The scriptwriter's paradoxes

Cinema and literature

Understanding new audiovisual media 5

The reader can try to transfer this literary text to a cinematographic medium.

“I had been walking for half an hour when I saw the house. I rang the bell and nobody answered. I walked in a corridor where walls were covered with walls filled with books and I entered the living room. No one was there. On a table, several bottles. I poured myself a glass and sat down. Someone rang at the door. I opened it.



We entered the living room and sat down.

It was three o’clock p.m.”


Grandes esperanzas, de Charles Dickens (Ilustración de Marcus Stone, 1890)
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (Ilustration of Marcus Stone, 1890)

When the reader decides to translate it in a screenplay in which everything that is necessary to its production appears (localisation, actors, accessories), some surprising results are obtained. The most astonishing aspect is that 80% choose a male protagonist.
The reader can read the text again and notice that nothing indicates the character’s gender. Such an unbalanced result between men and women cannot be pure coincidence. Obviously, some implicit narrative codes have us think that the main protagonist of a story is always a man. Codes and inventions, yet so well defined, as in comic books, go almost always unnoticed. The fact of the matter is that male (90%) and female (76%) students choose a male protagonist, a choice remaining possible since nowhere in the text any clue indicates the protagonist’s gender.

To allow uncertainty to persist regarding a character’s gender is something easy to do in literature but very complex in cinema, unless the story concerns a transsexual or someone wearing a mask. It will be very difficult then to hide the singularity of the situation to the viewer without resorting to a subjective camera.

Fantomas, 1911
Fantômas (Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Alain)

If a character in a novel enters a living room, some descriptions, which are essential in literature become useless in cinema: the fact that there’s a fire in the fireplace, the number of books in the living room, the presence of daylight in the room, this is all seen straightaway by the viewer. In cinema, the reader’s imagination is replaced by the work of set designers, director of photography and costume designers. Even when the scriptwriter does not write explicitly about the settings or the costumes, the director will have to choose between a classic and a modern seat, between a blue and a red dress, between one actor and another one, between a country house and an apartment. In a film, nothing is ever left to chance: walls are built following the set decorator’s precise instructions, comedians wear costumes selected by the costume designers, light depends on the director of photography and actors repeat sentences written by the scriptwriter and move following the director’s indications. All these choices are important, since they condition narration in a definitive way.

In addition, the characteristics of audiovisual media enable one, obviously, to do things which would be unthinkable with another support. In Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen tells the story of an actor, played by Robin Williams, who is out of focus. The idea is to understand that the camera does not cause this but that this is the character’s own attribute, such as having the flu. It’s something, which would not really have any meaning in a novel: it must be seen.

Robin Williams desenfocado en Desmontando a Harry, de Woody Allen
Robin Williams out of focus in Deconstructing Harry (Woody Allen)


To be continued…



Understanding New Audiovisual Media

1) Why the Seventh Art? 
(2) Audiovisual extensions
(3) Cinema and other media
(4) Cinema and comic

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lasparadojasreji-logoThis article is a selection of passages taken from my book, The scriptwriter’s paradoxes: rules and exceptions in the practise of a scenario (Las paradojas del guionista, Alba Editorial, 2007) aimed at people interested in scriptwriting, and narration in general. The book explores the different theories and manuals existing on the subject, while listing forty paradoxes with which a scriptwriter might be faced.

Web page: Las paradojas del guionista

The scriptwriter’s paradoxes

Las 38 paradojas del libro y algunas más

Las paradojas de Las paradojas del guionista, aunque aquí se añaden nuevas ideas y consideraciones, mostrando que incluso existen interesantes excepciones a las propias excepciones.

Reglas y excepciones (Las paradojas del guionista)

Entendiendo los nuevos medios


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