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Discuss the idea of the film narrator/narration in relation to verbal to visual issues

Essay Topic: ,

I will be looking at the different notions of the ‘narrator’ in relation to both verbal and visual texts then I will be discussing the importance of montage and mise-en-scene in the construction of a film, otherwise the ‘narration’ of a film. I will also examine concepts of the film narrator in relation to the verbal to visual process put forward by theorists and film scholars and use examples from the texts The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley (1984), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992) and Emma by Jane Austen (1816).

I will also touch upon ‘focalization’ within the context of the narrator.

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Before I discuss the concept of film narrator, I will briefly touch on the narrator of the literary text so as to realise the fundamental differences between them. In a verbal text, the narrator will fall into one of three basic types; the speaker who uses his own voice, one who assumes the voice/voices of other persons, and not speak in his own voice and one who uses a mixture of his own and other persons voices. Cuddon, 1998: 535) The distinction between the three are very important, where all are evidently still narrators, the speaker who uses his own voice or the first-person narrator is ‘active in the plot’ whereby the speaker who do not use his voice, the third-person narrator is ‘outside or above the plot’ yet still in the text (extra diegetic). In the verbal text, Emma, the story is told through an omniscient narrative.

This narrator has the power to look into the character’s psyche as well as manipulate the reader therefore their role as an objective narrator has failed; ‘Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to. ‘ (Austen, 1816: 24). Here the narration is from the viewpoint of Emma describing Harriet’s personality as she sees it. We do not know of her disposition as anything other than the way Emma prescribes.

The problem here is that we get only a biased viewpoint and often you experience the author’s intervention too. The third-person narrative in The English Patient is different; the storyteller stands further away from the immediate action. They do not attempt to intervene with the action other than tell it as it is presented; ‘She walks over the paved stones, grass in the cracks. He watches her black-stockinged feet, the thin brown dress. She leans over the balustrade. ‘ (Ondaatje, 1992: 32).

In Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn, there are constant transitions in focalizers as the novel is multi-voiced and follows the stories of several characters over many decades so the role of the narrator switches between characters often with just a space between paragraphs to separate the transitions. Still, it is easy to grasp and does not really intervene with the flow of the story. When making a movie, the two most important elements that matter are; a, everything that goes in the scene and b, the editing of the scenes.

When referring to the scenes and its contents, it is known as mise-en-scene. Translated, it literally means putting-on-stage, and is ‘the arrangement of performers and properties on a stage for a theatrical production or before the camera in a film’ (The American Heritage(r) Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, 2000). This term refers to the staging of the film and the director’s control over what appears in the film frame: di??cor, direction of the actors, lighting, camera movement, choice of lenses and so on.

In order to visualise the verbal text, importance is often placed into mise-en-scene. In Emma, the period in which the drama was set was evidently emphasised through the costumes in which the characters wore. The costumes in Emma depicted each person’s social status and personality, traits that were of importance in the verbal text and therefore needed to be narrated in the visual text. Another important aspect in the novel was the abode of certain characters, something else that was significant in the literary discourse.

Hartfield and Randalls, the homes of the affluent in the movie were very much larger-than-life, the viewer can almost feel the grandness through the screen and in contrast, the homes of Miss Bates and the peasants Emma and Harriet visited were very humble indeed, the carefully selected interior and costumes of characters tell more than the dialogue. At the start of the film, there is an animated spinning globe on the screen that has images of the main characters from the film on them. It shows Emma and Mr Knightley placed at the top of the globe, in the middle is Mr Elton and at the bottom of the globe is Miss Bates and Miss Taylor.

This style of presentation in the movie is in itself a form of narrative whereby the director has decided to, in advance, set the social statuses of the characters before the film even begins. This is because in the film, there is only a voiceover narrative from Emma herself, the third-person narration from the literary discourse that has descriptive information is removed therefore it is necessary to include elements that can help the viewer to construct the story as Emma can not know everything that is happening, she is not omniscient.

Writing Emma was basically a tool for Austen to make a mockery of the social snobbery present in the early 19th century and she does this by allowing Emma, an upper-class daughter of a rich man, to let her imagination and daydreams to overcome reason, then finally admit defeat to reality. The music in the background often sounds jovial yet there is an undertone of mockery, as though her character should not be taken seriously.

She is introduced in the novel as; ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. ‘ (Austen, 1816: 7). In the film version, Emma herself could not have narrated this information as it would be inappropriate so therefore costume and behaviour (mise-en-scene) would have to articulate her character instead.

In The English Patient, there were certain codes put into the choice of costumes, for instance, the character Katherine always dressed in the colour white, symbolic of purity, yet her character is having an adulterous affair with her husband’s friend, perhaps it stressed the irony of her predicament. In the desert scenes, the expanse of barren land swamping the characters shows the loneliness that many of the characters are feeling, including Hana, Caravaggio and Kip. The use of non-vernacular music also creates the distance they are all at from their homeland.

The next important aspect of filmmaking is the use of Montage. From the French for ‘assemble’, the term refers to the process of cutting, assembling, arranging or editing of shots. In other words, it is ‘a method of putting shots together in such a way that dissimilar materials are juxtaposed to make a statement’. (Pennsylvania State University Website, 2002). The approach to editing was developed by Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s, notably Eisenstein. Continuity editing, or narrative montage is the assembly of shots that results in a smooth flow of narrative in an order making obvious sense in terms of time and place.

