Cinema and the Novel: Problems of Narrative

The uses of literature - Italo Calvino 1986

Cinema and the Novel: Problems of Narrative

Cahiers du Cinéma, October 1966; contribution (written in French) to a symposium on “Cinema and the Novel.”

To find the elements common to a series of written words (such as a novel) and a series of moving photograms (such as a film) we must examine this flow of words or photograms and isolate the particular chain of narrative images that—even before literature and the novel came into existence—was proper to the oral tradition (myth, fable, folk tale, epic song, legends of saints and martyrs, bawdy tales, etc.). The cinema is derived partly from the storyteller’s art (all the James Bond movies are constructed like fairy tales) and partly from the popular literature of the nineteenth century (adventure story, Gothic novel, detective story, love story, romantic novel, social novel), in which the series of successive images has a bearing on the way of writing.

But this inheritance is not enough to enable us to classify as typical of the cinema certain elements such as the comic gag or the suspense created by physical danger. In our analysis we have to bear in mind the debts owed by the cinema to the forms of entertainment that preceded it, not so much the theatre as (above all) the circus with its horses and wild animals and acrobats and clowns, and vaudeville and the Grand Guignol—and, come to that, even sporting events. The mythological and poetic force of the cinema derives from the convergence of many elementary forms of culture. It tends toward repetition rather than innovation.

We therefore have to pinpoint this aspect of a problem that is especially important in the cinema, and is most commonly called sociological, but could even be called ethnological. It is earlier than the novel, and can be termed literary only to the extent to which one might speak of a preliterary or metaliterary aspect of literature.

Yet another aspect of this emerges from the instrument used to tell the story: the camera, in short. For example, the close-up has no equivalent in a narrative fashioned of words. Literature is totally lacking in any working method to enable it to isolate a single vastly enlarged detail in which one face comes forward to underline a state of mind or stress the importance of a single detail in comparison with the rest.

As a narrative device, the ability to vary the distance between the camera and the object may be a small thing indeed, but it makes for a notable difference between cinema and oral or written narrative, in which the distance between language and image is always the same. With language one can create mysterious effects to give the impression of distance, as when Tom Thumb sees a small light far, far away in the forest, or else the impression of proximity that conveys alienation and malaise, like Roquentin looking at himself in the mirror. In cinema the size of the image does not have any affective connotations, but a syntactical function—or, rather, the function of marking “privileged” points in a succession of images. (Printed texts could only use different sizes of type face, and spoken language a heightening of the tone of voice.) But the close-up gives the spectator a special feeling: the larger the image the more he feels directly involved, and this is the reason for the demand for larger and larger screens.

The close-up stems from an ancient institution of painting: the portrait. I do not think that painting has ever managed to exploit the syntactical possibilities of mixing greatly enlarged portraits with “panoramic” scenes. Perhaps this occurs in certain mosaics or frescoes with the head of Christ Pancrator, and on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel Michelangelo alternated the portraits of prophets and sibyls with Biblical scenes. But these are whole figures and not just heads, nor is the disproportion to the other figures all that great. Above all, the large figures are not part of the narrative. Portraiture has had its applications even in the novel, thanks largely to Balzac. But the minute physiognomic descriptions that Balzac gave us (under the influence of Lavater’s theories) are far from being the strong point of his novels. The modern novel, for its part, is more than willing to leave the lineaments of its characters in shadow. But for the cinema, on the contrary, human faces are the stuff of life.

Let us say, then, that what the cinema has that is completely cinematographic ought not to be matched against its literary ancestors. From that standpoint cinema and novel have nothing to teach each other and nothing to learn from each other.

