Film as Literature: Evolution of the Narrative

I.  Once Upon a Time...

The tradition of narrative is a story in itself. For as long as human beings have played a role in their own three-act existence through the embodiment of birth, life and death, we have spun our tales and drawn from our collective state of being a colorful, yet fragmented semblance of meaning: a perpetual work in progress. The search for this elusive sense of universal connectivity manifests itself in a variety of manners, many of which share peculiar commonalities in form. Indeed, the human mind, whether conditioned or predisposed, finds patterns in our lives and in our history, and even structures thought in terms of simple narrative. Almost without exception, there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and sometimes therein lies a moment in which we find a shared perception of absolute truth, a fundamental plot point in the epic tale of humanity. 

This is what many of us have come to define as literature: writing that tells us something about ourselves by illustrating that which we have in common. This is a concept at least as old as the books to which it has traditionally been confined, the majority of which were written before such contemporary trivialities as dust jackets, photographs and authors with faces. Perhaps then, in the age of visual text, it is time to reclaim the concept of literature in the very spirit that it represents, by refocusing this criterion to include any narrative that exhibits an individualistic perspective of our familiar identity and that carries with it a timeless humanistic relevance. Literature in the postmodern world therefore resides not only in the books where it has traditionally been assigned, but also in films, in history, in music, and in virtually any other narrative expression of what it means to be human, and that “contains its own meaning within itself” (Barry 17). 

This narrative, as it happens to be, finds its beginning in the infancy of Western civilization.

II. The Story of Narrative

Aristotle’s Poetics marked the inception of literary theory in the Western world. Perhaps most significantly, it defined this basic three act structure that is omnipresent in narrative form: thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Nearly every form of human expression, artistic or otherwise, that is temporal and spatial in its design follows a similar pattern of events. This is true whether it happens to be a novel or a film, to cite two such examples upon which I will elaborate. Even a simple joke consists of the setup, the development and the punchline. 

Over two thousand years after the Poetics came into being, Roland Barthes illuminated the ubiquitous nature of narrative itself in his landmark 1966 essay, An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative. “In this infinite variety of forms, it is present at all times, in all spaces, in all societies; indeed narrative starts with the very history of mankind; there is not, there has never been anywhere, any people without narrative” (237). Barthes then goes on to presume that the universality of narrative is due to its inextricable link to language and semiotics, a notion that he would later contradict for much the same reason in The Death of the Author, in which he suggests that there are no constants that exist in human nature (Barry 66). However, even if context is indeed assigned entirely by the reader, each of whom enters into the work with his or her own relativity to the text, this fails to account for the common shape of narrative throughout history and the world.

Beginning, middle and end, and the plot points like clothespins that fill the empty space: Aristotle recognized this basic framework, modern screenwriters are acutely aware of it, and readers and audiences of any particular form or genre know what to look for and where, whether consciously or otherwise. In a statement put forth by J.M. Lotman in 1972, he claims that “any kind of art can generate narrative forms. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century ballet was narrative in dance, and the Pergamum altar is a typical example of a narrative text in sculpture” (336). No matter the form it happens to take, narrative assumes an familiar shape. For years, one of the only widely accepted explanations of this phenomenon, as presented by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, attributes the traditional form of Western narrative to the Bible, which is a theory that has since drawn its own significant share of criticism.

With that in mind, I would like to suggest that our sense of narrative has a far simpler origin in the human psyche. Perhaps it is not a manner of storytelling that we develop through social interaction, but rather an innate understanding not unlike our most basic animalistic functions. Indeed, traditional narrative form may very well be a representation of primordial ideas as expressed through an archetypal process, thus correlating with the quintessential theories of Carl Jung (Hyde 62)

III. Sex Cells

Narrative is a term that relates to structure, and the concept of literature is fundamentally based upon the content of any such narrative, whether it happens to take the form of a novel or a film, as examples for which I will later provide critical analyses. These are simply different modes of the same basic expression. However, before I extrapolate on the definition of literature, which is inherently subjective, I would first like to examine these congruencies that exist in traditional narrative structure, regardless of the medium, thereby drawing a parallel between written and visual text.