This style is associated with American films of the studio era and may be referred to as classical cutting or decoupage classique. Emma displays techniques of this principle. Filmmakers of the sixties and seventies often made use of the Collision Principle for jarring transitions from cut to cut and to stress discontinuities in time and space. (Andrew J. Dudley, 1976: 42-71). This use of editing is effective for reflections of time memory, and emotional states, as seen in The English Patient and The Camomile Lawn.

The English Patient relies heavily on the reflection of emotional states as Almasy is using his memory to tell us a story and therefore, the transition into his past is often smoothed along with the use of sound effects or montage to help jog his memory such as the thumping of feet on the ground immerged with the beating of drums to dissolve into an external analepsis. The concept of film narrator or narration has been theorised and analysed by many thinkers of the twentieth century. Linguistic ideologies have also been applied to the study of film and I will hereby observe those attempted by Jakob Lothe, Christian Metz and David Bordwell.

Jakob Lothe argues in Narrative in Fiction and Film, An Introduction (2000) that the film narrator is ‘the superordinate ‘instance’ that presents all the means of communication that film has at its disposal’, that they are equated to the third-person narrator in a literary novel and act as the film maker’s communicative instrument guiding the viewer’s perception of the film. He illustrates his view with a diagram (1990:134-5) by Seymour Chatman (fig. 1) which shows ‘the multiplexity of the cinematic narrator’, who is the sum of all these and other variables.

The diagram demonstrates it is the viewer who constructs the narrative synthesis. This would link well with the views of film scholar David Bordwell who believes that film has no narrator, that the film narration is the ‘organisation of a set of cues for the construction of a story’. He sees narration as completely central in film but places importance on the viewers response, the perceived not the sender. This set of cues includes an indeterminate number of visual and auditory impressions that the viewer has to construct a story with (Lothe, 2000; 28).

Christian Metz realised that film is not a ‘language’ but another kind of semiotic system with ‘articulations’ of its own. Cinema in relation to verbal language is not direct and is at best partial and complex. He advocated that ‘the analogy is strained at the level of appearance, for filmic signification doesn’t at all look like verbal language’. Film image has a natural level of expressivity whereby the world speaks through the images in a normal or somewhat deflect way and it is up to the filmmaker to strengthen and work on these primary expressions if he wants to signify his own meaning.

Andrew J. Dudley, 1976: 213-241) In The English Patient, screenwriter and director Anthony Minghella uses the power of sound to aid narration as well as Hollywood’s typical narrative in relying heavily on the use of mise-en-scene. The exotic locales presented in the film really set the scene and romantic mood with which the film exudes, in a way, the viewer is almost overwhelmed by the scenery. The cinematography really speaks for itself and eliminates a lot of the narrative that was present in the novel in their attempt to set the place for the reader of the text.

In The Camomile Lawn, the change in focalizers is rather subtle. In the literary text, we sense the shifts more consciously whereas with a visual narrative, the viewer is used to following different strands of plot at one go including those of several characters. As well as changes in focalizers, The Camomile Lawn also experiments with shifts in narrative time. It is debatable whether the story is set in present time with flashbacks external analepsis) or set during the war period and ‘flashing forwards’.

It is suggested that the whole story was narrated from the viewpoint of Sophie even though she is not the most frequent focalizer throughout the novel but many things that happen often fall into Sophie’s perspective and the consequences of other people’s actions and how they affect her. In the visual narrative of The Camomile Lawn the film maker attempts to keep as much of Sophie’s perspective as much as he can so as to keep in accordance to the intended author’s wishes. As with all types of narration, we must consider if they are reliable or unreliable.

All narrator’s have an artificial authority and we as the reader or viewer ‘must accept [their information] without question if we are to grasp the story that is to follow’ (Booth cited in Lothe, 2000: 25). The fundamental rule in any narrative fiction is often to believe the narrator unless the text at some point gives us a signal not to. When this is the case, the narrator becomes unreliable. In The English Patient, a reliable narrator tells the literary text and the film text is shot by an objective camera. This stays in coherence with the original and works well.

In Emma, the novel is narrated in third-person but is unreliable as it is told through the perspective of the female protagonist and therefore bias. In the visual narrative, it employs a voiceover by Emma herself and therefore definitely is subjective. In The Camomile Lawn, the verbal discourse is told through a multitude of narrative levels, as well as changes in focalizers, and narrative time/space, the narrative perspective changes from first to third person continuously which is true also for the screen adaptation.

In conclusion to my findings, it is true to say that the perceived authors of both verbal and visual texts cannot be compared so because it all depends on the intention of the produced effect. If a filmmaker takes a verbal narrative, he or she may or may not want to transpose all elements of the original narrative but on the other hand has something to aspire to, should they wish to take that path. With the texts I have chosen, that there are a variant of reasons as to why they have been chosen to be visual.

The Camomile Lawn, was adapted for a television series therefore it had plenty of time to allow much of the original narrative to be kept in and stayed as close to the original in terms mise-en-scene too. The English Patient was transposed into a Hollywood blockbuster and therefore had no room for multiple storylines to override one another so the subplots were dropped significantly from the literary discourse and emphasis placed on one love story. Emma, on the other hand was more of a period drama with a moral story and was closely contrasted to the original in many aspects all except for the narrative perspective.