Interpreting Movies (A Guide to Reading Films as Text)

WaysHowTo 7 months ago
Updated 2022/08/20 at 5:27 AM
16 Min Read
Interpreting Movies
Interpreting Movies

Movies adapted from books are typically more successful than original screenplays worldwide. An incredible 70% of the world’s top 20 grossing films are based on books (frontier economics). Adaptations are often of literary or theatrical works, musical theatre, best-selling fiction and non-fiction, comic books, and so on have also been regularly adapted for the cinema.

It is claimed that adaptations account for up to 50% of all Hollywood films and are consistently rated amongst the highest grossing at the box office, as likely demonstrated by the commercial success of recent adaptations of the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and J.K.

Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Other varied US adaptations include: computer games (Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002)), comic books (The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012)) and children’s toys (Transformers: The Last Knight (Michael Bay, 2017)).

The idea of adapting novels into film is a good example of how film can be read as text. Though they appeal to the audience through different forms or medium, the message, ideology and feelings are often similar. While the film director may decide to explore a particular theme from the novel, the fact remains that the audience would experience similar feelings from exploring such theme directly from the novel. Film therefore can be the exhibition of language in a “more” entertaining way where the audience probably feel less stress with greater pleasure in reading.

The concept of ‘film as text’ is a metaphor drawn from the idea of reading a book. It suggests that in many ways reading a book is like watching a film, and that we might take some of the things we know about the analysis of one and apply them to the other.

The storage means are different, of course. A book has words printed on paper (although it can also be read on a screen or read to you by a voice on a tape or disc). A film is stored on plastic film (or tape or disc) and is displayed on a screen. Various kinds of optical illusions have to occur for our eyes and brains to register what we see as continuous action like what we normally see around us: people talking, and so on. With a book, a different set of ‘imaginative illusions’ also allow us to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ in our minds the events described.

Our metaphor (film as text) means that in both cases, book and film, we can ‘read’ the story, both in the sense of taking it in as it goes along and in that of being able to hold ‘all’ of it in our minds, after taking it in, for interpretation, evaluation, analysis and enjoyment. This article is about these last activities, considering films after we’ve ‘read’ them, and talking about our ‘readings’ of them.

A text comprises alphabets that combine to form words, words that combine to form phrases and clauses, and phrases and clauses that form a complete sentence before meanings can be suggested or understood. When we therefore talk of “reading films as text,” by suggestion we are referring to those single units that add up to make a complete movie and gives certain meaning to the film. It is the single units that actually translate into the categorization of movies and the aesthetic appreciations. Media Literacy Clearinghouse (MLC) in an online discussion of “Movie Trailers As Persuasive Text” asks, “Are your students aware that film is a text that has a language all on its own?” The answer to the question is that “certain camera angles will be used for certain purposes; specific music will convey an emotion; lighting can be manipulated for effect. Everything is created for a reason and has a meaning” (M.L.C.). The reading of a film as text thus entails the examination of all these minute but complex components such as type of shots, lighting and lighting effects, sound and music, camera angles e.t.c. to achieve a unified and common meaning.

A film is something we can read just as carefully and consciously as a book or poem. Thus the first step to being a good film reader is to watch with pen and notebook (or writing journal) in hand jotting down notes as you watch the film (Handout). Things to consider while reading “film as text” could be grouped or categorised under three different headings namely; semantics, sound, and image.

1. Semantics: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines semantics as “the language used (as in advertising or political propaganda) to achieve a desired effect on an audience esp. through the use of words with novel or dual meaning”. The use of ‘words’ as an aspect of language could be ambiguous at times. The tone and other variations of different speakers could produce two different meanings from the same word for audience. Therefore reading ‘words’ in film can be connotative and denotative. For example, in a “Black movie,” the word “nigger” often sound offensive when it comes from a White, but can easily go unnoticed when used in a Black-Black conversation. As such, choice of words in ‘racial’ or ‘gender’ films are often deliberate to achieve deeper meanings or emphasis in the mind of the audience (the reader).

2. Sound: this refers to the sensation perceived by the sense of hearing (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). Sound in films is categorised into the diegetic and non-diegetic. It refers to everything audible from natural sounds produced by actors’ speeches to the varieties of studio-generated foley sounds. Sound in films can function as a narrative accompaniment or individually as a narrative of its own, and even as the narrator’s voice. Diegetic sound is a sound that the film characters can hear. Non-diegetic sound is a sound that the audience hears but characters cannot. For example, a character on screen may hear a song and start to cry (diegetic) or a character on screen may start to cry and then the audience hears a song that helps to communicate this sadness (non-diegetic). Think of non-diegetic sound as the film’s ‘soundtrack’ and diegetic sound as sounds that are part of the story. Sound (especially music) is usually used to create a certain mood: sadness, suspense, excitement, anxiety, confusion, etc. Songs or music are sometimes used to characterize locales. Cross-cultural films for instance could have different theme songs that guide the transition from a particular setting to another, which a viewer could likely read ahead of the projection of images for that scene.

