Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Zoltán Zsávolya (Budapest, Győr)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Connections between narrative structures of literature and fiction film

Kinga Balcsik-Tamás (Szeged, Nagykőrös, Budapest)


The mediation of culture has also to do with finding bridges among sorts of art, and it has to happen on the level of research too. My topic reaches a filed of comparative study that has been marginal because of theoretical dusk that ended in dull research. The possibility of a comparative study in regard to film and literature is limited because of the two sorts of art’s different semiotic background. Researchers often do not go further then drawing analogy between the two phenomena or dealing with adaptations. From the perspective of narratology bridging the gap in respect of film and literature is conceivable: the structures of the narration, the applied motives, the scenes and temporal conditions of the story, the viewpoints of the narrator are comparable. How does storytelling fiction film influence literature? Are there any signs of audiovisual narration’s influence in the texture of literary narration? How does literature make a move towards visuality, and what are in the interpretation appealing consequences of literary narration based upon audiovisual logic? Trying to address these questions in my lecture I attempt to point out a serious mission of researchers: doing research in this field could result a technique of finding way to make readers and film watchers aware of their own critical capability according to popular and art cinema and literature.

Fiction film’s roots had been planted into literal narrative structures. Robert B. Ray summarizes in his study(1) how film techniques develops, and approaches the storytelling profile, which was based upon 19th century literal fiction. The other reason of audio-visualizing stories has been the inherent commercial character of cinema: the aim of film industry has been to spread easily consumable culture for money. There is a difference between popular and art cinema in this respect: art cinema produces authentic semiotic structures that uniquely represent a new quality of meaning - which is a very complex, but homogenous, indivisible phenomenon; popular cinema consist of simplified stereotypes that are digestible for the public. This schematic structure results schematic interpretations, that almost stay at the level of perception, and the audience hardly manage to reflect on their status and relation to the story neither connect the meaning of the film to any other conclusion but their own cheaply earned virtual satisfaction of their emotional desires. A film theorist holds, that psychically the aim of the process of film watching is to fake the will of satisfy ones’ emotional desires, because ones personality could be afraid of doing the same thing in reality(2). This condition compares to a dream, when there are no consequences of the story in that one participates, and also the process of film watching is familiar with dreaming. People are in a strange hypnotized condition: they focus on a very vivid wide screen while sitting in a dark room, and nowadays the audio equipment simulates perfectly the natural multidimensional sound, too. Meanwhile people do not reflect on the experience, they melt into the story and wait for the cosy and satisfactory happy end. Thus literature was an archetype for cinema, audience is not so well trained for reception of audio-visual compositions then literal works. The commercial reasons of this were partly expressed above, later on I will come back to the theoretical reasons of it. To be able to discuss this topic I focus on the issue of how film draws back to literature in the form of refreshing the literal narrative, because this influence upon the contemporary literature is in connection with understanding narrative structures in general and has some theoretical consequences that help to point out the above mentioned reasons.

Fiction film’s apparatus for telling a story has been developed in a certain period of time, not from one moment to the other. It took time to discover motion picture’s nature and elements that have expressional power according to storytelling. Colin MacCabe writes about this topic in his essay(3) that appears in Literature and Visual Technologies. Writing after cinema(4), a study book about cinema’s effects on literature. MacCabe states that cinema technique was at its appearance very undesirable among contemporary literal theorists, writers and readers, who were afraid of cinema’s influence on wide range of people and they wanted to save narrative literal structures from the new technique. This fear was not groundless, surly cinema and other audio-visual media have been changing the mass’ thinking thoroughly and have been manipulating it since the first images appeared on the screen. This manipulative power of cinema comes from the commercial and political interests behind its production, and has nothing to do with the film technique’s representative nature, which is by the way inherently self-reflexive: consequently, had the film art been able to save its unique capability for representing meaning and at the same time bringing to light the representer’s (its own) artificial nature, it would not be so easy for producers to sell this enormous amount of Hollywood-style, schematic film, that they do nowadays. If politics of culture had stressed the importance of making the audience aware of their own critical and interpretative competence - I think of media and film studies in schools, such as literal studies, that has also been burdened by out of date syllabus - people could choose from products or art peaces of culture. This process did not happen and it has not been in the interest of western civilisation’s economical leaders, yet. As we know, their interest is in developing the consumer culture, about this issue could be written another essay, but back to film technique’s representative nature!

The literal practice of story telling roots back to the antic Greek culture as many practices in literature and it has been changing/improving since then. Film had not been able to reach that sensibility of representation for dozens of years after its appearance, that 19th century realist literature has been capable of. MacCabe’s opinion(5) is that since discovering the showing several images in one shot depth of image as the tool of expression it was possible for film to represent its own artificial nature and at the same time it could report on psychology of behaviour. This period of development can be plate-marked by Citizen Cane, the legendary film of Orson Welles from the 1940’s. Until then film had only borrowed topics from realist literature and filmed those themes without the aim of connecting the ways of representation of the written medium with the audio-visual one. During doing research in this field I found that increasingly self-reflexive literal or film narratives can be analysed and compared in the respect of how they built up and deconstruct their story line at the same time.

