A useful assignment for writing classes, especially when studying creative nonfiction, is to assign a reading of Ned Zeman’s 2004 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Loved Grizzlies” a day or more before a viewing of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man” inspired by Zeman’s article. Not only does the grisly tale grab student attention and spark engaged debate, each text offers a trove of interesting compositional choices that can enhance student understanding of narrative and the various media by which it travels.
Students take notes on their impressions as they read Zeman’s article and attempt to describe the image of Treadwell that is conveyed before they view Herzog’s film. As we review the article, students notice graphic layout, the clever beginning, the range of evidence, and the variety of specific detail and skillful description. By the time we view Herzog’s film, students have a loose framework for comparison that sharpens their eyes and ears for detail.
Follow up discussion builds upon these observations and moves to include closer examination of each medium, narrative choices, documentary approaches and directorial/authorial intrusion, as when Herzog denies viewers a hearing of the audio evidence yet positions himself within the frame, back to the camera, listening to it with headphones. Though the film is about the wild, technology is foregrounded in Treadwells 100+ hours of video footage where we can see the profound impact of a technology that is a kind of portable audience – or at least a promise of one.
Students can pursue focused research papers inspired by the film, or write critical analyses of each narrative, noting the specifics of how each achieves its unique effect or they can delve into drafting an argument essay about the environmental issues raised in the film, or the concept of authorship, or the the various limitations of each medium for this particular story.
Whether we call the documentary an “adaptation” or not, the interplay of message and media is a fertile space for intellectual exploration and the development of thinking through close reading and significant writing.