In the closing statement of An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative, Barthes suggests that human beings become capable of “inventing” a simple narrative at the same time that we become aware of human sexuality (272). The logical inference that I would like to draw from this is that there is actually an interrelationship that exists between these corresponding phases of development. 

The essence of my argument is that heterosexual intercourse is represented within the fundamental substructure of common narrative composition, from which even the most seemingly complex narratives are then derived. This is one of the few instincts with which we are born, as all animals are, yet human beings are the only creatures with the abstract mental capacity to express this in more than its most basic form. At its most rudimentary, storytelling is an act of creation and reproduction, generating ideas from ideas that carry with them the potential to live beyond ourselves, both in their original form and in the ideas that they spawn in subsequence. Sexual intercourse also parallels narrative very specifically in terms of its underlying framework. In each, there is not only a beginning, a middle and an end, but also, a far more intricate, though intrinsically flexible design with remarkable similarities therein. This also explains the organic, symbiotic relationship that exists between content and form.

The craft of traditional screenwriting for American feature film adheres particularly well to this basic concept and shall provide a sufficient illustration of this general theory. In English language screenwriting standards, one page is assumed to be the equivalent to one minute of screen time; therefore a film with a running time of one hour and forty minutes is equal to approximately one hundred pages. With that noted, I have divided the structural phases into the loosely defined page counts to which they correspond. This will later serve as the basis for a comparative analysis between a specific novel and film.

Phase I (pages 1-10)

In the narrative, this is the initial setup. The audience is informed to the identity of the protagonist as shown in his/her natural environment, usually in a vulnerable state or as a character archetype. The audience is also made aware of the antagonist, who represents an equal but opposite force whose dramatic goal is in direct conflict with that of the protagonist. This is analogous to the beginning stages of sexual intercourse in that we more or less see the main characters naked, either in the aforementioned state of vulnerability or simply exposed as the archetype that they represent. Similarly, the “equal but opposite forces” serve as adequate representation of the diametric body parts involved in heterosexual relations (and are reflective of our predominantly heteronormative culture). 

Phase II (pages 11-30)

All exposition that is required to discern meaning and context from the film is relayed to the audience. At this point, they essentially know what the story is going to be about and who or what the opposing force(s) are. The central question has been raised and the resulting conflict is about to be initially acted upon. This leads to the first act break (at or around page 30), at which point the story officially begins. This is the narrative equivalent of foreplay. It is where the characters are further exposed and the sexual/dramatic tension is introduced and then acted upon. The first act break can be thought of as penetration by the central characters into the narrative.

Phase III (pages 31-45)

This marks the beginning of the second act and usually a slight shift in both intensity and tone. The rising conflict begins and the audience is made aware of the struggle that now exists between the protagonist and the antagonist, the former of which is now actively moving the story forward. Voyeuristically, the audience becomes engaged in the conflict unfolding on screen. The act of sex has now begun, to which the audience plays witness.

Phase IV (pages 46-60)

Pacing and tempo have been firmly established, the stakes have been raised, and the protagonist must commit wholeheartedly to the goal. The end of this phase represents the symbolic point of no return. These implications directly parallel those of sexual intercourse in that once this process has sufficiently gained momentum, withdrawal from such a scenario becomes unlikely at best.

Phase V (pages 61-75)

The story now moves fully on its own volition. The protagonist has no choice but to continue forward toward the goal or fail completely. There is generally a false climax that occurs around page 75 that indicates a negative response to the central question. The audience may be led to believe that the story is over, but an experienced reader of narrative text, as most audience members tend to be, knows better. 

Phase VI (pages 76-90)

The protagonist attacks the central conflict from a slightly different perspective and moves forward with a singular purpose in mind. The dramatic tension continues to build until it eventually comes to a climax, which thereby results in a satisfying resolution. Ideally, all subplots are resolved at the same time, leaving no unanswered questions or loose ends. In other words, simultaneous orgasm is achieved. The story then shifts into the final act.

