Narrative and narration in films are the way in which the audience follows the plot. The difference between narrative and narration is only really clear when both are understood properly.
Narrative is basically the way we see all the events in a film unfold. E.g. ‘Blair Witch Project’. A group of film students go into the woods to film a documentary about the myth of the Blair Witch. What we see is the people film everything that they do. We see (in a nutshell) them get lost, get scared and then looking at a wall.
Narration is the process through which a film conveys or withholds narrative information, the way the story is told. Narration concerns the actual arrangement and presentation of the story in the film, the way the film distributes story information in order to achieve specific effects. E.g. in the ‘Blair Witch Project’ the story conveys the idea that there is ‘something’ out there, but it withholds all the information on the thing by never showing anything out of the ordinary.
Once these two are understood we have to look into the two other effects to do with narration. These two are omniscient and restricted narration. Omniscient narration is where the audience is subjected to information from many sources such as ‘Lock Stock and two Smoking Barrels’. The film switches from one character to the next all the time, thus we never get to know one character more that any other. Plus it gives the audience more information than any of the characters, so we have an advantage over them all, which creates a feeling of suspense because the viewer is on the edge of their seat wondering if a certain character will find out a specific piece of information. Restricted narrative is where the film conveys the narrative to the viewer via one character. E.g. ‘Get Carter’. In this film we get almost all of the information from Jack Carter. He is in almost every scene. The advantage of this is that you know everything Jack knows, also everything that he doesn’t know. This is used in the British gangster genre film because is ads mystery to the question what will happen to our man (Jack Carter) next.
Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of narrative structure is a very simple way of explaining filmic narrative. The following is a point from the theory followed by an example of this from the film ‘Armageddon’. “A state of equilibrium”. Everything in the world is fine. People getting on with their run of the mill lives. The main star is seen grafting on an oil rig. “A disturbance of that order by an event”. NASA discover a big ass rock coming to earth at an enormous speed. We also see New York get hit by a meteor storm which emphasises the enormity of this event because the rock was able to squash such big and strong city like New York. “A recognition that the disorder has occurred”. NASA devises a plot to stop the rock ending all life on Earth, by sending a bunch of drillers to land on it, dig a hole, set of a nuclear bomb and come home heroes. “A return or restoration of a NEW equilibrium”. The rock is blown to shreds and the world is saved, so that now everyone can continue grafting for pittance just like before. The new equilibrium is emphasised by the shot of the wedding at the end with the photo of the people who died during this event, so there is less characters so its different from the original equilibrium. This new equilibrium is necessary or otherwise there would be no difference between the start and the end of the film so it would be pointless to watch it if nothing interesting has happened in the main event.
So when a film is viewed in this way we get a better understanding of the plot because we realise that its not a straight linear concept, but a circular one. Otherwise how do we get back to the equilibrium if it goes straight. But it can also be argued that it is not a circular process because its not going back to a equilibrium like before but back to a new equilibrium so effectively its going in a linear structure. The narrative in the film is driven by attempts to restore equilibrium. But Todorov’s theory does not end there. Oh no. Todorov also argues that narrative involves a transformation. The characters or the situations are transformed through the progress of the disruption. E.g. Halloween. In this film Laurie Strode starts out as a geeky teenager who is more concerned with her lessons than boys. “Shit, what, I forgot my chemistry book”. “Hey Laurie I just got you a date with that boy you like. Oh no please tell me you didn’t. I sure did. OK then you gotta ring him on the morning and cancel the whole thing”. But then at the end of the story (which concludes at the end of the sequel Halloween 2) she is a much stronger character. This is emphasised with the character in Halloween H20 where we see how much she has moved on from geeky teenager to a confident, strong, energetic mum.
Vladimir Propp believes that the characters in a film have a narrative function in the text. Characters are there to help provide a structure for the text. He found eight basic characters who perform a certain function. Following are the eight characters and with examples of their counterparts in some famous films. The HERO. In ‘The Matrix’ Neo is the person who on a quest for something gets drawn into a world of UN-reality and comes out the unlikely hero after being trained to realise the truth. This is a common action/thriller genre film technique, because it helps the audience feel related in a way to the hero because you realise that it could happen to anyone of us. This is used in ‘Enemy of the State’. Will Smith is the usual nothing and ends up learning how to outsmart the American Government, which are so hard to outsmart apparently. The VILLAIN. In Halloween the villain is the maniac killer Michael Myers. As with most horror films at least the villain (a killer more times than not) is a psychopath. E.g. ‘Friday the 13th’, Mrs Voorhees is the shock killer, her son was killed in the opening of the film. ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’.
