"'La Belle Dame sans Merci': a multimedia experiment in reading and seeing"
Noah Comet, The Ohio State University
1. This exercise consists of two parts: a take-home assignment (about 25 minutes), and an in-class movie screening, followed by classroom discussion (50 minutes or more). Students are to compare their own seemingly objective responses to John Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” with filmmaker Hidetoshi Oneda’s short adaptation of the poem (for more information, see http://www.celophaine.com/lbdsm/lbdsm_top.html). The aim of the exercise is to challenge students’ notions of objectivity, and to make them self-aware readers, thus classroom discussion should emphasize the ambiguities of poetic language, and the role of the reader/viewer as co-creator of meaning. Additionally, you might ask the students to analyze their own reading practices in comparison with the process of adapting a text for a film.
2. As I have presented it here, the exercise suits introductory major or non-major English courses. Since its primary purpose is to help students to appreciate the ostensibly passive act of reading as an active, creative process, it is most useful early in the term as a methodological primer. In addition, the exercise can be easily adapted to advanced courses specializing in Romanticism. To that end, below, I have suggested how an instructor might connect the themes at hand to other literary and generic contexts, with a particular emphasis on Romantic drama. 
- Text of Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (either version)
- Handout (see below)
- DVD of Hidetoshi Oneda’s short film, La Belle Dame sans Merci
- Media-equipped classroom
3. For the first part of the exercise (here conceived as a take-home assignment, though it can be done in-class if time allows) students should read Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and respond to questions on a handout. For the exercise to be most effective they should read the poem, put away their books, and then respond to the questions, thus referring back not to the text itself, but to their memories of it. Admittedly, this is a ruse: students relying on their memories are likely to conflate their own subjective contributions to the poem with textual details, and this conflation is the impetus for the second part of the exercise. This portion takes about 25 minutes.
4. The second part of the exercise is based on an in-class screening of the short film (runtime approx. 15 min). Students should be attentive to Oneda’s creative liberties with Keats’s poem. After the screening the students should take a few minutes to review their own responses to the handout, comparing their answers with Oneda’s interpretation. Consider beginning the discussion by asking them how Oneda would have responded to the handout questions.
5. Ask the students if they thought that Oneda’s handling of Keats’s poem was “faithful” or “loose.” Have them identify both obvious and subtle variations between the poem and the film. Oneda’s directorial choices are in many instances quite startling, and the students will inevitably mention his liberties with the kinds of details they worked through in their handouts, particularly the age and appearance of the knight, and the identity of the first speaker. At this point, shift the discussion back to the text of the poem, perhaps even reading it aloud, and emphasize Keats’s evasive use of descriptive detail. Have the students share their responses from the handout questions, and ask them to find strong textual support for them. In most cases, they will find sufficient ambiguity in Keats’s poem to support Oneda’s choices with as much (or as little) stability as their own. This revelation should energize a discussion of reading as a creative act, even reading in its most apparently objective guise. If time permits, you might briefly discuss the semantic distinctions between an “adaptation” and an “interpretation.” Which term applies to Oneda’s film, and which term applies to the act of reading?
6. Note: as laid out here, this exercise primarily addresses Keats’s poem vis-à-vis the practice and phenomenology of reading and dramatic interpretation, not as a Romantic text in all of its historical and textual glory. Below, I offer a few brief thoughts on what implications the exercise might have for our understanding of, and perhaps an extended classroom discussion about, Keats’s poem itself. 
- Draw and/or give a brief physical description of the Knight.
- Who is the speaker of the first three stanzas: what can we discern about him or her?
- How do you characterize the Lady? What motivates her behavior toward the knight?
