Adapting Text to Screen (This is just a sample - the more you can add to your wiki, the better)

Title from the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard

One of the liberating aspects of contemporary adaptation studies is the open definition of "adaptation" it has embraced. Traditionally, adaptation meant converting a book to a movie. Now, adaptation seems much closer to translation studies, where the object of study is manner in which artists transform narratives, themes, and ideas as they travel between mediums.

I am particularly interested in ways that text and images intersect. They seem to speak to another. Sometimes they function in harmony, other times they contradict one another. In many cases, they do both, and the result is a complex work of art. This interest led me to early cinematic works, where filmmakers were first experimenting with ways of integrating text into movies.


Rene Magritte's Treason of Images. The text claims "This is not a Pipe."

When text and image inhabit the same narrative but not the same narrative space, a productive tension often results, where image and text “speak” both to the audience and to each other. This dynamic is one of the pleasures that modern viewers experience when they rediscover silent cinema. Academically, the same dynamic presents a path for exploration. For example, metaphors such as “reading a film” or “literature on screen” are popular ways of considering the relationship of text and moving images, but with intertitles, the same concepts appear almost literal: audiences are actually (rather than figuratively) reading the screen. Guided by the conventional wisdom that the best stories need no text at all, most silent filmmakers tended to ignore the potential this combination offered and chose to keep text safely in the margins of the moving images. Yet, as with any convention, there were exceptions, experiments where filmmakers challenged the accepted role of text and inverted its supplemental status.

This wiki looks at one of the earliest such experiments: Cecil Hepworth’s How It Feels to Be Run Over, a 40-second film depicting a car crash. Like many early films, it self-consciously plays with the boundaries of film and reality; the car literally crashes into the camera, but it figuratively crashes into the theatre viewers. As the collision occurs, the screen goes blank for a moment, and as the image shifts from the outside world to the mind’s eye, a series of punctuation marks appears (“? ? !!! !”), followed by a burst of jagged, flickering text: “Oh! Mother will be pleased.” The words are jagged, fast, and scratched directly into the celluloid, giving them an eerie appearance.

The ending text of Hepworth’s How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900). Creepy isn't it?

Historically, Hepworth did not seem to think that the text in his film was anything special. In his biography, he notes only that the film was particularly difficult because it was shot outside (Hepworth 1951: 55). The catalog produced by the Hepworth Company dismisses the text as the “stars” one sees after a traumatic accident (Hepworth & Co. 1903: 26). Yet, several contemporary film scholars have written lengthy treatises on the film and its curious ending, speculating as to what the words might mean.[i] They all focus on a single question: why would mother be pleased? The fact that debate continues speaks to the power and potential of filmed text to inspire viewers as much as, if not more than, filmed images do.

Furthermore, the very shape and presentation of the words suggest a cinematic possibility that contemporary cinema rarely explores. Historically, words, the symbol of foundation, stability, and law, exist in books, and remain in the place where they were created until their host medium is destroyed. The end of How It Feels highlights a new textual power: mobility. The text does not temporally exist for as long as the reader wishes it to do so. Instead, the will of the projector replaces the will of the reader. Movies give text a mobile surface and a newfound freedom, the ability to appear and disappear without the reader’s control. In this case, the words flash onto the screen so quickly that it is almost impossible to read them at a comfortable pace. The entire phrase has appeared and disappeared in less than two seconds. Although there is no evidence to suggest that Hepworth was making a statement about the possibilities of text within his emerging medium, it seems to have coincidentally emerged with the accident the film implies. Eighty years after How It Feels, Michael Snow, one of Canada’s most important experimental filmmakers, shot So Is This, a work made entirely of filmed text. This challenging film presents words in a way that is remarkably similar to the ending text of How It Feels, showing one word at a time, using large white lettering on a black background that completely fills the frame. The resemblance becomes truly striking when So Is This increases its pace, matching not only the style but also the speed of How It Feels and challenging the reader’s visual control of the text in exactly the same way.

Perhaps what the text means in How It Feels is not as important as what the text does. Both the crash and the text attract our attention; the words seem to crash into the viewer with the same force and intensity as the filmed car. The text does little, if anything, to further the film’s narrative in the manner that conventional intertitles do. However, it does a great deal to enhance the film’s overall effect of shock, horror, and black humor.

As film evolved in the silent period, filmmakers were progressively more interested in integrating text into the film so cleanly that a viewer could watch a film without paying much attention to the fact that reading was involved. Text grew smaller and more standardized. Conventions emerged, allowing viewers to intuitively understand the difference between spoken and expository titles. These conventions, which are now definitive of silent cinema, sharply contrast the textual presentation of films such as How It Feels. In the earliest days of movies, text was untamed, a feature evident in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) where the text’s exuberant presentation flies in the face of the tale itself. The movie depicts one of America’s greatest horrors, but the intertitles (which cover the entitle screen in large, hand-painted letters), are unapologetic. Other early texts, including Ferdinand Zecca’s bright red-lettered intertitles, display the same sort of disregard for the conventions that later developed. They refuse to do what later critics attempted to force text to do: quietly help the image along without breaking the narrative flow. Instead, these intertitles shout and, in the process, they give us a hint of what cinema could have been if it had taken a different turn.

For more on Hepworth film, see:
See Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant, “How It Feels,” Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material. N.p.: Intellect Books, 2003; J.L. Cahill, “How It Feels to Be Run Over: Early Film Accidents,” Discourse 30.3 (2008), and Gregory Robinson, “Oh! Mother Will Be Pleased: Cinema Writes Back in Hepworth’s How It Feels to be Run Over,” Literature/Film Quarterly 39(2).