Phase VII (pages 91-100)

This is the denouement or post-coital return to “reality.” Either the world or the protagonist has a different perspective now, as a direct result of the events that preceded within the framework of the narrative. Ideally, some universally applicable expression of insight has been passed on though this explication, which can subsequently be developed and expanded upon in narratives that have yet to be written or seen, thus mirroring the act of procreation.

IV. The Odyssey of the Jerk

Now that I have offered the basic theory, I would like to further illustrate this point through specific examples as they relate to written and visual text. With that in mind, I have selected two narratives that are very different in content and form, yet they share an almost identical underlying narrative structure. Through comparative analysis, I will take each of the seven phases mentioned above and demonstrate the manner in which they relate to both Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 BC) and the 1979 film The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner. However, please note that due to the epic narrative scope of the Odyssey, I will reduce my analysis to only include Books 5-24, thereby omitting the separate narrative that exists in the first four books, which is the story of Telemachus, not Odysseus. 

Phase I 

Both of these stories begin with foreshadowing through flashback. Within the context of an individual narrative, time must be considered only relative to itself in terms of how it is presented, which is not necessarily how the events happen to occur chronologically. In both of these cases, although they have non-linear storylines, we must take the beginning of the work to be the true beginning of the narrative.

In the Odyssey as well as in The Jerk, the protagonists are first introduced to the audience in a vulnerable state in which the conflict is present albeit benign. In each of these examples, the protagonist is then set free into the world, which in both cases represent the central antagonistic force. The only significant difference in this respect is that in the former, the cruel world that Odysseus is now a part of is personified in part by the gods. The central character in each of these narratives is presented in a metaphorically naked state of being, and the audience is given some indication of the antagonistic force that will create friction with the protagonist, particularly once they have officially entered the story. Conflict is the lifeblood of drama just as friction is an essential physical property of sex.

Phase II

In both the Odyssey and The Jerk, the heroes set forth into the world, where they are initially introduced to the conflict that will attempt to prevent them from achieving their dramatic goals. At this point, they do not yet actively fight back, as they have not yet fully committed to the story that is about to unfold. Each protagonist and his corresponding antagonistic force engages in a form of foreplay, which sets the tone and soon leads to penetration into the narrative.

Phase III

The opposing forces now come into direct conflict with one another, thereby setting the story in motion. In the Odyssey, this happens as Odysseus recounts the stories of his adventures, beginning with the Cyclops; in The Jerk, the audience witnesses the world begin to reject Navin as illustrated by a maniac “who hates cans.” 

Perhaps it is also worth noting that the madman happens to be squinting with one eye. We can only speculate what Freud would say about a one-eyed monster. I am not suggesting that Steve Martin had the Odyssey in mind when he wrote The Jerk, nor am I saying that Homer had a phallus in mind when he wrote the Odyssey, but I am suggesting that these elements are all intrinsically intertwined.

The conflict/friction that exists between the two equal but opposite forces begins here and will continue to build until the climax.

Phase IV

The stakes are raised and the conflict becomes significantly more complex. As it happens to be, in both cases, the protagonists are offered love in illusionary forms. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is swayed by Circe and held captive by Calypso. In The Jerk, Navin falls under the spell of Patty and then Marie, neither of which give him the sense of fulfillment that he is seeking. They do, however, help him to find his “special purpose.” Similarly, Odysseus’s destiny at once becomes clear. The protagonists commit wholeheartedly to their respective dramatic goals, leading them both beyond the point of no return.

Phase V

Odysseus escapes from Calypso and is then superficially transformed before being reunited with Penelope, who fails to recognize him in his altered form. The central question is answered negatively in that Odysseus can indeed return to the life that he once had, but he is now different. On the same token, Navin is superficially transformed by wealth and fame, at which point Marie takes him back, even though their dynamic has thus changed dramatically. In this case, the central question is answered by suggesting that Navin can indeed find kindness in the world, but only at a price. Each story thereby reaches a false climax, which in turn causes the protagonist to take a slightly different approach to the central conflict, with a singular objective in mind.