The Exercise in Practice: A Writeup
7. Director Hidetoshi Oneda’s La Belle Dame sans Merci evinces his keen familiarity not only with Keats’s poem, but with many other canonical works and conventions of Romantic literature. Keats’s ballad guides the storyline of the film: a lovelorn knight, abandoned on a hillside, recollects his encounter with an unforgiving, wild-eyed lady. But Oneda places the knight’s tale within a narrative frame akin to that of Frankenstein, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and like Mary Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Oneda employs this framing technique to gain moral perspective on his story. Whereas the speaker of the first three stanzas in Keats’s poem is an ambiguous voice, all provocation with no discernible means of registering and responding to the story he or she provokes, in the film the speaker is embodied as the unwitting pupil—Shelley’s Walton, or Coleridge’s wedding guest—here re-imagined as a shipwrecked English navigator. The navigator, deposited on a desert island, finds the ancient and haggard knight, and is transfixed (and transformed) by his story. Oneda dramatizes the knight’s memories, presenting the belle dame as the archetypal Romantic femme fatale. Like Geraldine or Lamia, her seductive exterior belies a cold, reptilian nature. Still, her wickedness is avoided at a cost: in Oneda’s film, the lady represents the ideal for which each of us must make a great sacrifice upon faith, lest we end our lives like the knight, stranded, with only regret to sustain us. In fact, after the knight tells his tale of destiny unfulfilled, he dies and disintegrates before the navigator’s eyes, leaving the younger man sadder, wiser, and with a renewed commitment to his own dream: to be an artist. The kunstleroman concludes with a close-up shot of the navigator being rescued, a sparkle of creative determination in his eyes.
8. This is, of course, the work of a director playing fast-and-loose with his literary source. However, Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” is a sparsely detailed poem that relies upon a communal knowledge of medieval romantic tropes and ballad traditions, thus each reader must provide his or her own cultural capital as flesh for a skeletal story. If Oneda’s version is a bit fleshier than some, still there is little in Keats’s poem that undermines his interpretation.
Responses to the handout:
9. [Note: I did not have access to the students' responses until after the in-class screening and discussion; my point in presenting the responses here, before recounting the classroom discussion, is to offer a summary of the exercise from the students’ perspective.] In responding to the first handout question, the students generally agreed that the knight was “dejected,” and “distraught.” They tended to portray his paleness and feverishness as that of a young man “prematurely aged”—according to one student “he resembles a dying flower, once young and vibrant, but now decaying [as if] nature has turned its back on him.” In their drawings the students tended to depict a small armor-clad figure dwarfed by his surroundings. In one way or another, nearly all of the students described a “physically strong man that has obviously been emotionally broken.” None of the students described the knight as aged or moribund (as does Oneda); instead they concentrated on the mental and emotional toll of his experience. One student likened the knight’s trauma to that of the survivors of 9/11: “like the extreme shock people experience after a terrorist attack.”
10. The 9/11 example is a good indicator of the extent to which each student made the poem personal. But even conventional medievalist renderings of the knight were drawn from within: after all, Keats’s description of the knight is little more than a fragmentary blason on a tormented face. Bodily, the knight loiters alone, but his face is our only index of his physical and mental attributes: it is pale, haggard, woeful, clammy, feverish, blushing. He is a “knight at arms” (or a “wretched wight”), but to envision a handsome man in the prime of his life wearing a (perhaps disheveled) suit of armor is to provide a chivalric archetype in the place of a few vague details. Although my students were more familiar with Tolkien than with Spenser, from their descriptions and drawings it was clear that they had melded Keats’s language with their own preconceptions of medieval knights.
11. The second question elicited mixed but intriguing responses. Of the eighteen students participating, only five suggested that the first speaker of Keats’s poem is unidentifiable—an “omniscient voice,” “perhaps Keats himself.” Of that group, three went on to conjecture that this unidentifiable voice conveys a sense of sympathy in the act of questioning. In total, “sympathetic” “concerned” and “compassionate” turn up in eleven of the students' responses, whether describing an anonymous voice, a “stranger,” a “physician,” “another knight at arms,” or—the most popular response—the belle dame herself. Six students shared this idea, mostly without further justification, though one student ventured, “she [the belle dame] is a supernatural existence that is contacting him again after not taking him ‘beyond’ […] She allows him to ‘wake up’ and she is narrating to him to help him psychologically grasp what happened.” This tendency among the students to reach after ethical fact and reason deserves greater attention, but suffice to say it is another imposition of the reader on the text.
