Revision of Narration in Film from Thu, 4. July 2013

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The general proposition that there is no narrative without a narrator (Uri Margolin → Narrator) poses particular problems when applied to narration in feature films (as distinct from documentaries, etc.). Though almost all of these films, many of them adaptations from literature, abound in storytelling capacities and thus belong to a predominantly narrative medium, their specific mode of plurimedial presentation and their peculiar blending of temporal and spatial elements set them apart from forms of narrativity (H. Porter Abbott → Narrativity) that are principally language-based. The narratological inventory, when applied to cinema, is bound to incorporate and combine a large number of “co-creative” techniques “constructing the story world for specific effects” (Bordwell 1985: 12) and creating an overall meaning only in their totality. The absence of a narrative subject is to be compensated for by the construction of a “visual narrative instance” (Deleyto 1996: 219; Kuhn 2009) mediating the paradigms of overtly cinematographic devices (elements relating to camera, sound, editing), the mise-en-scène (arranging and composing the scene in front of the camera), and a distinctly filmic focalization.

On the other hand, the most solid narrative link between verbal and visual representation is sequentiality, since literary and filmic signs are apprehended consecutively through time, mostly (though not always) following a successive and causal order. It is this consecutiveness that “gives rise to an unfolding structure, the diegetic whole” (Cohen 1979: 92). The main features of narrative strategies in literature can also be found in film, although the characteristics of these strategies differ significantly. In many cases, it seems to be appropriate to speak of “equivalences” between literary and filmic storytelling and to analyze the pertinent differences between the two media in narrative representation. These equivalences are far more complex than is suggested by any mere “translation” or “adaptation” from one medium into another.


Broadly speaking, there are two different outlooks on cinema that divide the main camps of narratological research. If the medium itself and its unique laws of formal representation (Marie-Laure Ryan → Narration in Various Media) serve as a starting-point (as it is the case in the course of this article), many of its parameters either transcend or obscure the categories that have been gained in tracking narrative strategies of literary texts. Thus Metz states that film is not a “language” but another kind of semiotic system with “articulations” of its own (Chatman 1990: 124). Though some of the equivalences between literary and filmic narrative may be quite convincing (the neutral establishing shot of a panoramic view can be easily equated with external focalization or even zero focalization), many other parallels must necessarily abstract from a number of diverse principles of aesthetic organization before stating similarities in the perception of literature and film. Despite the fact that adapting literary texts into movies has long since become a conventional practice, the variability of cinematographic modes of narrative expression calls for such a number of subcategories that the principle of generalization (inherent in any valid theory) becomes jeopardized.

If, however, narratological principles sensu stricto move to the fore of analysis, the question of medial specificity seems to be less important. Narratologists of a strongly persistent stance regret that connotations of visuality are dominant even in terms like point of view (Burkhard Niederhoff → Perspective – Point of View) and focalization (Burkhard Niederhoff → Focalization), and they maintain that the greatest divide between verbal and visual strategies is in literature, not in film (Brütsch 2011). They hold that narratological categories in film and literary studies differ much less than most scholars would suggest. Since Genette’s model presents a primarily narratological, transliterary concept (albeit close to novel studies), mediality is seen as affecting “narrative in a number of important ways, but on a level of specific representations only. In general, narrativity can be constituted in equal measure in all textual and visual media” (Fludernik 1996: 353).

The two approaches being given, they themselves depend on which scholarly perspective is preferred: either how far narrative principles can be limited to questions of narrativity alone, or whether the requirements of the medium are a conclusive consequence for its narrative capacities.

Development of Film Narration and History of the Study of Film Narration

Film as a largely syncretistic, hybrid, and multimedial form of aesthetic communication bears a number of generic characteristics which are tied to the history and the various capacities of its narrative constituents.

Development of Film Narration

Literature into Film

According to Deleyto, “[it] is through cinema, television, and video, and not through novels that most stories are ‘told’ nowadays” (1996: 218). Film can claim to be a legitimate successor (and competitor) of fictional literature insofar as it is capable of “employing complex sujet constructions, developing parallels in the fabula, enacting changes of any given action, accentuating details, etc.” (Ėjxenbaum [1927] 1995: 116). Ėjzenštejn claims that Charles Dickens’s narrative art anticipated the method of his own montage of parallel scenes ([1949] 1992: 395–402).