There remains the fact that the cinema is continually being drawn toward literature. In spite of having such power of its own, the cinema has always been afflicted by jealousy of the written text: it wants to “write.” The same thing is true of countless upstanding people who occupy important positions in other fields and who one would think were quite satisfied with themselves. Yet one discovers that they spend the night filling reams of paper, urged on by one single ambition: to publish a novel. The cinema’s love affair with the traditional novel has bestowed on it several inventions that immediately became commonplaces, such as the off-screen voice to render the first person singular, the flashback to represent the past, the fade-out to convey the passage of time, and so on. Until just the other day literature was a bad master to the cinema. The great novelty of the last few years has been the general awareness that the cinema must look for literary models other than the traditional novel. The challenge of the written word continues to be one of the chief motive forces of invention in the cinema, but—a thing that never happened in the past—literature has begun to function as a model of freedom. The cinema of today employs a wealth of ways to tell a story. It can make a reminiscence film, a diary film, a self-analysis film, a nouveau-roman film, a lyric-poem film, and so on. All this is new for the cinema, though less so for literature. From this point of view the cinema is still a tributary of literature, but the situation is fluid and may well change.

At a certain level the opposite might be true.

There is a species of novel that survives simply because its manner of narration, and its themes, do not differ from those of the average film, and aim to satisfy the requirements of the same public, the demands of the same consumer. I am not speaking merely of the série noire, in which exchanges between the cinema and the novel are mutually honest, but of that large sector occupied by the average novel with a certain amount of “literary dignity” and, in the best of cases, some interest of subject matter and a construction based on a well-tried recipe.

It is on another level, that of experimental literature, that the cinema has the capacity to render certain narrative techniques obsolete (and, come to that, themes, decor, situations, characters); but I do not think that this capacity stops at the liquidation of the traditional novel. Let us take one of the procedures typical of the nouveau roman, such as the imperceptible passage from present to past, from the real to the imaginary, from one “spacetime continuum” to another, etc. Two or three films of real quality have sufficed to annex this process to the cinema, and by this time, when we find it in a novel written afterward, the process seems to be “making films” (which in literature still retains its negative character).

But dislocations in time—for example, in Robbe-Grillet—count also (or chiefly) as an operation wrought on language: that absence of emotional and evocative vibrations remains a literary conquest that the cinema cannot poke its nose into. Let us, then, say that the cinema can exercise its power of attrition on those elements of a novel that may be separated from the fact of writing. A way of writing can be rendered obsolete only by another way of writing.

More interesting to me today than the novel-film is everything that tends toward the essay-film. The film-questionnaire aspect of Masculin-Féminin seems to me indicative of this tendency, in spite of all that this film makes us see directly, all that it represents as a kind of story, and the critical attitude it maintains toward the sociological inquiries to which it turned its attention. The basic point is this: the sociological-inquiry film and the historical-research film make sense only if they are not filmed explanations of a truth that sociology and historiography have already established, but intervene in some way to contest what sociology and historiography are saying. (Incidentally, I think that Rosi is also working along the right lines.) For the true essay-film I envisage an attitude not of pedagogy but of interrogation, with none of that inferiority complex toward the written word that has bedeviled relations between literature and the cinema.

I have always enjoyed the cinema purely as a spectator, without its having anything to do with my literary work. If any part of cinema has in fact influenced some of my work, it is the animated cartoon. The world of drawing has always been closer to me than that of photography, and I find that the art of moving cartoon figures about on a static background is not so different from that of telling a story with words arranged in lines on a blank sheet of paper. The animated cartoon has a lot to teach the writer, above all how to define characters and objects with a few strokes. It is a metaphorical and metonymic art at one and the same time; it is the art of metamorphosis (the great theme of novels ever since Apuleius, and one that the cinema is so bad at) and of anthropomorphism (a pagan vision of the world, far less humanist than is often supposed).

Another visual and graphic way of storytelling to influence me is the comic strip. There, too, one can distinguish aspects of conservation and creation, as in the cinema, but the distinction is much clearer. The adventure-story comic strip tends to retain the viewpoint of the nineteenth-century novel and the cinema. The comic genre, which interests me most, has given our century an entirely new way of storytelling, with the combined use of drawing and writing (or, better, graphic invention linked to spoken and onomatopoeic language). Unfortunately, the study of comic strips has until now been left in the hands of sociologists. A true study of the genre as an art in itself has still to see the light.