The evolution of cinema is defined by its pursuit of cultural legitimacy and relevance, its dependency on printed literature, and its struggle to find its own unique voice, so it only makes sense to consider the following historical periods in those terms. Cinema’s inception catalyzed an aggressive defense of the literary tradition as the rightful conduit of the human condition, and the residue of this consideration of cinema as a lower form of entertainment persists into the new millennium. Cinema stands apart from the printed word in its capacity for realism: Cinema shows while printed literature can only tell. Despite being an apparent artistic descendant—and truly a serialization—of the photograph, cinema came to rely heavily on “literary materials of all kinds for subject matter” and eventually developed “filmic equivalents for the linguistics” of that material (Corrigan 13, 17). For some though, it was this borrowing of literary idiom and logic that prevents cinema from full realization as proper and autonomous art form.
By 1940, cinema was with sound, further heightening its ability to depict realistically, and established a degree of cultural credibility such that literature had assimilated cinematic techniques. After the Second World War, the idea that humanity was locked in an epistemological and moral progression was called into question, and cinema responded by examining the “cultural myths and histories, found often in literary classics” and redefine itself as a more “personal expression” (Corrigan 25). Films during this time tended to rely less on a singular text and instead located themselves more broadly in “literary visions,” retrieving a “literary or cultural past to measure” against “the troubled world” of the present (Corrigan 26). No longer needing to co-opt the “authority of sanctioned literary work,” more popular works “outside the literary mainstream” were selected as source material for the creative latitude they afforded the filmmakers (Corrigan 32). Films made creative decisions that involved experimenting with visual style that emphasized spatial confusion, nonlinear plot development and narrative gaps, first-person narration, and the concentration “on socially isolated and morally marginal characters in a threatening and shifting world” (28).
During another time of collective uncertainty, from 1960-1980, cinema’s “imagistic sign system,” paralleling the “linguistic systems of literature,” was posited and advanced by scholars such as Lévi-Strauss, Eco, and Barthes, increasing the cultural capital of the medium, which was then leveraged to challenge the status quo the industry helped to establish (Corrigan 39). As literature of the time became more subversive, so did cinema, its “imagistic structures” interacting with the “verbal play of contemporary literature” to bring about postmodernity—a vision of the human condition as “decentered, surface images” (Corrigan 38). Cinema continued to borrow from classical and contemporary sources but adapted them as “‘intertextual arguments’ or collaborations,” but given the suburbanization of the audience, films had to compete with television programming, resulting in the transformation of “big literature into big spectacles” (Corrigan 36). This intertextuality was made possible by the maturation and formalizing of cinema’s “imagistic textuality,” which could, alongside its limitations, “expose or critique the false realism of traditional social identities, as well as the commodified realism of traditional movies” (Corrigan 39, 42).
Cinema of the final historical period, covering the last two decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, is defined by this commodification. Both film and literature was “more transparently enmeshed in the commercial shapes that determined artistic possibilities,” and their value and meaning became “determined by their status as saleable commodities” (Corrigan 44). With the primacy of the financial motive, the potential for literary sources to be adapted as blockbusters became the standard, and the recursive principle of “high concept competition”: “[L]iterature sells films, and films sell literature” (Corrigan 45). Contrary to previous conditions in which films needed to draw their audience from their homes, “watching movies is now more often a domestic” experience, paralleling to an appreciable extent reading a literary text. The proliferation of new media technologies have forever altered cinema’s participation in intertextuality: Cinematic adaptations of graphic literature and video games—both having imagistic idioms of their own, and these new technologies facilitate an unprecedented degree of audience participation, allowing them to become “interactive players” in the adaptation process (Corrigan 51).
It is unfortunate that cinema’s narrative conventions are so deeply tied to that of literary texts. Humans’ capacity to linguistically function is rooted in spatial reasoning: “‘[O]ur sense of grammatical structure is based upon our sense of spatial structure’” (Hurford 534). As well, when communication is done through purely gesticular means, “simultaneous, rather than sequential coding of information” is possible (Hurford 450). The imagistic foundation of filmic storytelling is rooted more fundamentally in our species’ ability to communicate than the linguistic delivery of a narrative. Cinema represents the potential for a profoundly human means of telling stories.
Corrigan, Timothy. Film and Literature An Introduction and Reader. 2nd ed, Routledge, 2012.
Hurford, James R. The Origins of Grammar. Oxford, 2012.