Self-reflexivity has always been present in literal works and films also, nevertheless my research involves the narratives that’s aim is to show their artificiality and story line modifying manipulations by telling a story through the reflection on their own functioning and make the audience aware of the fact of interpretation’s and reflection’s importance during reception of a piece of art. In literal theory the extremely self-reflective narrative is called metafiction. Inger Christensen(6), Patritia Waugh(7) and Linda Hutcheon(8) defined this phenomenon. Let me cite Christensen’s definition:"...metafiction (is) defined as fiction whose primary concern is to express the novelist’s vision of experience by exploring the process of its own making"(9). Thou from a reconstructive theoretical background, this definition still contains the principle of interpretations’ importance. Constructive thinking would say that not the novelist but the fiction itself is interpretable as its own mirror of function. In film theory it is stated that film is authentically self-reflexive and the apparatus for production of popular films works very hard on breathing life into illusion on the screen. Showed pictures on the screen were shocking for the audience of Lumiére-brothers, nevertheless today’s cinema-goers are hardly convincible about illusion, aren’t they? It takes a lot of money to finance the spectacular, monumental fiction films that satisfy the audiences’ expectations, thus psychology and ideology help a little by portioning the proper needs and desires by mediating the godlike information through countless channels into people’s brains, and by the way it takes no effort to make up a schematic story line, either. They poor out the baby with the bathwater, because they do not take into account the different methods of representation of the story that can carry meaning, or on the contrary they do and cover it up, so audience can not pay attention of the meaning but the attraction that cinema is currently all about. Celebrating star image helps also to cover up film techniques’ expressional abilities.

Art cinema approaches differently to story-telling and expresses deep meaning of audio-visual representation - including self-reflexivity - but can not reach wide range of people. Understanding complex constructed images takes a well informed theoretical background that is not available in primary or secondary education. How to deal with this problem is discussed later in my work. Art cinema has been discovering film technique’s apparatus of expression and experimented with meta-fictional narratives also. Robert Stam(10) discusses the parallel function of self-reflectivity in film and literature, and gives specific examples of the genre from both arts. Through analysis of the examples it becomes possible to trace the narrative’s disorganization, and sometimes the presented story line and the placing and timing of the act become metaphors of this process by their dissemination. It is interesting that around the 1960s there were some directors who stressed self-reflexivity in their films, like Resnaires or Allain Robbes-Grillet and at the same time and a little bit later new methods of narration appeared in fiction: the cause-effect logic turned upside down, and the question that was focused onto was: How to tell a story? The narrator’s task turned out to be the most important function in the narrative. The experimental prose played with this position without burdens. Fiction writers like John Bart, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino renewed the ideas about story telling and modified the immortal traditional aspect, that only the exciting story line or the psychological or moral human behaviour mediated by the characters can be interesting and interpretable. Is it possible that film narrative based on audio-visual logic had influenced literal narrative forms? How and in what respect can we talk abut such an influence?

Literal text in its postmodern state reaches back to earlier models of narration, topics, genres and so on, and builds these samples into its texture by recontextualising them in its own context. Its texture is not coherent, rather fragmented and webbed by intertextual references. The highly and inherently self-reflexive film makes an influence on these literal narratives because self-reflection comes into focus when creating and reading these kind of works. Thus creation/writing can not control which intertextual references will play a part at the interpretation by the reader, and there can exist such hidden configurations behind a text - constructions of the personality, that build up the text by the interpretation - that were not meant and recognized by the author at all. In experimental self-reflexive film conventional meaning of a shot, cut, lighting, representation expressed by depth of the picture is recontextualised, and the audience is moved out by this process from the reality’s illusion and from the narrative structure also. These films test the borders of the interpretable image because sometimes dissemination of the shots is so extreme that eye perception can not even decode it. Film’s self-reflection is easier to recognize but its interpretation is hard for the audience, because they are shocked when the illusion brakes. In case of literal texts self-reflection’s appearance in the focus of the story can be originated from the extended visual examples of the phenomenon. In literal narratives it used to be a competence of the narrator to address the readers and as such was a part of the story, but becoming a structuring element in the narrative it turns into the story itself. This falling apart of the written narrative structure had been unusual before the appearance of such experimental film.