12. The third question divided the class. Roughly half of the students felt that the lady represented neither good nor evil; they resisted reading her as an allegorical figure or as a type, instead envisioning her as a human character with interiority and a personal history. “She might know the power she possesses, but it is not necessarily a bad thing,” one student suggested. Five students shared the idea that the lady had a distressing history of her own (a history that motivated her behavior in the poem), and one student even went so far as to compare the lady with Dickens’s Miss Havisham, “heartbroken, betrayed, and so grief-stricken by a man in her past that she spends all her time seeking revenge on every man she encounters.” This group tended to ignore the title of the poem, although one student did remark that “sans merci” was the knight’s judgment, and not a universal reproach. On the whole, they saw the lady as a “free spirit,” not as a femme fatale.
13. The other half of the class endorsed the titular view of the lady “without mercy,” and dedicated no time to ascribing a motive for her “seduction” of the knight. In fact, this group tended to grant the lady no interiority at all, seeing her allegorically either as pure evil (“she eats these men’s hearts and spits them out”) or as emblematic of a concept such as the debased “passion of men,” or war (“Warriors, knights, and kings are her victims, after all”). While students on both sides of the question noted that the lady never speaks for herself—“she is only characterized through the knight’s words”—this fact did not seem to pose any problems for them in addressing the handout question (it became problematic when discussing the film; see below).
Screening and discussion:
14. When we screened the film in class, the students were quick to note Oneda’s contributions to Keats’s story, especially his addition of a fourth character (the navigator survives the shipwreck with an ailing, alcoholic ship’s physician who dies within the first few minutes; this character is likely a conjecture as to what the apothecary Keats might have amounted to, had he not become a poet and a consumptive). The enthusiasm with which they noted and critiqued these differences between the poem and the film, even while the screening was underway, boded well for the more nuanced discussion to follow. After the screening, I gave the class five minutes to reflect on their own responses to the handout questions, and to consider Oneda’s implied responses to the same questions, given his handling of the poem.
15. We opened the discussion by reviewing the first issue from the handout, the description of the knight. The students were unanimous in voicing their surprise (both approving and disapproving) at Oneda’s decision to cast the knight as an old man—and within seconds, a student noted the similarity to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, which we had read earlier. By depicting the knight as elderly, one student contended, Oneda gave the character an air of wisdom and experience, a superior position from which to impart a moral lesson to the young navigator: “do as I say, not as I have done.” Another student suggested that the casting choice made the knight seem feeble or senile, and that his story was somehow less convincing and reliable because of the amount of time elapsed since the events related. (Not surprisingly, both of these arguments had also informed our discussion of Coleridge.)
16. I asked the class if they thought this directorial choice was unfaithful to Keats’s poem or merely an interpretation made possible by the poem’s ambiguities. A number of students quickly answered that Oneda had strayed from Keats’s text; no one disagreed, though I noticed many thoughtful stares. We opened our books and I read through the stanzas in which Keats offers descriptive details of the knight:
17. This appeared to be a disturbing proposition for many of them, and the room fell silent for a minute. I decided to move through the other two handout questions in short order, to leave more time at the end of class for a discussion of the implications of the exercise. The next handout question, involving the first speaker of the poem, drew mixed responses (I did not yet know the variety of explanations the question had elicited). It was generally agreed that Oneda’s invention of the navigator (or rather, his distillation of the poem’s narrator into the navigator), and his employment of a frame narrative, distorted the content and form of Keats’s poem. This agreement took a few minutes to materialize among a group of students now wary of my evidently deceptive questions. But even looking at the text, it seemed difficult to find anything defensible in Oneda’s handling of the poem’s first speaker.
