Narration and all its Beauty

Seymour Chatman argues in his essay that narrative films ‘do not allow us to dwell on plenteous details. Pressure from narrative component is too great. Events move too fast’ (Chatman 126).  As I read this article, this sentence struck me. Do we lose the beautiful narrative from a novel when it is transformed into an adaptation film? Does a film move too quickly that it is impossible to evoke everything in the initial narrative in a novel?

Seymour Chatman would argue that yes, a film moves too quickly and loses the narrative from the novel it is adapting from. He says, “Indeed, there are movies (like  Terence Malick’s recent Days of Heaven) which are criticized because their visual effects are too striking for narrative line to support. Narrative pressure is so great that the interpretation of even non narrative films is sometimes affected by it- at least for a time, until the audience gets its bearings” (126). I think what he is saying is that the narrative in a novel is just too big, has too much of an affect on the reader, that it is hard to transform that onto a movie screen. The Media wants the film to be a certain length, and most movie goers aren’t intent on sitting in a movie for over three hours without losing their attention, so it’s extremely difficult to have the same affect as the novel. Would I agree with this? I think in some regard it’s inevitable to believe that it is hard to transcend the same feeling in a narrative of a novel into a narrative of the film adaptation. I do think that maybe it is not such a bad thing that the narrative is different in both novel and film; it allows for different interpretation and different pieces of art. The director may see a certain narrative in a novel as something totally different then say, we would. But I think that this is the beauty of literature; that different narratives can be transcended into different artistic pieces based on one’s own interpretation.

Print Friendly
This entry was posted in 06 Andrew Chatman. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Narration and all its Beauty

  1. Translating narrative from a novel to film is exceptionally tricky, and more often than not it doesn’t work (at least as well as it should). In order for narrative to really function, it must adhere to certain timing and subsequent structure. On page 122 of Chatman’s piece, he describes this timing as well as what a narrative should do in this time, “combine the time sequence of plot events, the time of the histoire (‘story-time’) with the time of the presentation of those events in the text, which we call ‘discourse time.’” Though he moves to further elaborate on the separation and utilization of this timing, this conceptualization comes back to the idea od the media’s dictation of how long a film should be to maintain an audience’s attention. I agree that narrative cannot be fully contained in the course of one film; however, it can transmutate via filmic translation. The narrative is not completely lost on film. instead, it is reconstructed (when successfully utilized).

  2. “I do think that maybe it is not such a bad thing that the narrative is different in both novel and film…”

    This is a good point, and I think it transcends just the narrative of a novel that has been adapted for film. I think film narratives are different in general from their written counterparts, and we’d all probably be a lot more satisfied with film adaptations in general if we accepted that they perhaps cannot tell the same story in exactly the same way as a writer could tell it. This could be because, as you say, the narrative may appear differently from one person to the next- the director could, in fact, be presenting a perfect adaptation from his own point of view, but which seems like a failure to some viewers because they were affected by the novel differently. But it could also be because film and literature are kind of like two different languages, and it’s always tricky to interpret between languages. There are idiomatic or slang terms that get lost, and the artful ways we use language get gutted in favor of making sense. And I think this can go both ways- there are so many films which would be impossible to turn into novels, even films that are adaptations themselves. Good Fellas springs to mind for me. It is adapted from a novel, but if you took just the film and tried to turn that into a book, you would lose a lot of what makes it so great- the soundtrack, for instance, or the can’t-look-away quality of the violence. Perhaps this is sort of what Chatman is getting at when he says that a film like Days of Heaven is too image based- we expect our films to have narratives like our books do, and they cannot do it.

    • Mike Salerno says:

      I love the idea that film and literature can convey the same narrative via two different languages. It makes this whole discussion of film adaptation that we’ve been having in class over the past several weeks more understandable and digestable for me.

      I find it very interesting, though, that we’ve seen countless successful adaptations of novels and short stories into films but not vice versa. Why is it comparatively “easy” to translate literary language into visual language (that is, “language” of literature into “language” of film) but more difficult to translate visual language into literary language. There doesn’t seem to be this mass appeal for “novelizations,” as Chatman put it. Yet someone is always writing the companion novel to The Dark Knight Rises somewhere.

      Can novelization become a respectable form of adaptation or will it always be seen as simply another way to cash in on an established property?

    • Dana Choit says:

      In reply to Mike’s comment:

      It seems that novelizations are more often seen as a way to “cash in” on something like a big blockbuster film, simply because they are based upon movies and films that have done extremely well. What if a film that did not perform as well at the box office was novelized? I’m not sure of whether these exist already or not, but I wonder if the novelization work was done well (whatever that means) would the poor results of the box office then translate over automatically to the novelization due to the lack of popularity? Or would the novelization of the film give it a more “serious” vibe because it is a literary work? What about independent films that are often less “mainstream” but sometimes viewed as high quality/”intellectual” films regardless (or maybe also as a result of) the less expensive budget?

  3. Raj says:

    I wasn’t sure what to make of Chatman’s rather brief mention of Malick’s work. As stated in the post narrative film moves quickly and also provides a surfeit of images, which render ineffective attempts to reproduce the elements of novelized narration that call for contemplation. He then goes on to reference criticism of Malick’s work that states, “their visual effects are too striking for the narrative line to support…” which must refer to the cinematography employed by the director. I think all of his films, but certainly Days of Heaven and Badlands, utilize long, panning shots, accompanied by voiceover. These scenes tend to have an air of languor- even where there’s some sort of action, such as a romp through the woods or a couple dancing. Perhaps, in their typically pastoral charm, they are overly evocative of paintings, which as pointed out in the essay is not a narrative form. However, while they seem to provide a moment for one to pause and contemplate, the combination of movement and the voiceover provide enough support for the narrative form. I suppose I find it odd that film’s primary narrative delivery system (visuals) can be striking enough to prohibit delivery of the narrative.

Comments are closed.