Freddie Kruger is the mysterious killer who slashes people up in their sleep. In ‘Night of the Living Dead’ zombies are the weird dead things that try and kill everyone. In ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ its a family of freaks that lure people in and then kill’em. These are the films that scare people. The Villains that shock people are the ones that you cant see. Such as the devil in ‘The Exorcist’ or the witch in ‘The Blair Witch Project’. The reason why the films worked was because the viewer was taken into a world of un-reality and this scared people. It let them be witness to what reality would be like in a unreal society. But more recent horror attempts such as the ‘Scream’ trilogy and ‘Children of the Corn’ use real people as the freaks who go on killing sprees. This kind of film scared film fans because it gave the impression that anyone can turn into homicidal maniacs. These film’s were not as praised as the old fashioned films by big horror fans such as myself because it tries to play the audience into believe something which is already happening in the world, whereas most people go to see films to get away from reality, the new sort of horror film just shows you real life situations. The DONOR. In my view the donor in 90% of films is the narrative. The reason being that in most films the plot is for the good guy to defeat the bad guy.
This can be by arresting them, killing them etc., but it doesn’t really matter. The donor provides the object for the hero to go for, or the heroes goal, and this in most films is the neutralisation or stopping of the bad guy. So when looked at like this we see that its the films presentation that provides the goal for the hero. The DISPATCHER. The dispatcher in a film is the person who sends the hero on their way. In the film ‘The Lion King’ the dispatchers are Nala and Moustapha. The reason why it’s these two is because they persuade Simba to go after Scar and regain his kingdom as the king. These are one of the key characters in the story because if it wasn’t for them the hero would no nothing to try and fix the situation. The FALSE HERO. The false hero in the film ‘The World Is Not Enough’ is the character Electra. She appears to be on the side of the hero (James Bond) but then turns against him. She provides him and M with information that appears helpful to their cause but we then realise that its part of a trap, between her and the bad guy.
This character is very important to the flow of a film because it provides the viewer with a reason to then go on and hate that character, because we relate to the hero and as that person has screwed the hero we therefore feel that she has screwed us to. So in a way it personalises the character with the audience. The HELPER. The helper in a film is the person that seems knowledgeable in a certain aspect of the plot and then goes onto help the hero. The helper in ‘Halloween’ is Sam Loomis. This character is usually a person who for some reason knows the actions of the bad guy. In the case of Sam Loomis he is the doctor of Michael Myers. This helps him know what the killer will do next. He tells the sheriff that the killer will return to Haddonfield to try and kill his one surviving relative Laurie Strode. If it wasn’t for this character the hero would have no chance of stopping the bad guy because he knows absolutely nothing about it. Its also the same in ‘Enemy of the State’. The helper Gene Hackman (Brill) is the person who knows all about surveillance, the US governments capabilities, so therefore can help the hero (Will Smith) overcome the challenge that the narrative of the film has set out.
The PRINCESS. The princess in a film is the sexual reward for the heroes good work. The princess in ‘Armageddon’ is played by Liv Tyler and is the reward for the partial hero’s (Ben Afflleck) hard work in saving the planet from total destruction. The princess character is very important to the conclusion if the film because it is possible for the men to relate to it. The way is that the typical family picture in the world today still is that man goes out to work, women cleans the house and kids go to school. The man comes home from work and gets some sex for all his work, just like the hero in the film. Also like in ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’, Angelina Jolie is the reward for Nicholas Cage’s efforts at stealing 50 cars in one night.
The FATHER. The father in ‘Armageddon’ again is Bruce Willis. The role of the father is to reward the hero for a job well done. In ‘Armageddon’ the reward for good work is being able to live with the fathers daughter, because the father rewards him for good work by staying on the rock and choosing to die himself. The father in the film also acts as the man with all the knowledge that holds the group together. In ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ the father Auto (Robert Duval) acts as the all powerful, all knowledgeable person who’s been there before and therefore is the person who can guide all the younger ones in the right direction. All of these eight points of characters carry the film. Not just one but all of them. When looked at in greater detail Propp’s theory we realise that its the way we sub-consciously look at the characters that makes the viewer thank anything of a certain film.
In conclusion narrative and narration are the key elements that make a film what it is. All the above theories are vital, when it comes to reading a film in detail. These theories are useful because they make us view the film in a different way than you normally would. They help you to understand what the importance of certain characters and effects are. They help the viewer view key elements in totally different ways and to understand them in a much deeper detail than before. E.g. When I first saw ‘Halloween’ I saw Sam Loomis as an old doctor who seems a bit crazy upstairs. I thought his importance in the film was minimal and that he was only there to involve a British dude; and now when I watch the film I can realise how important his character is to Laurie Strodes quest to kill the Shape. If it was not for him no one would have any idea of his intentions and that he would return to Haddonfield.
So basically you’re decision as to weather you like a film or not can be identified by breaking down the certain aspects of a film down into questions. I.e. How do the films narrative functions effect you’re overall perception of the film.? How does the films narration effect the way you perceive the film. When you look at Todorov’s theory of narrative structure how does your view of the film change from the one you had of it before you compared it to the points Todorov makes in his theory? How does Propp’s theory of characters and narrative function make you look at the characters when you also look at the eight points outlined in his theory? All this along with all the stuff to do with camera movement, use of sound, use of lighting, use of Mise-en-scene and the way the plot is portrayed all help you understand a film in a deeper way than before.
Courtney from Study Moose
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