18. I asked the students to tell me how they had responded to the question—if not a stranded ship’s navigator, who was the first speaker? Reluctantly, a few students shared their ideas: one said she thought the speaker was the belle dame, and I saw a few nods of affirmation to this. Another student replied that the first speaker was anonymous and indistinguishable, and she said that Oneda could just as easily have done away with such a character altogether, since he/she makes no difference to the plot of the poem (after instigating it). At this, a number of students voiced disagreement, and shared more ideas about who the first speaker was. But with each additional suggestion came the renewed assertion from all corners of the room, that we simply cannot identify the speaker. To identify the speaker, one student said, was a temptation for the reader—and for someone making a film from the poem, it is a temptation that must be indulged. In other words, Oneda was compelled by the exigencies of filmmaking to “over-interpret” the poem in order to make it a comprehensible story. The student argued that as readers we do the same thing, but we can leave the identities of characters less resolved in our minds, remaining comfortable with ambiguity. Such ambiguity is difficult to convey in a film. (It seems that, after seeing the movie, at least a few of the students became more negatively capable.)
19. While I was thrilled to see an emerging correlation between active reading and filmmaking, I decided to lead the discussion to the third and final handout question, the characterization of the lady. Again, as I would learn when I collected their responses, this question split the class down the middle, some characterizing the lady as a “free spirit,” others as an “evil temptress.” Though I had chosen the first two “objective” questions in order to emphasize the amount of subjective judgment needed to answer them, with this more obviously interpretive question, I had a different goal. Since the knight characterizes the lady and her actions, she is, in a sense, a text-within-a-text, and one that comes to us pre-interpreted, refracted through the knight’s own convictions and (perhaps) misjudgments. Nevertheless, in my experience teaching this poem, students rarely consider the possibility of the knight as an unreliable narrator. Even when they notice that the lady never speaks for herself, they do not usually propose that the knight is a dubious—even downright bad—interpreter or relater of his own experience. These issues of fallible narration (often familiar to the students as a convention of the dramatic monologue, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Browning’s “My Last Duchess” at least) greatly enrich a reading of “La Belle Dame,” and I was interested to see how Oneda’s film might or might not influence the students’ awareness of such narrative complications.
20. Usually, when I teach this poem, I note lines 19 and 27-28 as instances at which the knight’s judgment must be scrutinized. “She look’d at me as she did love,” can mean either that she looked at the knight while she loved him, or that she looked at the knight as if she loved him, in which case the knight has made a questionable observation, and one that the lady’s actions later in the poem seem to undermine. Similarly, the phrase “sure in language strange she said— / I love thee true,” hinges on our understanding of the word sure: it might imply that the lady said “I love thee true” surely, with confidence. Alternatively, the word might stand in for equivocal phrasing like I am sure that or to be sure, in which case the knight is casting doubt on his ability to translate the lady’s “language strange,” even as he claims self-assurance.
21. Oneda does a fine job with these ambiguities. As the ancient knight tells his tale to the navigator in voiceover, the flashback-story comes to life on the screen. For the most part, during this voiceover, the young knight and the lady communicate through meaningful glances, without spoken language. But at the exact moment when the ancient knight recounts the cryptic declaration of love (“I could not understand her words, but I am sure she said, ‘I love thee true’”), the lady in the flashback actually speaks a few words of unintelligible non-language, suggesting the fallibility of the knight’s translation. I wanted to see how the students reacted to this dramatization of one of the poem’s subtler elements. Would it change the way they interpreted the poem?
22. As we reviewed the handout question, the students who shared their responses were those who believed the lady was motivated by neither good nor evil, the “free spirit” group (as I would later label them). None of the femme fatale group volunteered their thoughts. Indeed, when I asked if anyone in the class felt that the lady was motivated by revenge or hatred, a student raised his hand and said that he had thought so after reading the poem, but not after seeing the film. A number of his classmates nodded consensually. I asked them why. Two students replied that Oneda’s film made them think that the lady represented a positive concept (“ambition” and “creativity”), and that the fault lies not in the lady, but in the knight’s inability to commit to her. “Does the knight really understand her?” I asked.
23. A number of hands went up immediately. The students had appreciated Oneda’s use of voiceover narration to convey ambiguity, and—to my delight—they noted the same ambiguity in lines 27-28 of the poem without my prompting. One of them suggested that the knight in the film was an unreliable narrator. I asked if the same might be said of the knight in Keats’s poem, and the overwhelming response was “yes.” “It was way more obvious in the movie, though,” one student added. I told her to hang onto that thought.