The Plurimedial Nature of Cinema

The conventional separation of “showing” and “telling” and (on a different level) of “seeing” and “reading” does not do justice to the plurimedial organization of cinema. Earlier attempts at defining film exclusively along the lines of visualization were meant to legitimize it as an art form largely independent of the established arts. However much meaning can be attributed to the visual track of the film, it would be wrong to state that it is “narrated visually” and little else. On the other hand, the dominant reliance of the early narrative cinema on existing literary models seemed to imply that the terminology borrowed from literary theory could be as easily applied to “film language.”

Both approaches ignore the plurimedial nature of cinema which draws on multiple sources of temporal and spatial information and its reliance on the visual and auditive senses. This peculiarity makes it difficult to sort out the various categories that are operative in its narration. Like drama, it seems to provide “direct perceptual access to space and characters” (Grodal 2005: 168); it is “performed” within a similar frame of time and experienced from a fixed position. What Ingarden calls “the views and images [visuelle Ansichten] made concrete by actors and the scenery” ([1931] 1972: 403) corresponds to the filmic mise-en-scène. Unlike drama, however, a film is not produced in quasi-lifelike corporal subsequences, but its sequences are bound together in a technically unique process (“post-production”) to conform to a very specific perceptual and cognitive comprehension of the world (Grodal 2005: 169). Similar to literary narration, it can influence the viewing positions of the recipient and dispose freely of location and temporal sequences as long as it contains generic signals of shifts in time and space (Marie-Laure Ryan → Space).

Technical Strategie s of Storytelling

Films are generally made by a large group of people, aside from the very few exceptions where one person is the producer, director, camera operator, sound expert and actor at the same time (e.g. Fassbinder’s In a Year of Thirteen Moons, 1978). It derives its impact from a number of technical, performative and aesthetic strategies that combine in a syncretizing, largely hybrid medium, establishing interlocking conventions of storytelling. As an industrial product, it also reflects the historical standard of technology in its narrative structure, whether it is a silent film with inserted reading titles or a film using high-resolution digital multi-track sound, whether a static camera is turned on the scene or a modern editing technique lends the images an overpowering kinetic energy, etc. Not only the mode of production but also the reception of highly varied formats in film history have altered narrative paradigms that had formerly seemed unchangeable. Thus it has long been a rule that the speed and the sequentiality of a film’s projection is mechanically fixed so that the viewer has no possibility of interrupting the “reading” to “leaf” back and forth through the scenes or of studying the composition of a single shot for longer than the actual running time. In the auditorium-space, s/he lacked any manifest control over the screen-space. It was with the introduction of video and DVD that the viewer could control speed variations, play the film backwards, view it frame by frame and freeze it, and (as in DVD) use the digitalized space of navigation to interact, select menus and “construct” a new film with deleted scenes, an unused score, and alternative endings. This multiple and fragmented reception gradually led to new perceptive appropriations of cinema, also changing the user’s sense of narrative, which is no longer predominantly linear. Inward contemplation, up to the “devouring” of a story, has yielded to an attitude of bricolage which is closer to putting together disjointed elements of narrative arrangements according to the outward criteria of selectivity, interactivity, and versatility.

Narrative Modes in the History of Cinema

Narration in film possesses as its two main components current aesthetic concepts and, inseparably interwoven with these concepts, the technical means available at the time of production. Silent movies from 1895 onward lacked not only verbal expression, but also narrative structures beyond the stringing together of stage effects, arranged tableaux, and sensationalist trick scenes. What was then perceived as the only striking narrative device consisted in showing these scenes within a framed space and against the common laws of temporal continuity. But on the whole, these movies were still very much indebted to the 19th-century apparatus in which the process of seeing as a perceptual and motoric element was closely connected with pre-cinematic “spatial and bodily experiences” (Elsaesser 1990: 3).

