Show and Tell

As an English major, we are always told to show, not tell. Seymour Chatman’s “Novels and Films” brings up some of the defining features and differences between literature and film. One of the features he brings up is the idea of the showing verses telling. Seymour suggests that “it requires special effort for the films to assert a property or relation. The dominate mode is presentational, not assertive. The film doesn’t say, ‘This is the state of affairs,’ it simply shows you that state of affairs” (128). The assertion of property is a fancy way of discussing what things are suppose to look like on the screen (Chatman gives a great example in the preceding pages). Because film is primarily “presentational”, and it shows you the state of affairs—whatever is on the screen at the moment, Chatman seems to be suggesting that film shows the viewer, while literature tells the reader.

So what does this mean for us? Does that mean that film is a better than film. Looking back at previous readings such as that of Virginia Woolf who suggests that film is for the lazy, is it in fact literature that is lazy because it has to tell you what is going on? Is Chatman in favor or against film and/or literature? I believe that he takes a middle stance, arguing that film and literature are in fact two different medium, and it is impossible replicate the exact same things between the two. Literature might be able to have a single sentence describing what a girl looks like, but film will inevitably show more. This brings us back to the idea of showing and/or telling. Is Chatman is suggesting that film and literature are equals, does it mean that showing and telling are equals as well? Some can argue yes. Showing and telling are merely two different ways to get an idea across. One, as Chatman suggests is more assertive, the other more passive. Others can argue no, suggesting that showing requires the reader/viewer to do more work, as telling is just laziness. I for one, and not sure what to think.

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2 Responses to Show and Tell

  1. amelia daly says:

    I agree Chatman differentiates the mediums at the point of their dealings with description. I was happy to read such a specific angle, it created a more clear argument for me. In reference to your question about the hierarchical struggle between film and literature, this essay made me consider some of the other readings. Semiotics and formalism in Chatman are generally touched upon at the beginning of the essay. However, he does utilize them in his discourse on the film, “A country excursion.” Stam says that “the structuralist semiotics of the 1960s and 1970s treated all signifying practices as shared sign systems productive of “texts” worthy of the same careful scrutiny as literary texts, thus abolishing the hierarchy between novel and film.” (9) In this regard, it seems to be that, even if inadvertently, Chatman is doing the same here when he “scrutinize[s]” the images in the film. I am not sure if this is a stretch or not. Are critics of images in film akin to formalistic and/or semiotic criticism of the text in literature?
    Stam also references Barthes and how he “rescued the film adaptation as a form of criticism or “reading” of the novel.” (9) Here as well we can apply one of the other critics to Chatman’s piece. I think he clearly demonstrated Renoir’s adaptation as a successful, even evolutionary, “reading” of Maupassant’s novel.

  2. Dana Choit says:

    In the first line of your post you write, ‘as English majors we are told to show not tell” as this leads to the question/argument of film “showing” and novels “telling” (opposite of what is apparently taught). I think in the case of writing “to show” what is meant by that is to show the larger ideas, meaning, etc. through what is essentially written as words on the page (I guess, told). However, a film and a film adaptation must show ideas and meaning through show. Excluding direct voice overs that may feed the big ideas or meaning across to the audience, the audience will hopefully then be given the option to come to the same conclusions that can be met through written work. In regards to the amount of laziness that occurs, I think that film does not require the reader to do any more or less work when watching for the plot/story, but requires similar or perhaps equal amount of work to derive the meaning that comes across once the plot and story has been told.

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