Taken Hostage Book Essay Questions

Questions for Discussion

Olive Kitteridge

  1. Do you like Olive Kitteridge as a person?
  2. Have you ever met anyone like Olive Kitteridge, and if so, what similarities do you see between that person and Olive?
  3. How would you say Olive changed as a person during the course of the book?
  4. Discuss the theme of suicide. Which characters are most affected (or fascinated) by the idea of killing themselves?
  5. What freedoms do the residents of Crosby, Maine, experience in contrast with those who flee the town for bigger “ponds” (California, New York)? Does anyone feel trapped in Crosby, and if so, who? What outlets for escape are available to them? 
  6. Why does Henry tolerate Olive as much as he does, catering to her, agreeing with her, staying even-keeled when she rants and raves? Is there anyone that you tolerate despite their sometimes overbearing behavior? If so, why?
  7. How does Kevin (in “Incoming Tide”) typify a child craving his father’s approval? Are his behaviors and mannerisms any way like those of Christopher Kitteridge? Do you think Olive reminds Kevin more of his mother or of his father?
  8. In “A Little Burst,” why do you think Olive is so keen on having a positive relationship with Suzanne, whom she obviously dislikes? How is this a reflection of how she treats other people in town?
  9. Does it seem fitting to you that Olive would not respond while others ridiculed her body and her choice of clothing at Christopher and Suzanne’s wedding?
  10. How do you think Olive perceives boundaries and possessiveness, especially in regard to relationships?
  11. Elizabeth Strout writes, “The appetites of the body were private battles” (“Starving,” page 89). In what ways is this true? Are there “appetites” that could be described as battles waged in public? Which ones, and why
  12. Why does Nina elicit such a strong reaction from Olive in “Starving”? What does Olive notice that moves her to tears in public? Why did witnessing this scene turn Harmon away from Bonnie?
  13. In “A Different Road,” Strout writes about Olive and Henry: “No, they would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other” (p. 124). What is it that Olive and Henry say to each other while being held hostage in the hospital bathroom that has this effect? Have you experienced a moment like this in one of your close relationships?
  14. In “Tulips” and in “Basket of Trips,” Olive visits people in difficult circumstances (Henry in the convalescent home, and Marlene Bonney at her husband’s funeral) in hopes that “in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement” (p. 172). In what ways do the tragedies of others shine light on Olive’s trials with Christopher’s departure and Henry’s illness? How do those experiences change Olive’s interactions with others? Is she more compassionate or more indifferent? Is she more approachable or more guarded? Is she more hopeful or more pessimistic?
  15. In “Ship in a Bottle,” Julie is jilted by her fiancé, Bruce, on her wedding day. Julie’s mother, Anita, furious at Bruce’s betrayal, shoots at him soon after. Julie quotes Olive Kitteridge as having told her seventh-grade class, “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else” (p. 195). What do you think Olive means by this phrase? How does Olive’s life reflect this idea? Who is afraid of his or her hunger in these stories?
  16. In “Security,” do you get the impression that Olive likes Ann, Christopher’s new wife? Why does she excuse Ann’s smoking and drinking while pregnant with Christopher’s first child (and Henry’s first grandchild)? Why does she seem so accepting initially, and what makes her less so as the story goes on?
  17. Was Christopher justified in his fight with Olive in “Security”? Did he kick her out, or did she voluntarily leave? Do you think he and Ann are cruel to Olive?
  18. Do you think Olive is really oblivious to how others see her—especially Christopher? Do you think she found Christopher’s accusations in “Security” shocking or just unexpected?
  19. What’s happened to Rebecca at the end of “Criminal”? Where do you think she goes, and why do you think she feels compelled to go? Do you think she’s satisfied with her life with David? What do you think are the reasons she can’t hold down a job?
  20. What elements of Olive’s personality are revealed in her relationship with Jack Kennison in “River”? How does their interaction reflect changes in her perspective on her son? On the way she treated Henry? On the way she sees the world?
From "A Reader's Guide" to Olive Kitteridge, included in the paperback edition.


Introduction: Placing the Events Shown in the Movie in Context

Teachers can introduce the film and place the escape of the six American diplomats in context by providing direct instruction covering the following topics. In the alternative, students can introduce the film themselves. Have students prepare and deliver, individually or in groups, five-minute class presentations on relevant topics. As time permits, topics can include the following:

  • the strategic importance of Iran to the West during WWII and after;
  • the history of U.S. intervention in Iran during the 1950s leading to the installation of the Shaw as the ruler of the country;
  • the role of the Cold War in shaping U.S. policy toward Iran;
  • the rule of the Shaw of Iran, it's benefits and costs to the people of Iran;
  • the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979;
  • the structure of the government of Iran after the Islamic Revolution of 1979;
  • the 1979-1981 U.S./Iranian hostage crisis;
  • how the U.S. and Iran came to cooperate in limited ways after the hostage crisis, including the Iran-Contra scandal; and
  • current relations between the Iranian government and the West, including the Iranian nuclear weapons program and Western sanctions.

After Showing the Film

Either through direct instruction or by way of a report from students, describe for the class what is accurate and inaccurate about the movie. (If students are assigned to report on the accuracy of the film, have them read, before they see the movie, Joshua Berman's WIRED article entitled "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran or Mr. Mendez' book, Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.) The discussion should cover the following points. Another alternative is to have all students read Berman's article and give students Assignment #1, below.

