Narratives in Literature and Film

            Seymour Chatman ends his essay, “What Novels Can Do That Film Can’t (And Vice Versa),” with a rather vague overview defending both film and literature from critique:

“So writer, filmmaker, comic strip artist, choreographer – each finds his or her own ways to evoke the sense of what the objects of the narrative look like.  Each medium has its own properties, for better and worse usage, and intelligent film viewing and criticism, like intelligent readings, needs to understand and respect both the limitations these create and also the triumphs they invite.”

            I am unsure as to why Chatman presents this level of reasoning in his conclusion, because earlier on in his essay, it seems that he is indirectly guiding the reader to see how literature is an overall “better” vehicle for conveying a narrative.  I can only imagine how Chatman would answer the question, “Why does literature convey narrative more effectively than film does?”

            One response to the proposed question comes on page 125 when Chatman explores the difference between readers being exposed to a descriptive passage of a cart compared with movie goers viewing the same cart being represented on screen.  Chatman explains that readers are able to absorb every little detail because they are exposed to each detail one line at a time when the cart is being described.  However, movie goers only see the cart briefly on screen for a few seconds, and viewers must decide which details to retain in their memory.  Unless they have the privilege of viewing the film again, they have no way of recalling all of the description available to them.  Doesn’t this prove that literature conveys narrative more effectively?  Readers have time to truly embrace the narrative, but movie goers are often left in the dark as their minds cannot fully process everything they see in a brief scene…

            Another response that explains why literature conveys narrative more effectively than film does can be found on page 131 when Chatman discusses the director’s hope that “some degree of consensus with the spectator’s ideal of prettiness” can be met when casting actresses (or actors).  This specifically refers to the issue directors face when trying to translate a narrative into film.  When readers read through a narrative, they create pictures in their mind (if necessary) of what they believe the characters look like based on description.  But who is to say a film director can capture a “pretty lady” since everyone has different ideas of what it means to be a pretty lady.  The often disappointing casting decisions redirect people to return to favor the narrative found in literature instead of the narrative portraying in film… Therefore, the audience will never be disappointed because they are in charge of how a written narrative comes across in their own minds.

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4 Responses to Narratives in Literature and Film

  1. Marie Mosot says:

    I know it’s not my week to comment, but I’m compelled.

    “Unless they [the audience] have the privilege of viewing the film again, they have no way of recalling all of the description available to them. Doesn’t this prove that literature conveys narrative more effectively?”

    Not necessarily because that means every detail in every story is essential to its narrative. It would be like saying that the bush described in passing on page 6 is essential to the protagonist’s fate at the end – it’s not; it could be, but generally, such details are there for ambiance. Don’t forget that there’s a difference between story and narrative: not all stories are narratives, and certainly, not all films are narratives. Narrative connotes plot, a logical sequence of events with a beginning and an end, and while most film and literature contain plot, it is not always the most salient or motivating feature (i.e. character-driven stories or stories about a place, not a person). Most of what a novel contains is description, not just in the way of Chatman’s use of the term but also in content: a novel describes a character’s physical attributes just as much as it describes his fate. In fact, literature and film are composed mostly of description, that is, elements that do NOT directly contribute to the action of the plot (if plot is present). A novel can linger over the knick knacks on a shelf to reveal a character’s interests just as easily as the camera can linger over an actor’s face in a reaction shot to a dramatic moment. What I think Chatman means is that literature can direct your eye to more details of a scene than film can because film is hemmed in by the narrative pressure of the medium’s inherently shorter discourse-time; film must bow to the demands of action, of filmable plot. That doesn’t necessarily mean literature is more effective in conveying narrative – it just pays greater attention to detail. But even that assessment is arguable because film is under greater pressure to attain verisimilitude (notwithstanding animated features), which means it must depict the details of reality without explaining or describing them, and without those details in the periphery, a film could lose its audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief.

  2. Interesting comments, Lisa. I firmly agree with the second- that someone will always be disappointed with the casting choices made in the film adaptation of a book they love. I think we’ve even discussed that in class before- after you’ve created a sort of cast for the characters in a novel in your mind, it’s very frustrating to see, you know, Keira Knightley where you’d imagined a Marilyn Monroe. Right now, for instance, I’m getting ready to totally hate The Great Gatsby simply because Carey Mulligan is not who I’d picture as Daisy Buchanan.

    I’m not sure I totally agree with your first example, which is to say I don’t agree with Chapman on this point. If a cart is important enough to deserve a full description in the novel, and that same cart makes its way into the film version, there’s nothing stopping the director from pausing the camera as it hits on the important details of the cart, thus allowing the audience to focus on and take in the same features of the cart as they were described in the book.

    • amelia daly says:

      I too am compelled to expound on various points concerning this essay Marie. :)

      I also had particular frustration with the “cart” discussion. On the one hand I agree that if the director wanted he could have scanned the cart, “Hollywood” style, and evoked some of the same description as in the novel. On the other hand, I am curious to know if the descriptions and details of the cart were so salient (as he abuses the word) on the first reading of the novel. Isn’t it true that upon a first reading of a novel, poem, or short story there are only general emotions and ideas evoked? The details and full considerations/criticism occur after multiple readings and research. If we take these out, I think film and novel use description in a more similar way for the initial effect of the story.
      Further, now we have all the necessary technology and accessibility to view film repeatedly, to pause and to reflect. Now the discussion can be less, as Chatman suggests, “limited.”
      Finally, this essay made me think of our “tree on a hill” analogy we’ve used in class a few times. I agree with Chatman that everyone has the freedom with literature to imagine the descriptions in their own way, thus perpetuating disappointment. Still, it seems that if a director works as closely as Renoir does, the audience can be satisfied with the adaptation. Maybe Carey Mulligan is a bad Daisy, but she does fit the literal, textual description.

  3. Melissa M says:

    Chatman’s article and the comparison of film to novels made me think of this quote I had recently read. ““Humanity has read, hoarded, discarded and demanded books for centuries; for centuries books have been intimately woven into our sense of ourselves, into the means by which we find out who we are and who we want to be. They have never been mere physical objects – paper pages of a certain size and weight printed with text and sometimes images, bound together on the left – never just cherished or reviled reminders of school-day torments, or mementos treasured as expressions of bourgeois achievement, or icons of aristocratic culture. They have been all these things and more. They have been instruments of enlightenment”-Elisabeth Sifton” When I think of a novel in comparison of film, I am thinking of the novel, and holding the book, the binding, the use of my imagination, and the knowledge that has to be used in order to see the point of the author. For me film, is just like a baby being spoon fed. There’s no room for thought, it’s predictable in a sense. There’s something about holding the physical book and the way Elizabeth Sifton describes novels in her quotes, shows such a passion for books. Thinking about the description of the cart as Chatman describes it, you can see someone pushing a cart, but you cannot get the physical soft handle, and ridged edges, etc.

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