The Mighty

“Don’t think of it as a friendship. Think of it as a partnership. You need a brain and I need legs.”

I want to share with you the documents that I use to exploit the film The Mighty. But before I begin I want to tell you the story of the boy who introduced me to the film. I don’t know where he is today or what he has become, but I think of him often, with gratitude. I think he was not very happy when I knew him, but he gave me a precious gift, and I suspect that for him coming to English class was a bright spot in a lot of grey days.

Over ten years ago I was in the process of discovering TPRS, mostly by long distance, reading posts on the moretprs list and the Green Bible. At the time I was teaching in a French lycée with a Première class of very good students. They were sixteen years old and taking the Science track which is considered responsible for France’s worldwide lead in mathematics. It’s a selective track; only the best students are allowed to take it. The students are usually bright, competitive over-achievers. And the only student that I clearly remember from the class was an under-achiever.

He was certainly bright, but not very competitive. He just didn’t seem to care about grades. I learned that his parents lived in Africa, so he was a boarder at the international lycée, the only local school that accepted boarders on weekends and during the holidays. I saw some of his misery, being away from his family for so long, with kids that he had very little in common with. My own children had known similar boarding schools.

On the day I tried my first TPRS story, we created a purple chimpanzee and the boy volunteered to be the chimpanzee. When I asked what the chimpanzee’s name was, someone said “Darwin” and we had a good laugh. The story didn’t really go too well since I was trying to work in too much low frequency vocabulary. But the kids played along, humoring me, and we muddled through. Being an American teacher in France has the advantage that the kids expected me to be a bit strange.

From then on, the boy signed all his papers “Darwin”. The story had given him a new identity in the class. He began hanging around at the end of class to talk to me. We were doing Shawshank Redemption and he liked the fact that we weren’t following the textbook. One day he asked me if I had seen the film The Mighty. I said no and he told me that it was the best film ever made. The next day he brought in a DVD so that I could see it.

I saw that it starred Sharon Stone and doubted that it was something I could use in school. But during the holidays I took time to watch it, so that I could honestly tell him I had looked at it.

Big surprise. It was a wonderful, very moving film that left me in tears. Sharon Stone had a relatively minor role and I’m convinced that the only reason she is in the film is because she believed in the story. Sting did the music, much for the same reason, I’m sure. The real stars are two young boys who should have won a joint Oscar for their acting in the film. Especially Eldon Henson who was always spot on. I ordered the book, Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick. It was even better than the film, but written with too many colloquial expressions to be easily comprehensible for my students. I learned that the story was inspired by a boy, a neighbor of Philbrick’s, who had Morquio Syndrome.

You can get a taste of the film by watching this video:

I began using the film and soon realized it was a sure fire thing. Who could help but identify with the two boys who “had no friends, had nobody”? The greatest fear of all teenagers, even the most popular ones in the class, is that of having no friends. I realized why “Darwin,” an intelligent misfit, considered it the best film ever made, There are scenes that could have been left out, the knights on horseback fail to capture the wonder of a boy’s imagination. They are just a bunch of men dressed up as knights. But the story comes across, we know that Max and Kevin are seeing real knights, and the magic works every time. It has become an indispensable tool in my teacher’s kit. I use it with groups and individual students, with all ages, including my classes of retired adults, and it always moves and touches them. When a class or group is not used to working with films, I like to use it as a starter. It seems accessible to all levels,

Over the years I’ve developed quite a few documents in order to exploit it as efficiently as possible. Today I want to share them with you.

First class: I show the class/student a picture of the painting, American Gothic. We describe the scene and the people in it. I give them the vocabulary they may need, such a pitchfork, and I tell them the painter’s name if they are interested. I explain that it’s in a museum in Chicago, that I’ve seen it and that it is very well-known. And I ask them if the people in the painting look happy.

When we have nothing more to say about the painting, I show them a few parodies of the painting. If you Google American Gothic parodies, you will find loads of them. Choose three or four that will make your students laugh, remembering that they may not share all your cultural references. There’s one that shows Donald Trump standing in front of the White House, holding a rather surprised Hilary Clinton on a pitchfork.