The other characteristics that could have been an effect of fiction film on narrative literature can be recognized among the interpretative strategies of postmodern narrative. Disseminated texts cannot be pleasurable for readers who expect a coherent structure of acts, places, timing, and characters while reading. The aim of the interpretation in the case of self-reflective, intertextualised narrative can be for example the reconstruction of the web of references in the text. Another game can be to find the main idea that rule the construction of the narrative, if there was one, or trace the contradictions that exist in the texture. It can be all about the intertextual fragments, too. While playing with the text the reader has to step out of the word-based abstract thinking and switch to visual logic. When looking behind the semiotics of the words one has to imagine the web that he/she traces. Interpreting the narrative structure’s development and understanding the self-reflexive artifice of these texts takes visualising them. Visual thinking is built up by our experience from visual arts and more extendedly from audio-visual media. The need for using our visual sense by interpretation comes from the audio-visual genre. Nevertheless this issue is far more complicated, while our own self-reflection, visual and verbal thinking and the human desire for narratives meet at this point, and influence our interpretation.

While researching this topic I found it urgent to widespread the idea of reflexive interpretation of audio-visual media. As I mentioned before commercial interest of film production is one reason for the ruling and popularity of schematic narrative structures among fiction film. I also pointed out that for wide range of people art film and canonised contemporary literature is hardly accessible, and one reason for this could be the old fashioned literature teaching methods. It may seem idealistic, nevertheless I find, that the only way to develop the ability of critical and reflective interpretation among wide range of the audience is to deal with narration at schools from a new perspective. I do not think that a high percent of people will be able to think critically about audio-visual genres, but I do hope that highly educated, not necessarily art diploma holding people will turn towards the art films and get more sophisticated in this field, and better understanding of our audio-visual culture will be the part of the general intelligence. If so, it will be possible to compensate the manipulating power of contemporary media, and raise the standard of popular fiction film. This pedagogical program has not been developed yet, thou there is an idea of thinking about narrative structures fusing arts that represent them, and make students experience the different methods of sorts of art that construct narrative. This kind of pedagogy requires teachers who are able to take part as a mentor in the studying process, and are able to formulate the right questions that help the student to take the steps on the way of his/her unique genetic adventure on the field of narration. The result of such learning can be an inherent knowledge of a person about interpreting narrative structures and hopefully results the sharpening of ones’ critical sense according to this field.

© Kinga Balcsik-Tamás (Szeged, Nagykőrös, Budapest)


(1) Ray, Robert B.: Film and Literature. In: Ray, Robert B.: How a film theory got lost, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001, 120-133.

(2) Stam, Robert: Reflexivity in film and literature from Don Quixote to Jan Luc Godard.New York (N.Y.): Columbia University Press, 1992.

(3) MacCabe, Colin: On Impurity: the Dialectics of Cinema and Literature. In: Murphet, Rainford - 2003, OLDALSZÁM

(4) Literature and Visulal Technologies. Writing after cinema. ed.: Murphet, Julian; Rainford, Lydia, Palgrave Macmillan, Chippenham and Eastbourne, 2003.

(5) MacCabe, Colin: On Impurity: the Dialectics of Cinema and Literature. In: Murphet, Rainford - 2003.

(6) Christensen, Inger: The meaning of metafiction: A critical study of selected novels by Sterne, Nabakov, Bart and Beckett. Bergen, Oslo, Tromsö: Universitetsforl., 1981

(7) Waugh, Patricia: Metafiction. The theory and practice of self-concious fiction. London-NewYork, Methuen VIII., 1984.

(8) Hutcheon, Linda: Narcissistic Narrative. The Metafictional Paradox. New York, Methuen, 1984.

(9) Christensen - 1981, 9-14., 151-155.

(10) -Stam, Robert: Reflexivity in film and literature from Don Quixote to Jan Luc Godard.New York (N.Y.): Columbia University Press, 1992.


Christensen, Inger: The meaning of metafiction: A critical study of selected novels by Sterne, Nabakov, Bart and Beckett. Bergen, Oslo, Tromsö: Universitetsforl., 1981

Hutcheon, Linda: Narcissistic Narrative. The Metafictional Paradox. New York, Methuen, 1984.

MacCabe, Colin: On Impurity: the Dialectics of Cinema and Literature. In: Literature and Visulal Technologies. Writing after cinema. ed.: Murphet, Julian; Rainford, Lydia, Palgrave Macmillan, Chippenham and Eastbourne, 2003.

Ray, Robert B.: Film and literature. in.: Ray, Robert B.: How a film theory got lost. Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2001.

Stam, Robert: Reflexivity in film and literature from Don Quixote to Jan Luc Godard.New York (N.Y.): Columbia University Press, 1992.

Waugh, Patricia: Metafiction. The theory and practice of self-concious fiction. London-NewYork, Methuen VIII., 1984.

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung

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For quotation purposes:
Kinga Balcsik-Tamás (Szeged, Nagykőrös, Budapest): Connections between narrative structures of literature and fiction film. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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