This early “cinema of attractions” (Gunning 1986) gradually made way for “narrativization” (233) from 1907 to about 1913 through the process of structural organization of cinematic signifiers and the “creation of a self-enclosed diegetic universe” (233). The result, initiated by David Wark Griffith in particular, was an “institutional mode of representation,” also known as “classical narration” (Schweinitz 1999: 74). The filmic discourse was to create a coherence of vision without any jerks in time or space or other dissonant and disruptive elements in the process of viewing. The basic trajectory of the classical Hollywood ideal (also taken over by UFA and other national film industries) involves establishing a cause-and-effect logic, a clear subject-object relation, and a cohesive effect of visual and auditive perception aimed at providing the story with an “organic” meaning, however different the shots that are sliced together might be. A “seamless” and consecutive style serves to hide “all marks of artifice” (Chatman 1990: 154) and to give the narrative the appearance of a natural observing position. The “real” of the cinema is founded at least as much in the real-image quality of its photography as it is in the system of representation that shows analogies to the viewer’s capacity to combine visual impressions with a “story.”

Modernist cinema and non-canonical art films, especially after 1945, repudiate the hegemonistic story regime of classical Hollywood cinema by laying open the conditions of mediality and artificiality or by employing literary strategies not as an empathetic but as an alienating or decidedly modern factor of storytelling. They disrupt the narrative continuum and convert the principle of succession into one of simultaneity by means of iteration, frequency (e.g. Kurosawa’s Rashomon, 1950, repeating the same event from different angles as in internal multiple focalization), and dislocation of the traditional modes of temporal and spatial representation (e.g. Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad, 1960). In each of these films, there is an ever-widening gap between fabula and discourse. Modern cinema also made possible the flash-forward as the cinematographic equivalent of the prolepsis (e.g. Losey’s The Go-Between, 1970), used jump cuts (e.g. Godard’s À bout de souffle, 1959) and non-linear collage elements, or broke with the narrative convention of character continuity, as when a central protagonist disappears in the course of events (Antonioni’s L’Avventura, 1959). All of these assaults on traditional narrativity nevertheless “depend upon narrativity [or our assumptions about it; J.N.S.] and could not function without it” (Scholes 1985: 396).

Postclassical cinema, responding to growing globalization in its world-wide distribution and reception, enhances the aesthetics of visual and auditory effects by means of digitalization, computerized cutting techniques, and a strategy of immediacy that signals a shift from linear discourse to a renewed interest in spectacular incidents.

Editing as a Narrative Device

Editing is one of the decisive cinematographic processes for the narrative organization of a film: it connects montage (e.g. the splitting, combining and reassembling of visual segments) with the mix of sound elements and the choice of strategic points in space (angle, perspective). The most prominent examples in the early history of filmic narrativization are: (a) the simple cut from one scene to another, thus eliminating dead time by splitting the actual footage (ellipsis); (b) cross-cutting, which alternates between shots of two spaces, as in pursuit scenes; (c) parallel montage to accentuate similarity and opposition; (d) the shot-reverse-shot between two persons talking to each other; (e) the “cut-in,” which magnifies a significant detail or grotesquely distorts certain objects of everyday life.

Continuity editing (or analytic montage) aims primarily at facilitating orientation during transitions in time and space. One basic rule consists in never letting the camera cross the line of action (180-degree rule), thus respecting geometrical orientation within a given space.

Narrative devices not only obey cognitive storytelling practices, but also reflect a certain vision of the world. Whereas continuity editing presupposes a holistic unity in a world which is temporarily in conflict but finally homogenized (not only plot-wise, but via sensory connection with the audience’s preferred viewing), Ėjzenštejn’s collision editing accentuates stark formal and perceptual contrasts to create new meanings or unusual metaphorical links (Grodal 2005: 171). For other directors (e.g. Pudovkin), narration in film concentrates not on events being strung together in chronological sequence, but on the construction of powerful situations and significant details presented in an antithetical manner of association. “Internal editing,” as advocated by André Bazin, avoids visible cuts and creates deep focus (depth of field), making foreground, middle ground, and background equally sharp, thus establishing continuity in the very same take.

