Wordy Wednesday: First Person POV in Literature vs. Film

As far as weeks throughout this semester have gone so far, this isn’t too busy of one. Somebody forgot to tell my body that though and I am absolutely exhausted. (Hooray.)

I spent the weekend getting caught up on schoolwork. This week so far has mostly been more of the same–but Monday I had the honor of reading a short story aloud at the Cafe Shapiro event at the undergraduate library for the third year in a row (photo and monstrously long caption available on Insta!) and met for the first time with the company of the play I’m producing (more details on that coming soonish).

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. This time ’round: a paper about the differences in the first person perspective between literature and film, which I wrote for my (you guessed it) literature to film adaptations class last semester. Spoiler alert for both the lit and film versions of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Double Indemnity, and Shawshank Redemption.

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Every story adapted from page to screen offers a different challenge. Truly, any element of a written text could come to present itself as a challenge to filmmakers. However, altogether, arguably one of the most difficult types of stories to adapt from page to screen is that of the first person narrative. First person narratives are popular in prose, as they allow the protagonist to speak directly to the reader—thus giving the opportunity to share inside information, thoughts, and feelings—and, through this, they allow the reader to more easily and fully connect with the protagonist. The reader sees the world through the protagonist’s eyes, so the reading experience generally feels more intimate and immediate; it’s the difference between reading a memoir versus reading a biography. This becomes a problem when filmmakers choose to adapt these stories to the screen, however, because films cannot strictly be first person experiences. The viewer does not view the world through the narrator’s eyes, but as the roving camera, an extra, non-diegetic person in the room of whom the characters are unaware. A popular method of solving this challenge is by translating the internal monologue of the page into voiceover narration on screen. Three stories studied this semester—Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity—all translate their first person perspectives into voiceover narration for their onscreen adaptations, and thus also transfer the inside information, biased perspectives, and more personal understanding of each story, in order to ultimately create deeper and more meaningful films.

First person pieces of literature thrive on their narrators to convey information to the reader. The narrator has multiple responsibilities, from keeping the reader invested through his or her voice—whether humorous or philosophical, emotional or stoic—to sharing information in order to convey the story to the reader in the most interesting and entertaining manner possible. For example, Double Indemnity begins with the line:

I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. (Cain 1)

This sentence is a great example of voice, as it alone establishes the unpolished suaveness of Cain’s protagonist without ever once explicitly saying anything about him. It is this sharing of information that makes narrators so useful, as they are able to convey what is happening to the reader much more concisely than if the reader was to have to figure it out on his or her own, through implications and dialogue. Voiceover narration functions differently from the internal monologue of textual works, due to the fact that movies involve a greater number of senses than literature—not only does the audience use their eyes, as they do when reading, but they also hear the story, through dialogue, music, and more. Due to this different functionality, even films that qualify as first person experiences are still more impartial than their related pieces of literature, as while voiceover narration and the existence of the narrator in many—if not all—of the scenes helps the viewer gain an understanding of the world through the narrator’s perspective, visually, the camera still is a separate entity from the narrator. This difference comes into sharp exposure in the film adaptation of King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, called simply Shawshank Redemption, as the film moves between scenes that contain narrator Red—and, in correlation, his voiceover narration—and scenes that track his friend Andy instead, scenes which contain information to which Red is not privy, and thus which do not contain voiceover.

Despite this difference in function, however, voiceover narration still takes after written internal monologue by existing primarily to convey information. For example, in the screenplay for Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, narrator Charlie explains through voiceover how he had “hoped that [his] sister Candace and her boyfriend Derek would have let [him] eat lunch with their earth club” (Chbosky 4) while heading for her table in the cafeteria—to which Candace gives the very concise reply of, “Seniors only” (Chbosky 4). Without the voiceover narration, this quick and simple exchange between the siblings would not produce the desired effect; rather, the filmmakers would instead have to create a longer, more involved scene, in which Charlie and Candace might discuss the fact that they are siblings, the fact that she eats lunch with her boyfriend and their earth club, and how she does not want her dorky younger brother to sit with them. Plus, a scene such as this could easily grow cumbersome, as it would not feel natural for characters to outright share this sort of information in a conversation with one another, because they would already both be aware of these facts. So, Charlie’s voiceover narration streamlines this process. In essence, voiceover narration is the difference between telling the viewer about the siblings, versus showing the viewer. If overused, this can come across as a cheap narrative device; another work studied this semester, Adaptation, refers to this problem. However, if used in such a manner as to advance the plot and save time without losing characterization or world-building—such as how The Perks of Being a Wallflower uses it—voiceover is an effective shortcut in conveying information. This also, as in literature, allows the more explicit sharing of important information, rather than requiring the viewer to interpret a scene in an effort to gain the same knowledge, which could lead to an incorrect conclusion.