24. With the three handout questions laid out before us, we now had two big issues to consider: from the first question, the issue of where our visual ideas of the knight came from; from the second and third questions, the issue of the differences between reading a text and adapting it for a film. Fifteen minutes remained in the class period.
25. I introduced the first issue in a broad context. If our conception of the knight in the poem is not drawn from the poem itself, then it is coming from some other source or sources—what does this suggest about reading? Is it an individual or communal (and cumulative) process? Is it an active or passive engagement with a text? I established these questions as the basis for our discussion, then I asked a more finite question: “when you addressed the first prompt on the handout (before seeing the film) did you think it was an objective or subjective question?” The response, predictably, was that they had thought of the question as “more on the objective side,” though they now realized the problems with this conclusion. “Keats doesn’t tell us what the knight looks like, or the lady. It’s like we have to picture them in our heads as we read.” After some more discussion, another student added, “even the most basic details in this poem—we have to create them.” I suggested, then, that reading—especially reading a poem like this one—is an active process in which the reader fills in a lot of gaps, often without realizing that he or she has done so.
26. A student admitted that when he reads novels he “casts” certain Hollywood actors in the characters’ roles. In some way, I said, we all do this. Didn’t we cast the knight, if not with a specific actor, at least with our idea of what knights are supposed to look like? On both a conscious and subconscious level, we are constantly integrating the information we get from the text we are reading (whether a sparsely detailed poem like this, or a richly detailed realist novel) with information we already have. Being aware of, and analyzing this synthetic process, I argued, makes us sharper, more sophisticated readers and critics.
27. We talked about this a little more, in reference to other texts we had read (and again, Coleridge loomed large in the discussion). By way of analogy, someone mentioned the great difference between reading a play and seeing it performed. I explained that this was not a distinction lost on the Romantics (a few of the students had, in fact, read Lamb’s essay on the topic in a Shakespeare course). In the remaining time, I turned to the comparison of reading and filmic adaptation.
28. I began, “Someone mentioned that the possibility of seeing the knight as an unreliable narrator was ‘more obvious in the movie.’ Why?” A few students replied that “seeing it [the poem] visualized made it more obvious.” Again I asked why, and was met with silence. I offered more: “In the film, you tended to notice the moment when the knight interprets—probably misinterprets—the lady’s words, ‘I love you.’ But this moment is there in the text too. Specifically, what made this moment stand out in the film, more so than in the poem?” I suggested that the answer might be somehow related to the just-mentioned differences between reading and watching Shakespeare. A student answered that Oneda had decided to make this issue important in his film, and that was why he used the voiceover technique. “Good,” I said, “as with his use of the navigator as the first speaker in the poem, Oneda makes a series of interpretive choices in his film. We’ve mentioned that we like to ‘cast’ actors in the mental performances of our readings—so let me ask you this: is what Oneda does in adapting Keats’s poem for a movie different from or similar to what we do in reading the poem on our own? Indeed, is there a big difference between reading—what we might call interpretation—and adapting? Or is all reading adaptation?”
29. With time running out, I left them with this question. This had been a lively discussion, and the questions it raised (especially this last one) were recurrent throughout the quarter. After this exercise I found it much easier to move beyond plot-level discussions of texts to meta-commentaries on the practice of reading and the dynamics of interpretation. The knight’s superimposition of his own desires upon the lady’s “language strange” became a cautionary example for us as critical readers. I worried that I would need to explain further: the point was not that no right or wrong way to read a text existed and that reading was an entirely subjective experience. But the students understood: they were generally prepared to critique their assumptions, and to consider elisions and lacunae in literary texts as rhetorical strategies. They were more aware of the dimensions of their personal involvement in the act of reading—that is, aware that reading is by definition a co-creative endeavor. I believe that I also succeeded in helping the students to appreciate filmic adaptation as a means of literary criticism, in which a director makes an argument about a text through a series of interpretive choices.
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Oneda, Dir. Hidetoshi, ed. La Belle Dame Sans Merci. DVD. [n.p.]: Prod. Celophaine Films, 2005. Print.
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