The Representation of Character Interiority in Film: Cinematic Versions of Psychonarration, Free Indirect Discourse and Direct Thought

For decades, film theorists and narratologists have claimed that the medium film is deficient with regard to the representation of character interiority. The argument is usually that movies cannot depict fantasies, thoughts and feelings as adequately or as convincingly as novels and short stories can. George Blue- stone, for example, argues that “the rendition of mental states—memory, dream, imagination—cannot be as adequately represented by film as by language” (1973 [1957], 47). Geoffrey Wagner even postulates that in film, “we cannot see what we cannot see; in fiction we can” (1975, 183). Jakob Lothe also implies a hierarchy between prose and film when he points out that “a film cannot convey a character’s thoughts, feelings, and so forth in the way fictional literature can” (2000, 86).

By contrast, the more recent analyses by film scholars such as Leah Anderst, Edward Branigan, Matthias Brutsch, Gilles Deleuze, Jens Eder, Markus Kuhn, Maike Sarah Reinerth, Jan-Nodl Thon and George Wilson, among others, have shown that various ways exist in which movies can represent the inner lives of their characters. My paper seeks to contribute to this new direction of research by inductively developing a list of the numerous different ways in which movies depict the mental states of storyworld inhabitants. In addition, I will show that these cinematic types of consciousness representation bear significant structural resemblances to novelistic techniques such as psychonarration, free indirect discourse and interior monologue, and that these similarities have hitherto been overlooked. Finally, I will also comment on the ideological underpinnings of filmic representations of character interiority.

This article builds on Alan Palmer’s argument that “the constructions of the minds of fictional characters by narrators and readers are central to our understanding of how novels work because, in essence, narrative is the description of fictional mental functioning” (2004, 12). From my perspective, Palmer’s statement applies to films as well: we as recipients primarily understand cinematic narratives by trying to grasp the intentions and motivations of the represented minds. In addition, his distinction between an internalist and an externalist per-

DOI 10.1515/9783110555158-014

spective on the mind plays a crucial role in my analyses. Palmer describes this distinction as follows:

  • 1. An internalist perspective [...] stresses those aspects that are inner, introspective, private, solitary, individual, psychological, mysterious, and detached.
  • 2. An externalist perspective [...] stresses those aspects that are outer, active, public, social, behavioral, evident, embodied, and engaged. (2010, 39)

In this paper, I first assume an externalist perspective on the minds represented in film. More specifically, I discuss external simulations of internal states (through facial expressions, bodily positions, voice qualities, the metaphorical association of a character with a different entity, and the use of music) which are structurally similar to instances of psychonarration in prose narratives. In a second step, I deal with dual-perspective shots which fuse Palmer’s externalist and his internalist perspective. As I will show, in cases of quasi-perceptual overlays, the camera does not only confront us with the subjective vision of a character, but it also merges the figure’s point of view with an ‘objective’ one, thus creating dual-perspective shots. This technique is reminiscent of passages of free indirect discourse in novels and short stories. In a third step, I follow Palmer’s internalist perspective on minds represented in film, and refer to more immediate cinematic ways of rendering inner lives (through subtitles, captions, enacted mindscreens and interior monologues at the auditory level) which are structurally similar to stretches of direct thought in prose texts.[1]

  • [1] I have excluded POV shots in which the camera assumes the spatial position of a character toshow the entities he or she sees because such shots typically only concern the figure’s vision andnot so much his or her thoughts or feelings. An exception might be the POV shots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) which simulate the acrophobia of John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart)through vertiginous shifts in perspective: in this film, dolly-zoom shots of staircases convey asense of the character’s dizziness and fear. Thon also refers to POV shots in terms of “the leastsubjective of the pictorial strategies of subjective representation” (2014, 73). For detailed analyses of POV shots, see Branigan (1984) and Choi (2005).
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