Monday, September 10, 2007

The Freedom Writers Diary by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers

This is the second of three books I'm reading for the Books to Movie Challenge. I chose this one because I live in Southern California and remember following the news stories on this group of young people. I'm also a teacher (elementary now but have taught middle and high school during my career) and wondered how Ms. Gruwell accomplished all the things she did with her students. Also, my husband has many ties in the Long Beach community where the book and movie are set.

The Book:

I read the book before I watched the movie. The book is a series of unrelated diary entries from the 150 students who came to call themselves Freedom Writers. The entries represent their four years of high school and are prefaced each semester by a diary entry from Ms. Gruwell. To protect the students' privacy, the entries are numbered and no names are attached to them.

I found the format of the book quite difficult. I kept getting pieces of information about a student but never felt like I got the whole picture. There were times when I wanted to know more about a student or wondered how a situation had resolved itself, but the next diary entry was unrelated. The entries were arranged chronologically so it was clear what the students were doing in class and how that was affecting their writing. This, unfortunately, gave some of the entries the feel of a "What I Did on My Summer Vacation" school essay. When they retold events, like meeting Holocaust survivors or visiting the Museum of Tolerance, I wasn't always drawn into their emotions. Some of the entries felt a little too "schooly." I realize that the goal was to give everyone a voice, but I do wonder if the quality of the book was sacrificed. It might have been a better book if it told a few students' stories well.

I also had difficulties with Ms. Gruwell's sections of the book. Being a teacher, I was wondering about her methodology and how the writing was produced and edited. How authentic were the voices, and how edited were the entries? She didn't provide much insight into the teaching process, as her entries tended to secure the chronological timeline.

The Movie:

The movie was a whole different matter. I absolutely HATED it! The movie didn't know if it wanted to tell the story of a teacher fighting the system, or the story of a number of young people, as seen through their diary entries. I normally like Hilary Swank, but she was wasted in this movie. She seemed to have two expressions - overly earnest or overly chipper. Patrick Dempsey, of Grey's Anatomy, was her husband. I didn't really care about him or their relationship. (This part was totally added to the movie and isn't in the book.) The book's major strength for me was the focus on the students and their stories. The movie diluted this focus, which was not a good choice.

My Verdict:

Overall, do I admire Ms. Gruwell for her work with these students? I'm not sure. She took one group of 150 students and stayed for four years. She left the high school when they did, instead of taking on a new batch of students. I've read a number of statistics about teachers leaving the profession in the first five years. While she remained teaching in higher ed, I wonder if her success could have been repeated.

I don't think I can recommend either the movie or the book. Both are unsatisfying for different reasons. The movie is too unfocused, and the book leaves out too much to be a satisfying read. Was the book better than the movie? Slightly - because I liked the book's focus more than the movies. But that's not saying much.

As always, I'm open to hearing what other people thought of either the book or the movie.

16 comments:

Literary Feline said...

I know the movie has gotten quite a few positive nods out there, although I know it didn't hit it big because it wasn't in the theaters all that long. I do hope to read the book one day, although it's not up on my list anytime soon. And I'll probably see the movie afterwards just because. I am sorry the book nor the movie turned out to be very satisfying.

I really do appreciate your insight into both the movie and the book, both as a reader and as a teacher.

Callista said...

I actually have no idea what this story is, I've never heard of the Freedom writers. I'm sorry that you didn't like the book or the movie much.

I've posted a link to your review.

John Mutford said...

I was forced to watch this movie on a flight earlier this year.

Just another story that's been told again and again, using the same cliches over and over.

BookGal said...

Callista and Literary - I tend to like most of the books I read. That's why I like challenges. It gets me out of my comfort zone.

John - I agree ... and not told well.

Trish said...

Very interesting--I just watched this movie last night. It took a while for me to get into it, I think when she started to talk to them about the Holocaust after the racist cartoon circulated in class, but at first I groaned and thought, didn't we already see this movie a million times already?

I HATED the side story about the marital misfortunes. I normally love Patrick Dempsey, but his character was so undeveloped that when he decided to leave it felt like a whole chunk of the movie was missing.

I won't read the book--I felt that I got all I needed from the movie, although I'm thinking I liked it better than you did. Hmmm...

Oh ya, I also thought it was strange that she left after the kids did and also wondered if she could repeat her success.

Trish said...

Oh, and hey: I'm going to add you to my list of blogs if you don't mind. I'd love to come back!

BookGal said...

Trish - Thanks for visiting - and thanks for the link. I agree about the Patrick Dempsey role - what a waste. Maybe you liked the movie better because you haven't read the book.

Cee Cee said...

I wondered as well if her success could be duplicated. I was sad to see her not return for a new batch of students. Thanks for the review!

BookGal said...

Cee Cee - Maybe this takes so much effort that she burned out.

Historia said...

I actually reviweed this book back in May. While you are correct about the disjointed diary entries, I wasn't too bothered by the lack of indivual story endings.

I was more disappointed that the book didn't say what happened to the kids. I would have liked to know who graduated College, who didn't and what they all do now.

I had trouble reading the book in one sitting. The raw emotions were hard to assimilate at times. It often depended on my mood.

BookGal said...

Historia - Good point. I really did want to know what happened to the kids. Maybe that's why I felt the lack of individual stories. I did have trouble reading it all at once. I actually read it while I was reading Middlesex.

alisonwonderland said...

i had heard some good things about the movie - and it might have been from you that i found out that it was based on a book. so i put it on my Book to Movie Challenge list - and i will still read it (and watch it). i guess we'll see how i react to it ...

soleil said...

i saw this movie a few months ago and i enjoyed it for the most part. i didn't care for the marital storyline or patrick dempsey. it seemed put upon and out of place. but i did get invested in the kids' stories. yeah, it probably was dangerous minds all over again but i am a sucker for 'based on true story' movies. and i have been wanting to read the book since i discovered that the movie was based on the one the students wrote. i'm sorry you didn't like it. i hope to read this in the future but your review has made me a bit wary. :)

BookGal said...

Alison and Soleil - Let me know when you read the book. I'd love to read your reviews and see what you thought.

alisonwonderland said...

i've got my review posted here . (i liked both the book and the movie a lot better than you did.)

Care said...

Many good points introduced here that echoed with me,too,when I saw the movie (did not and prob will not read the book) - the marriage thing was sad and didn't give anything to the story. Surely she had OTHER students during the 4 years? It ended = and that was it? what HAPPENED to all these kids? I wanted it to be heartwarming, I did...