Time and Space in Cinema

To evoke a sense of the “real,” film creates a temporal and spatial continuum whose components can be separated only for heuristic purposes. In their “succession and mutual blending,” images “let chronologically extended events appear in their full concrete sequentiality” (Ingarden [1931] 1972: 344). The temporally organized combination of visual and acoustic signs corresponds to the unmediated rendering of space, albeit on a two-dimensional screen. The realization of a positioned space lies in movement, which imposes a temporal vector upon the spatial dimension (Lothe 2000: 62). Panofsky describes the result as “a speeding up of space” and a “spatialization of time” ([1937] 1993: 22). This also explains the inherent dialectic of film as the medium that appears closest to our mimetic registration of the real world, and yet deviating from real-life experience by its manifold means of establishing a “second world” of fantasy, dream, and wish fulfillment. Time can be either stretched out in slow motion or compressed in fast motion; different spaces may be fused by double exposure or by a permanent tension between external and internal time sequences. Thus narration in cinema has to deal both with the representational realism of its images and its technical devices in order to integrate or dissociate time and space, image and sound, depending on the artistic and emotional effect that is to be achieved.

Narrative Functions of Sound

Fulton emphasizes the role of sound in film: “[It] is one of the most versatile signifiers, since it contributes to field, tenor, and mode as a powerful creator of meaning, mood and textuality” (Fulton 2005: 108). It amplifies the diegetic space (thus Bordwell [1985: 119] speaks of “sound perspective”) and emphasizes modulation of the visual impact through creating a sonic décor or sonic space. Language, noises, electronic sounds and music, whether intradiegetic or (like most musical compositions) extradiegetic, help not only to define the tonality, volume, tempo and texture of successive situations, but also to orchestrate and manipulate emotions and heighten the suggestive expressivity of the story. Sound can range from descriptive passages to climactic underlining and counterpointing what is seen. Again, what was once considered as a complete break with narrative rules has become a convention, so that when off-camera sounds are used before the scene they are related to, they serve as a “springboard” between sequences.

As Elsaesser & Hagener point out, there is a potential dissociation between body and voice as well as between viewing and hearing which can be used for comic purposes, but which also stands “in the service of narration” (2007: 172–73). A voice may have a specific source in the diegetic space, although separate from the images we see (“voice-off”), or it can be heard beyond the diegetic limits (“voice-over”). New technologies such as multi-track sound with high digital resolution (e.g. Dolby Surround) negate the directional coherence of screen and sound source, thus leading to tension between the aural and the visual. Whereas the image can be fixed, the sound derives its existence from the moment when it is perceived.

The Narrating Agency in Cinema

One of the most controversial issues in film narratology concerns the role of the narrator as an instrument of narrative mediation. This reflects the difficulty of specifying the narrative process in general and, more than any other question, it reveals the limits of literary narrativity when applied to film studies.

Film as Sign System

With the exception of the character narrator and the cinematic device of the voice-over (whether homo- or heterodiegetic), the traces of a narrating agency are virtually invisible, so that the term “film narrator” is employed as hardly more than a metaphor. Undecidedness in terminology became evident right from the beginnings of film theory. Thus the term “film language,” if not used for a system of signs as was done by the Formalists, bore the implication that there must also be a “speaker” of such a language. Modeling cinema after literature in this way, however, tends to weaken the notion of cinema as an independent art form. For this reason, Ėjxenbaum transfers the structuring of cinematographic meaning to “new conditions of perceptions”: it is the viewer who moves “to the construction of internal speech” ([1926] 1973: 123).

