’s attention to mythological detail: “a faun is by definition a creature that is both a giver of life and a dangerous, savage creature – so it’s sort of an [ambiguous] character” (“The Power of Myth”). This ambiguity follows the faun throughout the story in various ways, from the way he ages backward to his physical design as half-man, half-tree. Other characters in the film also present a similar sense of ambiguity between reality and fiction, which is one of del Toro’s directing signatures found in the other movies listed above.
Tim Burton and Baz Luhrmann also have specific directing styles that would offer opportunities to pair film excerpts with literary and artistic selections, and thus offer students a more well-rounded approach to a specific style. I have found that both of these directors’ styles also have clear parallels between their artistic decisions and the overt (or subtle) meanings of their texts. (For example, there’s a reason why the color palette of Moulin Rouge! is garish and jarring. Not only are the proprietor and participants trying to frantically fill their emotional voids with reckless drug use and prostitution, but it serves as a striking contrast to the more grounded and reliable character of Christian, who values true romance and beauty over the deception and animalistic spectacle of the club.) Personally, I find the most enjoyable part of this style exploration is encouraging students to not only identify the style, but also to express their own opinions about it. My students, for example, are usually very divided on Baz Luhrmann’s style. Some find him to be too extravagant, while others are inspired by his use of color and music. This is where true learning occurs – at the intersection of powerful content and student engagement.
Style can be a complex concept for students to grasp, mostly because of its abstract nature. It can’t be easily located like a simile or alliteration, nor is it marked by obvious visual cues, like certain elements of syntax. Introducing the concept of style through film selections can be an accessible tool for students as they begin look under the engine of a text and see what makes it run!
Blankenbuehler, Andy. “Choreographing Hamilton: The Meaning Behind the Moves.” Wall Street Journal, 24 May 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmYTsOrnWP0.
Miranda, Lin-Manuel, and Jeremy McCarter Hamilton: The Revolution. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.
“The Power of Myth.” Pan’s Labyrinth, produced by Javier Soto, disc 1, Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.
Learn more about the author on our 2023 Contributors page.