I don’t explain why I wanted them to look at the pictures. We then start watching the film with no other introduction. The opening scenes show the Ohio River, its bridges and the city of Cincinnatti. We simply talk about the images. At this point there’s no dialog, so I use Movie Talk techniques. I ask how many bridges there are, and most people say two and then I point out a third one in the background. These scenes simply set the when and where of the film. I ask my students if the river is bigger than the Garonne, and show them on a map where the Ohio River is.
Then a boy’s voice begins narrating the story. I point out that no mother would name her child Freak, that it is a nickname and not a very kind nickname. I tell them that it means “monster”. I pause all the time as we decode the subtitles and discuss the scene. Then we come to the first sight of Max’s grandparents and the students recognize the allusion to the American Gothic painting. And I ask them, “Do they look like they are happy?”

Soon we see Max in the school hallways and he’s saying “When you’re in the seventh grade and you look like Godzilla…” I explain that seventh grade corresponds to Cinquième in France and I ask them if they know who Godzilla is. In this way we continue watching the film, discussing the scenes, decoding the subtitles. I usually stop when Max is under his bed, talking about the place in his head where he goes sometimes, where he is nothing, nobody. Then I give the students an Embedded Reading* which is the summary of what we have seen. The first two versions are written in the third person and the last version is written in the first person, like the film narration.

How I use the Embedded Readings depends on the time I have and the level of the students. I may simply ask them to read them, or I may read the texts with the students, or read the first two together and ask them to read the last one at home on their own. Or, after having read the first couple of reading together, I ask them to read the last one silently and to ask if there are words that need explaining.

Here are the Embedded Readings which I use. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.
The speaker is a boy. Freak told him about King Arthur. Freak told him everything. He lives with his grandparents. He calls them Gram and Grim. They do not look like they are happy.
He is in the 7th grade. He looks like Godzilla. He gets the looks. He gets the whispers. People look like they have seen him on the TV program, “America’s Most Wanted Criminals.”
Blade is the leader of a gang. They like to make trouble. Blade was in juvenile hall for three months.


The speaker is a boy. Freak told him about King Arthur and his knights. Freak told him everything. He lives with his grandparents in a poor neighborhood of Cincinnatti, Ohio. He calls his mother’s parents Gram and Grim. They do not look happy. He lives in the basement of their house.
He is in the 7th grade. He looks like Godzilla. He is very big. He gets the looks. He gets the whispers. People look like they have seen him on the TV program, “America’s Most Wanted Criminals.” He wears headphones and he doesn’t talk to anyone.
Blade is the leader of a gang. They like to make trouble. Blade was in juvenile hall for three months. Blade sits next to the boy. He says he wants to be friends because they could use his muscle. Blade’s gang makes fun of the boy. They sing, “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” They think the boy is stupid.

I am a boy. Freak told me about King Arthur and his knights. Freak told me everything. I live with my grandparents in a poor neighborhood of Cincinnatti, Ohio. They are my mother’s people. I call them Gram and Grim. They do not look happy because they are stuck with me. I live in the basement of their house.
I am in the 7th grade. I look like Godzilla. I am very big and ugly. I get the looks. I get the whispers. People look at me like they have seen me on the TV program, “America’s Most Wanted Criminals.” I always wear headphones and I don’t talk to anyone. People look at me and laugh, or they run the other way.
Blade is the leader of a gang, the Doghouse Boys. They like to make trouble. Blade was in juvenile hall for three months. Blade sat next to me on the bus. He said he and his gang wanted to be friends because they could use my muscle. Blade’s gang made fun of me. They sang, “Killer Kane, Killer Kane, had a son who got no brain.” Killer Kane is my dad. I am the son who has no brain.

There are 3 comments

  1. Zarina Kim

    This is such a great idea! Thank you for sharing this, Judith! I am going to watch the film and see if it works with my students. Thank you!

  2. Rod Gustafson

    I have been reviewing movies for over 25 years and this is one of the few I truly remember. I also did many media literacy sessions, starting in the 1990s, in schools and communities and The Mighty was a perfect tool to help all ages better understand media construction techniques. Now, with an HD (or even 4K) camera in every backpocket, these media literacy tools seem antiquated… but after seeing this post of yours just two years ago perhaps I need to rethink my jaded opinion. So happy to hear someone else has discovered the value of this film.

    And TPRS sounds like a very effective way to experience a new language. So interesting how this film has been applied to many educational purposes.

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