The first systematic interest in narratology came from the semiotic turn of film theory starting in the 1960s, notably with Metz’s construct of the grande syntagmatique (1966). In order to overcome the restriction to small semiotic units (e.g. the single shot in cinema), the concept of “code” was used to encompass more extensive syntagmata in film such as sequences and the whole of the narration. In Metz’s phenomenology of narrative, film is “a complex system of successive, encoded signs” (Lothe 2000: 12). Metz’s position was criticized by Heath (1986), who saw in it a neglect of the central role of the viewer in making meaning (Schweinitz 1999: 79). By excluding the subject position of the spectator, a predominantly formalistic approach overlooks the potentially decisive impact of affectivity and subconscious processes. For this reason, psychoanalytic theories concentrated on the similarities that exist between film and dream, hallucination, and desire as important undercurrents of the realist surface. Feminist theories dealt with the gendered gaze that is applied not only in the film itself, but is also cast on the film by the viewer, thus creating a conflict between voyeurism and subjugation to the power of images. Studies of popular culture, finally, examined the functioning of cinematic discourse within a wider cultural communicative process which is conveyed by a host of visual signs.

Film Narrator―Film Narration

In the 1980s, the more systematic narrative discourse of the Wisconsin School resorted to a cognitive and constructivist approach, defining the narrative scheme as an optional “redescription of data under epistemological restraint” (Branigan 1992: 112). Its main interest is in a strictly rational and logical explication of narrative and in mental processes that render perceptual data intelligible. Whereas Chatman’s concept of narration is still anchored in literary theory (Booth, Todorov), seeing the visual concreteness of cinema as its basic mark of distinction from literature, Branigan and Bordwell abandon straightaway the idea of a cinematic narrator or a narrative voice. They hold that the construct of the narrator is wrapped up in the “activity of narration” itself which is performed on various levels: “To give every film a narrator or implied author is to indulge in an anthropomorphic fiction” (Bordwell 1985: 62). The author as an “essential subject” who is in possession of psychological properties or of a human voice is replaced by the notion of narration understood as a process or an activity in comparison to narrative and which is defined as “ the organization of a set of cues for the construction of a story” (62) presupposing an active perceiver of a message, but no sender. According to Bordwell and Branigan, cinematographic narratives cannot be understood within a general semiotic system of narrative, but only in terms of historically variant narrative structures that are perceived in the act of viewing. They are supported by the viewer’s hypotheses about spatial and temporal conventions as well as by stabilized patterns behind individual perception. It follows from this that certain prerequisites of filmic narration are not “natural” or taken from literary models, but have been conventionalized: such is the case when a character’s walk from A to B is shortened to the points of departure and arrival with a sharp cut in between, or when a flashback bridges vast leaps of time, or when extradiegetic music is no part of the story proper, even though it may reflect the inner state of a character or establish a certain mood. The same holds true for the almost imperceptibly varying amount of information that is shared by characters and audience alike. At this point, focalization becomes a major issue when the viewer shifts into the diegetic world of a film.

The effacement of the narrator and the idea that film seems to “narrate itself” stand in contrast to the impression that all visual and auditive modes impart an authorial presence or an “enunciator,” however impersonal. Many different terms and theoretical constructs have been introduced to overcome the logical impasse of having a narration without a narrator (Völker 1999: 48): “camera eye,” “first-degree narrator,” “primary narrative agency” (Black 1986: 4, 22); “ultimate narratorial agency” or “supra-narrator” (Tomasulo 1986: 46); “organising consciousness,” “heterodiegetic narrator” (Fulton 2005: 113); “heterodiegetic ‘camera’” in a metaphoric sense (Schlickers 1997: 6); “invisible observer” (Bordwell 1985: 9–10); etc. What is common to most definitions is the existence of some overall control of visual and sonic registers where the camera functions as an intermediator of visual and acoustic information. The invisible observer theory even maintains that it is the camera that narrates (the French director Alexandre Astruc coined the famous phrase “caméra stylo”). Deleyto (1996: 217) rejects this view, drawing on the conventional distinction between narrator (“who speaks?”) and focalizer (“who sees?”) although, unlike Bordwell, he does not grant the external focalizer the option of occupying the position of the camera. He rather contends that “whereas in the novel the two kinds of focalization (internal/external) alternate, in film several internal and external focalisers can appear simultaneously at different points inside or outside the frame, all contributing to the development of the narrative and the creation of a permanent tension between subjectivity and objectivity” (217). A case in point is the objective presentation of external narration to make internal processes both visible and understandable. Even in voice-over narration, the figural and auditive representation of the narrator is soon forgotten in favor of the virtual position of an impersonal narrative instance. The few experimental films that construct events “through the eyes” of the main character (e.g. Montgomery’s The Lady in the Lake, 1947), thus creating an unmediated presence by means of internal ocularization, make the viewer painfully aware of the impersonal and subjectless apparatus of the camera which alienates them from the character rather than drawing them into his ways of seeing and feeling.