A Note on Historical Accuracy

This is a reasonably accurate work of historical fiction with respect to the way in which the hostages were rescued. The primary historical error in the story is the focus on the CIA and the minimization of the role played by the Canadian government in the rescue. The Canadians played a major role in the rescue, issuing six fake passports for the diplomats (this required a secret act of the Canadian Parliament), creating Canadian identities for the American diplomats, and smuggling into Iran via diplomatic pouch materials to make the escape possible, such as the false passports, other false identification, disguise kits provided by the CIA, and movie paraphernalia to support the Argo cover story. Moreover, throughout the 79 days during which the Canadian Ambassador, Ken Taylor, and his wife, Dr. Patricia Taylor, provided shelter to their "houseguests," Ambassador Taylor and the Canadian government played the lead role in protecting the hostages. By hiding the houseguests, Ambassador Taylor and his wife put their own safety at substantial risk. The British and New Zealand diplomats in Iran were also helpful.

Many of the incidents used to build tension at the bazaar and at the airport did not take place. The entire episode at the bazaar was fictional. The trip to the airport, through immigration, and onto the plane went without a hitch, except that the plane had needed a minor repair and departure was delayed for an hour. There was no call by a Revolutionary Guard to Hollywood (although an office had been set up and the call would have been answered) and there was no chase of the plane by gun toting revolutionaries on the tarmac. The Iranians had no idea that the diplomats were trying to escape. The Argo exfiltration operation went off very smoothly. However, certainly the diplomats trying to get out of Tehran were nervous and tense. It could be said that the incidents used to build tension were essentially truthful, whether they happened or not.

Discussion Questions:

1. Given the fact that the audience will take away from this film a vivid impression of the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, do you think that, on the whole, this film improves the viewer's understanding of the important historical events as they actually occurred? Justify your conclusion. Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. The discussion should include criticisms of the film as historical fiction if the audience takes it to be the definitive story of the hostage crisis because it focuses on the rescue of six diplomats taking the focus away from more important issues such as the reason for Iranian hostility to the U.S. and the plight of the 52 hostages held at the embassy. The discussion should also include a mention of the failure of the film to fully acknowledge the role of Ambassador Taylor and the Canadian government in protecting and freeing the hostages.

2. Historical fiction is still fiction and uses the techniques of fiction. What elements in the film create the suspense that keeps viewers on edge even though they know the outcome of the story? Suggested Response: Most of the tension stems from the race against time. The Iranians are busy reassembling shredded paper, and they are hunting for the missing American personnel who are now pretending to be part of a film crew. There is a close call at the bazaar and at the airport, and the phone call to the supposed studio is nearly missed. The housekeeper is in deep trouble should she not be able to flee to Iraq, a feat she barely accomplishes. There are several others that students may describe. In the discussion, note that all of these except perhaps for the first two are fictional.

3.Who was the primary audience for the Argo cover used in this exfiltration? Why did the CIA go into such depth as creating a fake production company, manning offices in Hollywood, having the Canadians create fake identities for the houseguests? (Hint: The primary audience wasn't the Iranians at the airport or anywhere else.) Suggested Response: Antonio Mendez, the CIA officer who planned the operation and escorted the houseguests to freedom wrote:
The first rule in any deception operation is to understand who your audience is. In the case of Argo, the audience was not the Iranians but the houseguests [the 6 employees of the embassy] themselves. While we'd backstopped the cover story to the hilt, the people we really wanted to convince were those six American diplomats. Of course, if any Iranian officials had actually checked, their story would have seemed legitimate. But knowing that this is what sold the cover story to the houseguests in the first place. They believed in it, which gave them the confidence to carry it off. Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, Viking, 2012, page 298.

4. Describe some of the risks and benefits of engineering regime change in other countries. Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer. Certainly, the U.S. experience with Iran since the Second World War is an example of one risk, i.e., that the country is turned into an implacable foe and that thereafter, the intervening country has little ability to influence its actions. Note that in the case of Iran, there are other reasons for hostility between the two countries, including the Islamist fundamentalism of the regime and its opposition to Israel, a close U.S. ally. It is also important to note that the Cold Warrior architects of U.S. policy on Iran in the 1950s believed that the Soviet Union posed a mortal threat to the U.S. and that a change of government in Tehran was necessary to protect U.S. interests at the time. No one would argue that modern day Iran poses a mortal threat to the U.S. There are also other examples of U.S. sponsored regime change that did not lead to lasting hostility, e.g., Chile in 1973.

For two additional Discussion Questions, see the Supplemental Materials for this Guide.

Assignments and Assessments:

1. Read Joshua Berman's WIRED article dated 2007 and entitled "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran." Write an essay in which you note how the information presented in Berman's piece is presented in Argo. Be specific; quote from the details Berman presents and cite scenes in the film that create an image of these details. Conclude with a judgment on the accuracy of the adaptation from magazine to film. [Students who want to go further can read the book written by Tony Mendez, the CIA spymaster who planned and carried out the operation, Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.]

2. Research Internet information focused on the role played by the Canadian government in sheltering the American diplomats and the fact that in the film, the CIA took most of the credit for the operation. Write an opinion essay about which group you determine to have been most responsible for the success of the exfiltration plan. Quote sources, such as Jimmy Carter, and various news outlets that gained access to the story, details of which were made public in 1997.

3. Gain access to and watch the Special Features information that has been released with the film. Evaluate how accurately the actors in the film portrayed the characters who were actually involved in the events themselves. Quote from the interviews and cite action or dialogue in the film to support your opinions. Conclude with a judgment on the credibility of the film in terms of the principals involved.

See also Assignments, Projects, and Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *