James Gugler, 17, works 28 hours each week pumping gas at a Canoga Park Chevron station. He also goes to high school. These dual duties demand shortcuts, so when assigned to read the novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," James flew over to the neighborhood video store and rented a video of the film.
"It was a lot easier than spending a week reading the book," says the El Camino Real High School junior. "Basically, what the teacher wanted was in the movie. I did fine. I got an A on the test."
Rob Cain, 17, also of El Camino High, can relate. William Shakespeare's"Hamlet" did nothing for him in print. The screen version was a different matter.
"I'm not interested in great works of literature, and the movie made the story much clearer to me."
James and Rob aren't aberrations. Many fast-lane teen-agers prefer video versions of historical masterpieces and modern classics to bound editions.
Hence, local video owners and employees--perhaps more than even the most watchful parents--usually know the due date for a Shakespeare or Dickens book report.
"I know because a lot of kids will call up on the same night to find if we carry a certain movie," said Shana Kaplan, an employee at Video by the Oak in Woodland Hills. The video rental outlets queried by The Times carried only one or two copies of videos of movies like "Hamlet" or "Wuthering Heights," which could make last-minute cramming somewhat risky.
"I had one guy in who gave me a whole sheet of paper with about 30 or 40 books and asked if we had any of them on film. He was doing a psychology paper. I said 'no,' and then he came back and said 'Frances' would be acceptable."
English teachers aren't thrilled with these video-mad teen-agers.
"People's imaginations will probably get atrophied from non-use," observes Lesley Johnstone, who teaches English literature at Cal State Northridge. "In video, you can't capture the descriptive detail that a book has. A book puts you deeper into that world, while the screen is so detached and independent from you. It's like eating junk food and kidding yourself that it's a banquet."
In Johnstone's opinion, this generation's love affair with videos is more proof that students are not as academically oriented as previous generations.
"We're giving A pluses to students who would've barely earned a B 10 years ago," she says. "I waste a lot of time spelling out basic things that I had assumed people would be aware of. I have to spoon-feed them."
Nonetheless, some teachers say videos are here to stay as a learning vehicle for students, and they say they might as well use them.
Marcia Koenig, who teaches English at El Camino Real High School, sometimes uses videos to entice students to read. She shows a brief clip of the film, then the class proceeds to the written form. This strategy is not uncommon among teachers, according to Koenig.
Some teachers give essay rather than multiple-choice exams--hoping to discourage students who take the video shortcut. But some students, wary of that possibility, read the Cliff Notes version to fill in plot gaps in a speedy manner.
And then there are some teachers who defend videos, arguing they reach many students who would never read the classical novel.
"How else would these kids ever get to see 'Hamlet?' " says Liba Breger-Feuerstein, who teaches English Literature at Granada Hills High School. "This way, maybe for an hour, they'll have some ideas swirling around in their heads that we can talk about, and maybe for an hour, they'll be surrounded by good language.
"I can't be threatened by the video," she says. "Teachers who say it's a crutch are the ones who are most threatened by it."
Avid readers, however, criticize their classmates for taking the easy road.
"When I got to 'The Hobbit,' J.R.R. Tolkien explained every detail--down to the precise leaf on a tree, while the videos move so fast," complains Tess Leon, 17, a senior at Granada Hills High School.
Samantha Lefton, 18, a senior at El Camino Real High School, says she reads to sharpen her thinking skills.
"It's my interpretation that I want to remember, not what some producer tells me. . . . I loved reading 'Wuthering Heights,' but in the movie, the characters weren't as deep as I had pictured.
"My thoughts are mine. They may not be accurate, but they're mine and they're special to me."
But many students and teachers say these are voices of the minority. Academic shortcuts are as old as the one-room schoolhouse, and teen-agers are always quick to pick up the latest tool of convenience.
"I found 'Romeo and Juliet' to be the most boring book," said Carl Anton, a junior at Granada Hills. "But I could relate to the movie.
"It was there for me. I didn't have to interpret. In the time it takes to read 'Romeo and Juliet,' I could watch the videos of all of Shakespeare's other plays."