Unreliability of Film Narration

Though there are filmic devices to give a scene the appearance of unreliability or deception, the “visual narrator” in film, unlike the homodiegetic one in written narrative, cannot tell a downright lie that is visualized at the very same moment, unless the veracity of the photographic image is put into question (cf. the fabricated, hence “untrue” flashback in Stage Fright, 1950, which director Alfred Hitchcock considered a serious mistake since it didn’t work). However, there can be various types of fictional contracts with the audience that transcend the postulate of narrative verisimilitude, allowing even a dead person to tell his story as a “character narrator” (e.g. Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, 1950), or when the dancers in a musical step on walls and ceilings, or when a film is built around a puzzle, putting into question any form of reliable narration (a summary of “unreliable situations” in cinema is given in Liptay & Wolf eds. 2005, passim; Helbig ed. 2006, passim; Dan Shen → Unreliability).

Point of View

Even if one accepts the seemingly contradictory postulate of a narrative situation without a narrator, the question of perspective in narrative discourse becomes an all-important issue as soon as the viewer shifts into the diegetic world. According to Genette, there is a difference between “mood” and “voice,” i.e. the question “who is the character whose point of view orients the narrative perspective?” and the question “who is the narrator?” (Genette [1972] 1980: 186; Schlickers 1997: 127–32).


Point of view (POV) clearly becomes the prime starting point for narratology when applied to film. Though it has been defined as “a concrete perceptual fact linked to the camera position” (Grodal 2005: 168), its actual functions in narrative can be far more flexible and multifarious than this definition suggests. As Branigan states in his landmark study on narrative comprehension in cinema, point of view can best be understood as organizing meaning through a combination of various levels of narration which are defined by a “dialectical site of seeing and seen” or, more specifically, the “mediator and the object of our gaze” (1984: 47). Branigan offers a model of seven “levels of narration” which is based on Genette’s study of focalization and allows for constant oscillation between these levels, from extra-/heterodiegetic and omniscient narration to adapting the highly subjective perception of a character. Fulton speaks of a “multiple focalisation” that is “realized by different camera angles, which position us to see the action from a number of different viewpoints” (2005: 114). Yet there are many more focusing strategies which select and control our perception as well as our emotional involvement such as deep-focus, the length and scale of a shot, specific lighting, etc. The prerequisite for any POV analysis, however, is the recognition that everything in cinema consists of “looks”: the viewer looks at characters who look at each other, or s/he looks at them, adopting their perspective of the diegetic world while the camera frames a special field of seeing, or the viewer is privileged to look at something out of the line of vision of any of the characters. Thus the very question “Who sees?” involves a categorization of different forms of POV that organize and orient the narrative from a visual and spatial standpoint and that also include cognitive processes based on a number of presuppositions about a proper perspective, not to speak of auditory information.

