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The most universally accepted feature of narrative is the representation of a sequence of events (Herman 2007, p. 25). It is not tied to any one medium and most communicative situations feature a narrative whether it is a book, a joke or a news report. How a given medium handles narrative can be difficult to see because we are accustomed to their associated norms and therefore often blind to them. Film and television narrative overlap in a number of ways, but each medium offers its own possibilities and limitations in the use of narrative devices. This essay seeks to identify the key differences and similarities between film and television narrative. This is done by briefly examining how the two mediums have evolved and how this has affected different aspects of the narrative. References are made to the film Under the Skin (2013) and an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and their narrative structure is analyzed (for readability purposes the two will referred to as Skin and Buffy respectively).
If one takes into account the context in which we engage with film and television, it becomes obvious how their narratives are affected by this. Films are traditionally made to be viewed in a cinema. This means they are made to be viewed in widescreen-format, in a dark, silent room equipped with surround sound. This is an atmosphere condoning active viewing and engagement and as such allows films to use narrative devices dependent on these. This includes less reliance on dialogue and more on visuals to drive the narrative. That is why film is often said to privilege the eye and television the ear, and why the term ‘pure cinema’ is a reference to film that rely heavily on imagery in their storytelling. As seen in Skin the visual elements of narrative become essential once dialogue is eliminated. Additionally, films usually feature a clear beginning, middle, and end even if there are multiple installments.
In stark contrast to this we have television. Television is viewed in a much less formal context and is produced to fit into a continuous broadcast by the various channels. This is why most television shows have a run time of either 30 minutes or an hour (including commercial breaks). In the home there are many possible distractions that can interfere with the viewing experience, and there is a need to catch the attention of the viewer and keep them from changing channels. To ensure that a show is easily accessible to all viewers and to encourage the audience to ‘tune in next week’ television has developed specific norms and formats (Herman 2007, p. 163). Norms include cliffhangers either before a commercial break or at the end of an episode. Formats refer to the narrative structure such as the series vs serial format. Series feature “continuous stories (usually involving the same characters and settings) which consist of self-contained episodes possessing their own individual conclusion. As such, the episodes in a traditional drama series can be broadcast in any order without losing narrative coherence” and serial format as “A continuous story set over a number of episodes that usually comes to a conclusion in the final instalment (even if a sequel follows)”. Buffy is untraditional in its format as it is a hybrid of the two. It features self-contained episodes with its own narrative and temporary resolution but also a season long arch that is not resolved until the last episode of the season.
Narrative structure in its most basic form includes a beginning, middle, and end. This is the structure that Tzvetan Todorov build on in his own theory of narrative. This model can be applied to most linear narratives but is not as useful when analyzing fragmented narratives such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). To showcase the similarities of narrative structure this theory is first applied to the Buffy episode ‘Nightmares’ and then to Skin.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is named after its heroine Buffy Summers, a high school student who recently moved to the town of Sunnydale. As the title implies Buffy is a vampire slayer and the show revolves around her and her high school friends Xander and Willow, as well as the school librarian Giles, protecting the town against supernatural forces. The narrative is heavily driven by dialogue and the various stages are easily identified.
The first narrative stage is a state of equilibrium. This is the state of the diegesis from the offset of the story. It is merely a reflection of the current state of balance in the diegesis and does not need to be a positive state. In the episode ‘Nightmares’ the equilibrium is Buffy and her friends having a temporary break from supernatural threats and living their day to day high school life. Although the episode starts out with Buffy having a nightmare this is only a foreshadowing of the upcoming events and so the equilibrium has yet to be disturbed.
The second stage features a disruption – something that disbalances the equilibrium. This happens at school when Wendell opens his textbook and tarantulas start crawling out of it. Although the main characters witness this disruption, they are not yet aware of what exactly happened or if it is something supernatural. This happens within the first five minutes of the episode which exemplifies the previously mentioned need for television to catch the attention of the audience early on.
The third stage is a recognition of the disruption by the main character(s). At about 24 minutes in, Xander, Willow, and Giles discuss the strange occurrences and identify the disruption as being the realm of nightmares bleeding into reality caused by Billy, a kid in a coma, astral projecting into the real world. Before Buffy is attacked by the monster from Billy’s nightmare the screen fades to black. This signals where a commercial break would have been, and functions as a mini cliffhanger encouraging the viewer to sit through the commercials.
The fourth stage is an attempt to repair the disruption and return to a new equilibrium. Now that the main characters have recognized the disruption and its cause they set out to repair it and bring the world back to its state of equilibrium. To do this they must wake Billy from his coma. Buffy encounters the ancient Vampire from her initial nightmare in a reference to the overarching plot. After making it to the hospital she fights the monster that has been haunting Billy, and he gathers the courage to face the monster and remove its mask.