Additionally, as these three works exemplify, voiceover narration makes the viewer a co-conspirator in what is happening. Because it feels as if the narrator is speaking directly to the viewer, it makes the viewer feel as if he or she is part of the action, and like he or she has insider information about the world and protagonists of the film. Shawshank Redemption does a particularly brilliant job of this, as narrator Red explains the ins and outs of Shawshank Prison. For example:

Most new fish come close to madness the first night. Someone always breaks down crying. Happens every time. The only question is, who’s it gonna be? … It’s as good a thing to bet on as any, I guess. I had my money on Andy Dufresne… (Darabont 15)

Here screenwriter Frank Darabont departs from the beginning of King’s novella in order to take a moment to develop Red’s character. He takes into consideration the fact that—by losing how Red’s voice underlies every word of the novella, due to the nature of literature—his character naturally then becomes harder to develop as deeply in the film. This section of voiceover shows how Red is knowledgeable about Shawshank Prison and has spent a significant amount of time there, through use of words like “always” and the fact that he bets on someone’s suffering like it is a joke; essentially, he has become desensitized to the horror of the first night. This also gives the viewer a deeper understanding of both Red and life at Shawshank Prison. Because he is the narrator, the viewer naturally relates to Red—even more than the viewer would were he simply the protagonist; as narrator he is not only protagonist, but also guide through the world. The viewer has no choice but to trust him. So, it is easier to find Red sympathetic than the other characters—and if this is how even Red treats these circumstances, the viewer quickly learns that Shawshank Prison must be a terrible, calculated place. As this shows, voiceover narration tends to present itself as opinion in order to convey facts, or vice versa, and this once again aids in streamlining the process of disseminating information to the viewer.

Double Indemnity is also an interesting example of the nature of trust in a narrator, as, through the voiceover narration, protagonist Walter Neff literally steps the audience through the story of how he murdered a man for personal gain. Through his voiceover, he lets the audience in on the crime, like he is telling them a deep, dark secret. In the novella, he tells his story to an unspecified audience—essentially, the generic idea of the reader—while in the film, he tells the story as a recorded confession to his friend and colleague, Keyes, whom he has duped up until this point. Despite the more specific target audience of the narration in the film versus the novella, it still feels as if Neff tells his tale directly to the viewer, and because of this, the viewer trusts Neff’s interpretation of events. This leads to the story essentially outsmarting the viewer, as Neff leads the viewer in one direction—with his self-assured narration about what he thinks events mean and how they will turn out—while the truth, taking place beyond his limited, biased perspective, slowly crafts the story in a different direction, and ultimately leads to his downfall. As Keyes states in the screenplay, “You can’t figure them all, Walter” (Wilder and Chandler 131)—and Neff certainly has not figured all the times others would outsmart him. Likewise, Charlie of The Perks of Being a Wallflower presents a biased perspective of the events that unfold throughout his story, as he blocks memories and, most memorably, blacks out during a fight in the high school cafeteria. Also likewise, Red of Shawshank Redemption doesn’t figure out Andy’s plan to escape until Andy has already disappeared, thus correspondingly keeping the viewer in the dark. This biased perspective is more difficult to utilize in films than in prose, due, once again, to the less biased perspective of the camera. This means that one of the viewer’s two involved senses intrinsically receives the story as unbiased. So, accordingly, the filmmakers must then put more work into creating more biased—but not too obviously so—voiceover narration in order to keep the viewer under their thumb.

On the other side of bias, however, is the relentlessly positive nature of the fact that including a narrator in film, like in literature, creates a more personal experience of the story overall. While this gives a narrower, more biased view of the world, as the audience generally only experiences events from one, first person perspective versus from a third person perspective, this also gives the audience a more intimate view of that one point of view. This allows the audience to become more deeply invested in that character’s life, leading, arguably, to a more emotionally charged, and thus more enjoyable, film-going experience. For example, without voiceover narration, the audience would not get to hear Charlie’s thoughts as he and his friends enter the tunnel at the end of the film, stating:

I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive. … And in this moment, I swear … we are infinite. (Chbosky 95-96)

These lines are so important, as they are the lessons Chbosky most hopes to relate to the viewer with this story. These are the types of thoughts that would not feel natural to say out loud, but also are difficult to convey without words. Voiceover narration allows them to exist. It is these types of intimate thoughts that lead to the audience really rooting for Charlie to get better and survive, and similarly for Red to find freedom and happiness. The audience even roots, odd as it is, for Neff to get what will ultimately leave him at peace, whether it be to get away with murder or to give up his opportunity to in order to share how cunning he is with the one man whom he wants to make proud. Voiceover narration, like internal monologue, grounds the story more firmly around one central character, with the rest as the supporting cast in his or her life. Even in Shawshank Redemption, wherein arguably the true protagonist is Andy, as the plot revolves around his time in Shawshank Prison and ultimate escape, in the end the story does turn out to be about Red—his thoughts about Andy, what Andy means to him, and how that relationship inspires him to seek a better life.

While voiceover narration differs in many ways from the internal monologue of literature—again, primarily stemming from the fact that film engages more than one sense, thus dampening the power of each singular sense within the overall experience—these two, similar devices certainly share in their ability to convey information, develop character, and draw the audience more deeply into the world. While literature requires either one third person or first person narrator per scene to directly guide the reader through the world, films allow a greater variety and combination of experiences, wherein, even with a narrator, the viewer still physically sees the world through a technically objective perspective. Where literature can only be objective or subjective, film is the combination of objective and subjective experiences. Thus, by utilizing voiceover in order to translate the first person narratives of their literary counterparts to the big screen, Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity all deepen their characters, streamline the dissemination of information, connect the audience with the protagonist, and more in order to ultimately create deeper and more meaningful films—ones that, in conclusion, stick with the viewer in a way that, as Charlie would say, feels “infinite.”

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Bibliography

  • Cain, James M. Double Indemnity. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
  • Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 2012. Screenplay.
  • Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Print.
  • Darabont, Frank. Shawshank Redemption. 1994. Screenplay.
  • Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Film.
  • King, Stephen. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption: A Story from Different Seasons. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike, 1982. Print.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Dir. Stephen Chbosky. Lionsgate, 2012. Film.
  • Shawshank Redemption. Dir. Frank Darabont. Warner Bros, 1994. Film.
  • Wilder, Billy and Chandler, Raymond. Double Indemnity. 1944. Screenplay.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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