Focalization and Ocularization

POV has been understood as an optical paradigm or, quite literally, as visual point (or “eyepoint”): it is “ocularization” that is believed to determine both the position of the camera and the “look” of a homodiegetic/heterodiegetic character. Schlickers speaks in this respect of a “double perspectivation” (2009). In many cases, it seems almost impossible to come to a clear conclusion whether the camera imitates the eyepoint of a character (i.e. the literal viewpoint as realized in “eye-line matches”) or whether it observes “from outside” in the sense of narrative mediation. So we may see something “with the eyes” of a character whose back is visibly turned to us (“over-shoulder shot”) or of a character who tries to grasp a tangible object that dissolves in the air like a hallucination, as is the case in Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) when the Nibelung treasure appears to Siegfried on a rock. Jost suggests distinguishing between internal focalization and zero focalization ([1987] 1989: 157), whereas Bal differentiates between focalization on “perceptible” objects and focalization on “imperceptible” objects ([1985] 1997: 153). Both alternatives, however, neglect the possibility of the blurring of the two types of focalization. Moreover, it makes a difference whether we are to gain an impression of what a character feels and thinks or whether the film seeks to present objective correlatives of the mental and emotional dispositions of a protagonist. The possible mingling of “real” and mental aspects makes it difficult to differentiate between focalization and ocularization as soon as there is no marking of where a certain situation has its definite starting-point, whether in an optical perspective or in a subjective perception (or both). To understand POV in terms of the optical and auditory vantage point of a character, as Bordwell does when he speaks of an “optically subjective shot” (1985: 60), overlooks the fact that focalization can shift all around its diegetic world (Fulton 2005: 111) without any noticeable breaks in the narration or any unconventional narrative techniques. Though narratology possesses tools for analyzing these shifts, the categories used for film analysis seem to be far more complicated than those employed for literary narration.

Topics for Further Investigation

(a) Film results in a story unfolding according to the possibilities and constraints of the medium “in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver” (Bordwell 1985: xi). Various levels of perception and cognition, many of them rooted in convention, are related to a logic of combination which determines the basic qualities of filmic narration. This paves the way for two approaches which should be tried in fruitful competition. Either the complexity of paradigms can be reduced to a model of abstraction which makes it possible to compare narrative processes in literature and in film without paying too much heed to medial specificities, or there must be an attempt to analyze the multiple forms of interplay that stem from the double vantage points of seeing and being seen, sight and sound, light and shadow, spatial and temporal elements, moving images and movement within the images.

(b) If narrative is a fundamental issue in filmic signification, its logic must be re-examined with new ways of storytelling in cinema that play games or lead the viewer into a maze of ontological uncertainties. Narrativity, spectator engagement and novel techniques of presentation combine to produce a “filmic speech” which a formal analysis of narrational strategies can grasp only up to a certain point. The repertoire of narratology must be extended to explain the functioning of modern media.

(c) In sum, there is no doubt that feature films are a form of narrative that share the principal features of storytelling in literature. The crux of the matter, however, is that almost every analysis which is restricted to transmedial narrativity risks blotting out the historical developments of film narration, inseparably interwoven with the achievements and capacities of the medium. In Metz’s words: “[Film] ‘says’ things that could also be conveyed in the language of words, yet it says them differently” ([1968] 1974: 44).


