From Words to Frames – Part- II



In the first part of this short series we pondered over the world of words briefly. That part was concluded with highlighting the structural similarity between novel and cinema. We shall continue from here.




Language of words & Visual Language

We’ve seen the basic unit of written language is ‘word’.  Literature is written in the language of words. Hence it’s inevitable that one who reads literature must be a literate. Besides the goals of any literary work can’t be realized just its reader being literate. It relays on the personal ability of the reader to comprehend the meaning of the written language used by the author of work concerned.  The intellectual proximity of a literary work and its reader depends on this reader’s skill of deciphering meanings behind the written words.

Unlike literature, cinema is fundamentally a visual art. Like words for literature, an image serves as the fundamental unit of cinema. Historically we might understand that humans began to use the visual language eons before the spoken languages were invented. Every archeological excavation substantiates this claim. It would be appropriate to mention about the cave painting that the ‘early men’ have used to communicate besides using sign languages. The earliest form of communicative language was a visual language, packed with signs and symbolic drawings. Hence human mind is evolutionally designed to ‘process’ images at a very earlier stage. The ability of processing the sounds in spoken language followed suit and deducing the gist of the written language came much later on.

When cinema moved on from the silent era to the talkies, along with the visual language it began to embrace the language of words as well. This has made the medium of cinema more powerful than any other. This has also enabled cinema to become the ultimate mass media around the world. At his juncture I would like to insist that these comparisons stem only from the analytical perspective. And in no way I intend to claim supremacy of cinema over literature.


A Wailing Mother


Let us take up a small exercise. We see a wailing mother, holding a child in her arms, in the above image. It was clicked in Tsunami hit Japan. We might quote myriad of situations of tragic narrations from literatures. The non-fictional accounts are aplenty, a true portrayal of reality turned into words. Yet, of all those narrative accounts, images like these, strike the emotional chord more intensely. We are familiar with the phrase ‘The Power of an Image’. It’s just that.

To connect oneself with an image, it’s just enough to be emotionally human. Relatively emotions are more fundamental or primitive than intelligence in human beings. Literature too touches the emotional chord, but to experience it one has to pass through the linguistic bridge. This is the primary reason to why cinema remains as the most popular form of mass communication.


Mental Imagery


For further understanding of the linkage between words and images let us ponder over the functional mechanism of reading.  While a reader reads a text, either fiction or non-fiction, as we plow through the words, in our brains these words elicits relative mental imagery. And the version of the mental imagery is purely subjective, that is closely connected with the reader’s personal abilities to understand the ideas expressed through words.  Ultimately the language of words end up in constructing a mental imagery through the words it carries its ideas. The most famous lesson given to budding fiction writers from the doyens of literature is just one – “Show! Don’t tell!” and it affirms this more clearly than anything.


Show don't tell


Talkie cinema equals the scope of literature (though not completely) through the dialogues spoken by the characters. Further cinema goes beyond the realm of the written or spoken language, with its other elements of cinema – Music, artistic way of handling light and sound, use of colors, costumes, set designs (production design), camera angles etcetera. Through these elements cinema is capacious enough to breach the limitations of languages. This also enables cinema to tell a story it conveys beyond the scope of a spoken/written language as far as story telling is concerned. Besides, since cinema is also a performance art, that performance of the actors involved also enables cinema to bring out an extra dimension in conveying an emotion more effectively than that in of a literary work. They make cinema a multi-layered work. Nonetheless one should get reminded of the fact that understanding and appreciating these layers needs keen observation and fervent practice.


In the next part we shall ponder over the differences in the mechanisms of literature and that of cinema.


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  • Pranju Chakrapani

    Loved the article. Specially the part where mental imagery through words is spoken about.

    • Jo

      Thanks pal. Keep Coming. Happy Reading!