>Narratology and Narration in Film and Transmedia Storytelling


Image from Storytelling (Todd Solondz, 2001)
Narration in the Fiction Film

[David] Bordwell bases his theory of cinematic narration on the work of the Russian Formalists. It is a theory that assumes a distinction between ‘the story that is represented and the actual representation of it’ (1985: 49); a distinction between the narrative as it is constructed by the spectator (the fabula) and the formal systems of representation employed in a film (syuzhet and style). Bordwell describes the spectator’s activity in constructing a narrative in the following terms:

Presented with two narrative events, we look for causal or spatial or temporal links. The imaginary construct we create, progressively and retrospectively, was termed by the Formalists the fabula (sometimes translated as ‘story’). More specifically, the fabula embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and spatial field. … The fabula is thus a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, applying schema, framing and testing hypotheses. … It would be an error to take the fabula, or story, as the profilmic event. A film’s fabula is never materially present on the screen or soundtrack. … What is given? … The syuzhet (usually translated as ‘plot’) is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film. It is not in the text in toto. It is a more abstract construct, the patterning of a story as a blow-by-blow recounting of the film could render it (Bordwell 1985: 49-50. Original emphasis). [Nick Redfern, ‘Film as Text: Radical Constructivism and the Problem of Narrative in Cinema’, Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology, No. 2, Autumn 2005]

Unreliable narration in film and literature

As discussed by Volker Ferenz (Ferenz 2005) in an article on the status of the concept of the unreliable narrator in film studies, the present scope has been wide and highly diverse. Seymour Chatman – one of the few who deals with film and literature equally well – uses it to describe a character who appears to be our source of the shown (i.e. in control of the image) and who turns out to be unreliable (i.e. the picture has not been true), and to describe voice-over narrators whose telling is undermined by the image-track. (Chatman 1978: 235ff, Chatman 1990: 131 ff.) These two uses are pretty much in agreement with what literary studies have been doing. But others, like David Bordwell, George M. Wilson and Gregory Currie, have applied the concept to films with non-personalised narrators where important omissions of information lead the spectator to draw his or her own or false conclusions as the film progresses (Bordwell 1985; Wilson 1986; Currie 1997), and yet others have applied it to films where the normal causal-logic of reality is suspended – either in favour of metafictional manoeuvres, as seen in Alain Resnais’ L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961), or as in ghost stories like Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) or M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999)[2], both partly constructed around the axis of what Tzvetan Torodov labelled the fantastic-marvellous (Todorov 1980). Ferenz shows that Tamar Yacobi’s five strategies for the naturalization of textual ambiguities and inconsistencies (Yacobi 1981) is an excellent tool for sorting out some of these (mis)understandings. In Yacobi’s taxonomy it is the ‘perspectival principle’, by which the reader brings discordant elements into a pattern by attributing them to the peculiarities of the speaker or observer through whom the world is mediated, that are congruent with what literary studies label as an unreliable narrator, and Ferenz shows that many of the films described as unreliably narrated are better understood in accordance with Yacobi’s other principles – i.e. as a matter of generic or functional principles. [Per Krogh Hansen, ‘Unreliable Narration in Cinema: Facing the Cognitive Challenge Arising from Literary Studies’, Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology, No. 5, Autumn 2008-Autumn 2009]

Film Studies For Free presents one of its regular bumper links lists to openly accessible scholarly materials. Today’s category of choice is an essential one for our discipline: the study of narratology in film and transmedia storytelling.

As it’s such a long list, FSFF will start off proceedings by singling out two particularly useful resources with which those new to this topic might like to begin:

  1. Manfred Jahn, ‘A Guide to Narratological Film Analysis’. Poems, Plays, and Prose: A Guide to the Theory of Literary Genres. English Department, University of Cologne, 1.7. August 2, 2003 
  2. Dino Felluga, ‘General Introduction to Narratology’, Introductory Guide to Critical Theory, Purdue University, 2003



4 thoughts on “>Narratology and Narration in Film and Transmedia Storytelling

  1. >Catherine, I will be expecting each and every one of my final-year students to write you a personal letter of thanks for this collection of links. As ever I thank you, too, for your valuable compilationing. Yes, it's a word now.

  2. >Thanks for the link to this old article of mine, but I really hate this piece. (It's so awful I don't even list it on my CV). It was part of an attempt to try to explain some things from a constructivist point of view, but there are about three versions of this and only the one regarding film history makes any sort of sense. I would encourage everybody to do something more worthwhile with their time than read this.This week's blog post on Research into Film will also be looking at models that can be used for empirical research into narrative comprehension. This will be much much better (though that will not be difficult).

  3. >Thanks to the three of you for your comments and suggested links which I'm adding to the list above.Nick, sorry to hear of your repudiation of your earlier article I link to prominently above. It was one of the most succinct summaries I could lay my hands to of Bordwell's rendering of syuzhet/fabula distinction. I am more than happy to point people preferedly in the direction of your more recent work on these topics.

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