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  • Grodal, Torben (2005). “Film Narrative.” D. Herman et al. (eds). Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge, 168–72.
  • Gunning, Tom (1986). “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant–Garde.” Ph. Rosen (ed). Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 229–35.
  • Heath, Stephen (1986). “Narrative Space.” Ph. Rosen (ed). Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia UP, 379–420.
  • Helbig, Jörg, ed. (2006). “Camera doesn’t lie”: Spielarten erzählerischer Unzuverlässigkeit im Film. Trier: WVT.
  • Ingarden, Roman ([1931] 1972). Das literarische Kunstwerk. Mit einem Anhang ‘Von den Funktionen der Sprache im Theaterschauspiel’. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Jost, François ([1987] 1989). L’œil―Caméra. Entre film et roman. Lyon: PU de Lyon.
  • Kuhn, Markus (2009). “Film Narratology: Who Tells? Who Shows? Who Focalizes? Narrative Mediation in Self-Reflexive Fiction Films.” P. Hühn et al. (eds). Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization: Modeling Mediacy in Narrative. Berlin: de Gruyter, 259–78.
  • Liptay, Fabienne & Yvonne Wolf, eds. (2005). Was stimmt denn jetzt? Unzuverlässiges Erzählen in Literatur und Film. München: edition text + kritik.
  • Lothe, Jakob (2000). Narrative in Fiction and Film. Oxford: Oxford UP.
  • Metz, Christian (1966). “La grande syntagmatique du film narratif.” Communications No. 8, 120–24.
  • Metz, Christian ([1968] 1974). Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. New York: Oxford UP.
  • Panofsky, Erwin ([1937] 1993). Die ideologischen Vorläufer des Rolls-Royce-Kühlers & Stil und Medium im Film. Frankfurt a.M.: Campus, 17–48.
  • Schlickers, Sabine (1997). Verfilmtes Erzählen: Narratologisch-komparative Untersuchung zu ‘El beso de la mujer araña’ (Manuel Puig/Héctor Babenco) und ‘Crónica de una muerte anunciada’ (Gabriel Garcia Márquez/Fraqncesco Rosi). Frankfurt a. M.: Vervuert.
  • Schlickers, Sabine (2009). “Focalization, Ocularization and Auricularization in Film and Literature.” P. Hühn et al. (eds). Point of View, Perspective, and Focalization: Modeling Mediacy in Narrative. Berlin: de Gruyter, 243–58.
  • Scholes, Robert (1985). “Narration and Narrativity in Film.” G. Mast et al. (eds). Film Theory and Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 390–403.
  • Schweinitz, Jörg (1999). “Zur Erzählforschung in der Filmwissenschaft.” E. Lämmert (ed). Die erzählerische Dimension: eine Gemeinsamkeit der Künste. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 73–87.
  • Tomasulo, Frank P. (1986). “Narrate and Describe? Point of View and Narrative Voice in Citizen Kane’s Thatcher Sequence.” Wild Angle 8.3/4, 45–52.
  • Völker, Katrin (1999). Der erzählte Blick. Eine vergleichende Analyse von Henry James’ ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ und Jane Campions filmischer Adaption. M.A.-Hausarbeit U of Hamburg.

Further Reading

  • Bach, Manuela (1999). “Dead Men―Dead Narrators: Überlegungen zu Erzählern und Subjektivität im Film.” W. Grünzweig & A. Solbach (eds). Grenzüberschreitungen: Narratologie im Kontext / Transcending Boundaries: Narratology in Context. Tübingen: Gunter Narr, 231–46.
  • Burgoyne, Robert (1990). “The Cinematic Narrator: The Logic and Pragmatics of Impersonal Narration.” Journal of Film and Video 42, 3–16.
  • Cordes, Stefan (1997). Filmerzählung und Filmerlebnis: Zur rezeptionsorientierten Analyse narrativer Konstruktionsformen im Spielfilm. Münster: Lit Verlag.
  • Fleishman, Avrom (1992). Narrated Films. Storytelling Situations in Cinema History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.
  • Griem, Julika & Eckhart Voigts-Virchow (2002). “Filmnarratologie: Grundlagen, Tendenzen und Beispielanalysen.” V. Nünning & A. Nünning (eds). Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär. Trier: WVT, 155–83.
  • Hurst, Matthias (1996). Erzählsituationen in Literatur und Film. Ein Modell zur vergleichenden Analyse von literarischen Texten und filmischen Adaptionen. Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Hurst, Matthias (2001). “Mittelbarkeit, Perspektive, Subjektivität: Über das narrative Potential des Spielfilms.” J. * Helbig (ed). “Camera doesn’t lie”: Spielarten erzählerischer Unzuverlässigkeit im Film. Trier: WVT, 233–53.
  • Kozloff, Sarah (1988). Invisible Storytellers. Voice-over Narration in American Fiction Film. Berkeley: U of California P.
  • Kuhn, Markus (2011). Filmnarratologie. Ein erzähltheoretisches Analysemodell. Berlin: de Gruyter.
  • Ryan, Marie Laure (2005). “On the Theoretical Foundations of Transmedial Narratology.” J. Ch. Meister (ed). Narratology beyond Literary Criticism. Mediality, Disciplinarity. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1–23.
  • Tolton, C. D. E. (1984). “Narration in Film and Prose Fiction: A Mise au point.” University of Toronto Quarterly 53, 264–82.
  • Wilson, George M. ([1988] 1992). Narration in Light. Studies in Cinematic Point of View. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

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