The fifth stage features either a new equilibrium or a return to the former. As Billy, or his astral projection, removes the mask a flash of white goes over the screen and their surroundings revert back to normal as the world is returned to its equilibrium. Billy awakes and they have returned to the initial equilibrium.
As seen in the above example Todorov’s theory perfectly encompasses the narrative structure of the episode. The weakness here is that it only focuses on the contained narrative and is unable to factor in the narratives expanding multiple episodes.
Under the Skin is a film by Jonathan Glazer. The film stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien driving around Scotland seducing and capturing unsuspecting men (She is never named, but I will henceforth refer to her as Johansson). The film features long stretches without any dialogue and is therefore largely an example of pure cinema. The first actual scene with dialogue occurs 14 minutes in when she is out in her van. Narrative information is mainly presented through the use of sound, mise-en-scène, cinematography and performance. It remains heavily ambiguous leaving the plot open to different interpretations. Therefore, it should be acknowledged that this is only one interpretation of the plot and by no means is it claiming to be the definitive answer.
The state of equilibrium is characterized by Johansson fulfilling her duties by driving around and capturing men. The first scene features a series of graphics that can be interpreted as the creation of her body with the sound of her learning English off camera. Johansson then replaces a previous alien which is seen by Johansson taking and putting on her clothes. Johansson examines an ant found the body of the previous alien. This could be interpreted as symbolic for Johansson’s character at this point – a worker part of a larger hive. An important part of the narrative is the music. There is an eerie soundtrack playing whenever she is hunting.
The Disruption occurs when she starts to develop empathy towards humans. This turning point is easily missed and signaled only by the sound effect of a crying baby. While stuck in traffic Johansson seems to feel empathy for the first time after hearing a baby cry. This is an incredibly subtle disruption when compared to the obvious ‘nightmares-becoming-real’ one in Buffy, but when viewed in a theater the sound of the baby crying would have dramatic spatial component that cannot be reflected in television. It is accompanied and developed by scenes following it. I.e. she receives a rose and sees the blood of the man selling it, she trips and is helped by strangers concerned about her – the disruption is never explicit but has to be interpreted by the viewer.
Her recognition of this happens after having kidnapped a young man with a facial deformity. She learns that he does not have any friends and that he has never had a girlfriend. After having captured him she descends a staircase with a mirror at the end. We see her examine herself in the mirror for more than a minute before the shot switches to a trapped fly. We then see her setting the young man free before driving off in her van. For the first time Johansson’s performance makes her appear unsure and frightened. The viewer has to actively engage by piecing together these scenes and deriving a meaning from them.
Her recognition of the developed empathy eventually leads to her attempting to assimilate into the human world. This is shown by her abandoning her van and engaging in human activities. One scene features her eating a piece of cake before spitting it out. Another scene features her watching stand up television and her facial expressions make it clear that she does not understand. Finally, a scene is shown of her trying to have sex with a man. This also fails, seemingly because she is incapable – she does not have the necessary parts. Realizing that she is unable to assimilate into the human world she flees to the woods. In the woods she is attacked by a rapist. Again, the hunting soundtrack is played only this time she is the pray. After a struggle Johansson’s disguise is ruined and her alien form is shown. The rapist runs away in fear only to return and douse her in gasoline before setting her on fire. There is no dialogue. All we hear is Johansson’s exhausted breath as she tries to escape her fate.
The world returns to a new equilibrium without Johansson. In a shot resembling Caspar David Friedrich’s artwork Wanderer above the Sea of Fog her alien partner is seen looking out over the landscape. This shows how visuals is more important than plot to the story experience. Much of the movie is understood in hindsight. After seeing Johansson develop empathy it is likely that this is also what happened to her predecessor, who sheds a tear when stripped of her clothes. It is unknown whether this is the end of the cycle or if a new alien will merely take her place.
Skin thereby also fits into Todorov’s theory of narratology. However, its weak sense of cause and effect as well as resolution challenge the narrative norms set by classical Hollywood cinema.
Even though the two narratives seem to have little in common on the surface level they both follow roughly the same narrative structure. Each medium has developed its associated norms and narrative formats, but the overall narrative structure is often the same. The key differences include cinema’s focus on visuals for narrative progression and television’s reliance on dialogue. Television also feature several narrative norms associated with the need to hold the viewer’s attention as seen in Buffy. Overall the narrative structure of film is more flexible than the tight structure of television.
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