Study Guide

The Wave Introduction

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The Wave Introduction

It's a movie! It's a short story! It's a book! It's a scary classroom experiment! It's The Wave! Todd Strasser's 1981 novel The Wave didn't start off as a book. It began as a way for real-life teacher Ron Jones to try to teach his history class about one of the most hideous events in human history: the Holocaust

Like most people who hear about the Holocaust, Jones' students had lots of questions: how could such a thing have happened? Why didn't anyone stop it? Well, Teacher Jones couldn't explain it, so he decided to try out a little experiment which he called "The Third Wave." He wanted to create an environment in his classroom that would help his students understand what was going on in Germany under Nazi Rule. Sound dangerous? Well, it was.

His experiment was a little too successful and some two hundred students at Elwood P. Cubberley Senior High joined The Third Wave with disastrous effects. Jones describes the experiment as "one of the most frightening events experienced in the classroom" (source).

The story of this experiment was first detailed by Jones in a short story called "The Third Wave."Notice we say "short story" and not "essay." The short story is a fictionalized account of what went on in Jones' classroom, and in fact, there isn't a lot of evidence to support Jones' story. Something definitely went down, but there seems to be some exaggeration and maybe some fabrication going on, too.

In any case, in 1981, Jones' story was adapted into a made-for-TV movie called The Wave. And – wait for it! – what you are reading is a novelization of the movie. Our novelizer (that's a real word and we love it!) Todd Strasser says, "To be honest, I have always wondered if the 'real life' experiment conducted by Mr. Jones actually went as far as his essay alleges" (source).

Still, Strasser believes that this novel has some important lessons for readers. Plus, it's a good way for teachers to start conversations with students about the Holocaust. We agree with you, Todd. In fact, The Wave was published in Europe under the name Morton Rhue, and it's taught in German public schools (source).

This can be a tough one to stomach, but it's totally worth it. And when you finish reading, ask yourself this: would you have joined The Wave?

What is The Wave About and Why Should I Care?

Here's a list of groups that we at Shmoop belonged to in high school:

  • Math Team
  • Cheerleading Squad
  • Drama Club
  • Substance Free Students
  • Tennis Team
  • A Cappella Group (seriously!)
  • Student Council
  • Science Olympiad
  • Technology Club

And here's the kicker: we still turned out okay. (A little wacky sometimes, but okay.) When we read The Wave, we're almost led to believe that being part of a group is a bad thing. But if we look closer, we'll see that there's more to it than that.

Shmoop thinks the takeaway here is this: when you're part of a group, you shouldn't give up your individuality. It's important to develop your own ideas about what is right and wrong, and if a group asks you to go against something you believe in, it's better to leave the group than to go along with it just to fit in.

Okay, slow down. This is all well and good, but… it's easier said than done, right? What if not going along with the group means losing your job, or your family, or your friends? What then?

This is the kind of tricky territory we get into in The Wave. So prepare to be challenged by some of what you are about to read. And while you're at it, prepare to challenge. The message behind this book is to question things, and a good place to start is by questioning the book itself. So, don't be afraid to disagree with ideas you find in the novel, or hey, even in Shmoop's brilliant take on it.

The Wave Resources


The Wave Dot Com
This is the official Wave website, and is loaded with info (some of it rather strange!). It also promises to "separate fact from fiction" – but we aren't so sure it does that. The real experiment The Wave is based on isn't well documented and it's hard to know exactly how it went down.

The Man Behind The Wave
Want to find out about Todd Strasser's other novels? Read about his life? Hire him to speak at your school? Well, this is your chance.

The Man Behind The (Third) Wave
Ron Jones is the real life Ben Ross. Check out his website here.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
If you want to read more about the Holocaust, Shmoop highly recommends this website. You can use the search feature to find specific information or just browse around.

Movie or TV Productions

The Wave (1981)
Before The Wave was a book, it was a made-for-TV movie. It's almost too creepy to watch, but… do it anyway!

Lesson Plan (2010)
This documentary film claims to tell the real story of The Wave. What do you think?

Die Welle (2008)
This is the popular German adaptation of the novel, set in present day Germany. Yep, that means it went from movie to novel and back to movie again.


"The Third Wave"
This is Ron Jones' original short story describing his experiment. Remember, this is a short story, not an essay. Big difference! This is a fictionalized version of events that Jones claims happened years before.

"Like History in the First Person"
Check out this review of the German film, Die Welle, an adaptation of The Wave set in present day Germany.

"How Todd Strasser became Morton Rhue"
Now it's time to gain some cultural literacy: this article describes how German readers react to The Wave.


Live and in Color
Ron Jones spoke to a sold-out audience in San Francisco about his experiment. Listen close, because he doesn't like to talk about it much.

Here's a big chunk of the made-for-TV movie on which <em>The Wave </em>is based.

German, Anyone?
Curious what the German film adaptation of this book looks like? Well, you're just a click away. So, click away!


Our Author
Todd Strasser looks like quite the happy guy here.

An International Book Cover
Morton Rhue = Todd Strasser. We swear!

Shmoop's Copy
This is the cover on Shmoop's copy of The Wave. Scary, right?

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