Cultural Immersion Preparation Through Literature and Film

Prior to departing for their tour, group leaders do a great job of preparing their students to be safe and practical travelers—think spending money, passports, and packing. But there is another side to travel preparation that can be much more than that; to truly experience tour destinations including their history and culture, travelers should do whatever they can to optimize their travel experience. Media such as literature and film are a great way to introduce students to their travel destinations in a more engaging format than text books can offer. Group Leaders need to think outside the box and choose materials that their students can connect with. With this in mind, we have selected some of our favorite novels and films that can help a traveler look at things in a different way while on tour.

Please use this list as a starting point. When choosing what literature and films to show your students you’ll want to select material that is suitable for their age and curriculum.

Lit and Film

CleftClips/Via Flickr


Absolute Beginners, Colin MacInnes: This London-set novel takes place in the Notting Hill area in the 1950s, where multiculturalism was rapidly developing and youthful rebellion was changing the city after World War II. The book is written from the perspective of an 18 year old, an ideal introduction of post-war London for high school students.

A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway: Ernest Hemingway’s memoir about his years in Paris is a classic, giving readers insight into life in Paris in the 1920s. The book is a compilation of Hemingway’s anecdotes and personal observations as he takes readers on a detailed tour through Paris. Many of the locations mentioned can still be found in modern day Paris.

History: A Novel, Elsa Morante: This novel trades stereotypical ancient Rome for a Rome that students are likely less familiar with. In this World War II account of the lives of Ida Ramundo and her two sons, this story shares a darker side of Rome’s history that isn’t often found in textbooks.

Travels with my Donkey, Tim Moore: The story of a man’s journey through northern Spain on a donkey provides a humorous take on Spanish culture. The comedic nature of this story gives a less traditional path to understanding Spanish culture, and will surely pique students’ interest.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway: Hemingway’s fascination with Spanish bullfighting translated wonderfully to this 1926 novel set in Pamplona. His novel will bring post-World War I Spain to life for students.

Troubles, J.G. Farrell: Troubles takes place in 1970 and illustrates a once grand Irish hotel struggling during the political tension and violence throughout the Irish War of Independence, a turbulent and impactful period in Ireland’s history. This novel introduces readers to the taxing conflict that Ireland has experienced, and helps students understand Ireland’s modern culture.

Pascali’s Island, Barry Unsworth: This novel transports students to Greece under Ottoman rule as they follow the life of a quasi-spy reporting to Ottoman authorities. Through this story, Unsworth does a terrific job at describing Greek attitudes, culture, and history, through the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar with it all.

The Innocent, Ian McEwan: Set in Cold War Berlin, McEwan’s novel places the reader in the bizarre and dangerous communist Berlin. Describing in great detail what the city looked and felt like, the author gives his readers a vivid depiction of the tense life in Cold War Germany.

Stasiland, Anna Funder: Funder’s representation of East Germany’s secret police is a riveting one, documenting its oppression and control over the nation. Published in 2003, this novel provides a look back into one of the most stressful times in Germany’s history.

Tiananmen Moon, Philip Cunningham: This enthralling book delivers a firsthand account of what really happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Written from the point of view of a Western observer during the student demonstrations, Tiananmen Moon highlights some of the controversies surrounding the Chinese government.


The King’s Speech: Based on a true story, this 2010 Best Picture winner tells the story of King George VI who copes with a speech impediment by seeing Lionel Logue, an Australian speech therapist. The two become friends and as George’s brother abdicates the throne, the new King works with Logue to help him make his first wartime radio broadcast to declare war on Germany in 1939. An incredible chronicle of Britain’s royal family and its role in World War II, The King’s Speech is a must-see for any traveler to England.

Atonement: Atonement tells the story of a crime and its consequences over the course of six decades in Britain’s history, beginning in the 1930s. The film gives viewers a peak into 60 years of British history, especially the time surrounding WWII.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: British humor is a huge part of their culture, and it’s something that Brits pride themselves on. Monty Python is the quintessential example of this type of quirky and clever humor that you may experience across the pond.

Gladiator: This epic historical drama makes the nearly intangible Roman era tangible to modern audiences. Filled with conflict, war, and other struggles from ancient Rome, Gladiator is the must-see for those wanting to learn about Italy’s ancient past through film.

Life is Beautiful: This classic Italian comedy-drama was released in 1997 and is a window into Italy’s dark past during World War II. Following a Jewish Italian book shop owner through the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, Life is Beautiful takes viewers on an emotional journey through the harsh realities of a difficult period in Italy’s past.

Volver: This drama starring Penélope Cruz is centered on an unconventional family from Madrid. The film addresses major issues such as sexual abuse, loneliness and death into an almost disturbingly expressive plot. As one of Spain’s most beloved films, Volver introduces travelers to Spain’s perspective on some of life’s toughest conflicts.

An Everlasting Piece: This polarizing film is a comedy trapped in a tragedy’s body. The film takes place in Ireland and features two wig salesmen, one Catholic and one Protestant, who live in a war torn Belfast during the 1980s. The film acquaints students with Ireland’s (and Northern Ireland’s) most notorious historical conflicts.

The Lives of Others: This 2006 German drama is about the Stasi agents who monitored East Berlin under communist rule. The award-winning film was the first drama film about this sensitive topic, released 17 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Respected for its historical accuracy, students can learn a lot about Berlin’s past through the film.

Seven Years in Tibet: Taking place in Tibet between 1944 and 1951, this film recounts the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. The film is a reflection of one of China’s most significant 20th century events.

The Blue Kite: This story is told from the perspective of a boy growing up in 1950s and 1960s Beijing. Through turning points in Chinese history – including the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution – viewers can see how the family changes, reflecting on how China has changed as a nation.

Topics: Art, Travel tips

Rachel Waldmann

Rachel is a Marketing intern with EF Educational Tours and EF Explore America.

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