3. Image: A film would hardly be film without images. Image in this sense refers to all the visual elements of a film ranging from actors, scenery, movements, costumes, colours, lighting etc. It may not be wrong to conclude that a greater percentage of what an average audience regards as film lie in the visual aspect of the art. Originally, film as an art started with series of images. Images as a language of film also connotes and denotes which instructs audience’s reading and interpretation.

The language of film consequently includes sound, moving images, editing, camera angle, music, sets, special effects, pacing, plot, themes and tone, acting and characters, and the conditions of production. These formal elements work together to tell the film’s story, to convey its mood, and to communicate the film-maker’s vision. They all contribute to the ways in which we ‘read’ a film. Reading a film involves understanding the story we see unfold on screen and acknowledging the formal elements that make up film language.

*Formal analysis: this is the active process of decoding these formal elements. If you are interpreting a film, you must include some formal analysis. This means you must not just describe the story, you must analyse the ways in which that story is told—even elements that might contradict what characters say and do.

Some aspects of formal analysis are:

a. Frame Analysis:
Select a shot from a film and discuss the way this scene is framed. You can choose a shot with characters and shots of the landscape.

– Characters:
How are the characters positioned? Is it a close-up shot or long-distance? Does one character dominate the frame?

– Landscape:
How does a film’s setting help to set the mood? Is it welcoming or unfriendly? Crowded or empty?

b. Sequence Analysis:
Choose a sequence of two or more shots and discuss how they are edited together and what they tell us about a character, a situation, or one of the film’s themes.
Note if a film has quick-cuts in which one shot is quickly followed by another or if it has long-takes in which the camera lingers over a scene. Also notice how the length of shots contributes to the pacing of a film. Action sequences, for example, usually consist of many quick-cuts to add to the excitement.

c. Sound:
Discuss what the audience hears when we see certain images. Sound includes dialogue but also music, special effects, and even, at times, the voice of a narrator.

d. Camera angle and movement:
Consider the placement of the camera. Do we look up at characters (a low-angle shot) or look down on them (a high-angle shot)? Do we get an overview of a scene (an overhead shot) before the camera moves in more closely? Are there any point-of-view shots—shots in which the audience sees things from the point of view of a particular character? Are there any panning shots in which the camera moves across the screen to reveal information slowly? Pay attention to camera angles and movement when watching a film and discuss them when writing on film. They contribute to the ways in which information and the overall mood of a film are communicated.

e. Beginnings:
When reading a film, start at the beginning. The opening of a film often introduces ideas and reveals strategies (such as sound, camera angle, etc.) that will become important as the story unfolds. What do you see and hear when the film begins? Is the opening shot meant to familiarise you with the setting and some of the characters or is it purposefully confusing and chaotic?

Also examine the ways in which characters are introduced. Do they fill the frame when we first see them? What camera angle is used? Are they bathed in light or do they emerge from the darkness?

f. The Director’s Cut:
Film-makers no matter the subject, have their films sharing similar qualities. Consider analysing the style of a particular film-maker and the ways in which they use the language of film.

g. Historical context:
Reading a film also includes understanding the historical, political, and economic contexts in which it was produced. How do American Westerns of the 1950s and 60s reflect Cold-War culture? How do 1980s adaptations of British novels capture the ‘greed is good’ mentality of the time? Do recent films about AI reflect current anxieties about technology? Also think about who funded these films, the size of the budget, and the political ideology of the film-maker.

h. Plot:
Inquiries on the series of events that form the story should be made e.g. What was the movie about? Was it believable? Interesting? Thought-provoking? How was the climax revealed? How did the setting affect the story?

i. Themes and tone:
The main subject that is being discussed or described in a movie should be acknowleged. Things like, What was the central goal of the movie? Was it made to entertain, educate, or bring awareness to an issue? Was there any strong impression the movie made on you? Did any symbolism come into play?

j. Acting and characters:
The performance and roles of characters in a movie should be examined. Did you like how the characters were portrayed? Did the acting support the characters, and help them come to life? Did the characters display complex personalities or were they stereotypes?

This article accounts for what it entails to read film as text by first giving a brief description of the literacy meaning of film and text. The idea of “Reading film as text” as implied in this work refers to film as metaphors similar to complex use of language in need of decoding of meanings. Decoding meanings gave rise to the things to consider while reading “film as text” being grouped or categorised under three different headings namely; semantics, sound, and image. Also the language of film; sound, moving images, editing, camera angle, music, sets, special effects, pacing, plot, themes and tone, acting and characters, and the conditions of production were discussed as the formal features working together to tell the film’s story, to convey its mood, and to communicate the film-maker’s vision.

The place of movies and formal features in “Reading film as text” is therefore the evaluation, interpretation and appreciation of film as literature in order to make reasoned conclusions critical to the world of the film but in relation to our daily existence.


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