Phase VI

Odysseus proves his worth and once again wins Penelope’s hand in marriage. Navin loses everything but a Thermos, but soon discovers that all he really needs is the love of his family. The protagonists have resolved to address the central conflicts from this new perspective with nothing but their immediate goals before them. The friction continues to build to a climactic peak until reaching a conclusion that directly coincides with the resolution of any and all subplots that have developed concurrently with the primary narrative throughline. 

Phase VII

Odysseus reclaims his estate under the divine protection of Athena, which in turn brings peace to the kingdom, and Navin returns home to his family with Marie at his side. The protagonists return to a reality that is familiar, though significantly different either in form or perception than it was when they initially embarked on their respective adventures. The audience is left with a sense of justice and meaning, as well the satisfaction of a narrative that has found an appropriate resolution for all of the players involved.

V. Center of the World?

In many respects, this basic template mirrors the “Hero’s Journey” of Joseph Campbell, who not surprisingly, drew a great deal of influence from the works of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Campbell never explicitly makes reference to the parallels between narrative and sex, but he does suggest that there are universal truths that exist with the constructs of classic narrative form. In his own words: “My hope is that a comparative elucidation may contribute to the perhaps not-quite-desperate cause of those forces that are working in the present world for unification, not in the name of some ecclesiastical or political empire, but in the sense of human mutual understanding” (viii).

Although this basic structure is perhaps most clearly visible within the framework of mainstream American feature film, this theory functions more accurately as a rule than it does as an exception. The proportions of the individual phases that I have outlined above may fluctuate in relation to one another, depending on the form and genre of the narrative, but this theory can be applied with varying degrees of precision to most Western art that is given to occupy time and space. The reason for this geographic distinction is simply because different rules may apply in relation to cultural influence on the narrative form. For example, it comes as no surprise that on the one hand, the American film industry supports this “sexual” structure almost without exception, whereas the traditional music or cinema of India or Iran, for example, may likely have a different narrative construction altogether. The reason for this disparity may be reflected in the differences that exist in sexual expression within two cultures that are virtually polarized in this respect. 

VI. The Relative Subjectivity of a Related Subject

According to Wallace Martin, in Recent Theories of Narrative, “Narratives, no matter how peppered with generalizations, always provide more food for thought than they have digested” (187). That is to suggest that narratives must not only say something, but should say something new, or at the very least, from a unique point of view. My argument is that Wallace’s central idea here should actually be interpreted as the distinction between narrative and literature, which is not unlike the common delineation of movies versus films or books as opposed to novels. It is merely a further classification of a simple, entertaining story versus that which contains a humanistic relevance that exists independently of context. 

Ezra Pound defined literature by saying that it “is of timeless significance; it somehow transcends the limitations and peculiarities of the age it was written in, and thereby speaks to what is constant in human nature” (Barry 17). In many ways, the term literature has often been claimed by the academic elite to celebrate only the work of dead authors, most of whom are caucasian and male. It is also a way of protecting the sanctity of the written word so that it shall never be rendered obsolete. Literature, though, shares its ancestry with the narrative, not just the novel. The story of the Odyssey, for example, was a folktale long before it was ever committed to print by Homer. He did not write it; he only transcribed it in poetic form. Before it was the Odyssey, an almost identical storyline existed in the Epic of Gilgamesh (Martin 412).

The modern concept of the novel, therefore, is simply an evolutionary progression of oral traditions that came about with the manifestation of the written word, but only acquired prolificacy with the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth century. Similarly, in a Darwinian sense, movies are just the offspring of written narratives whose existence were also made possible as a direct result of technological advances. As it seems that human beings are naturally inclined to fear the implications of their own scientific developments, movies are met with the same elitist reserve as books undoubtedly encountered at the dawn of the Renaissance. The accessibility of the written word marked the beginning of the modern era, just as the accessibility of visual text marks the beginning of the postmodern era. 

One is not necessarily superior in any way to the other; they are merely different methods of expressing the same basic ideas. Of course, as I have suggested, not all narratives can rightfully be considered literature. This is to say that books and movies alike can serve simply as a means to entertain rather than enlighten. Granted, the absolute minimum requirement of any successful narrative is the ability to entertain its audience, but beyond that lies the fundamental difference that exists between books and novels and between movies and films. In each of these analogies, the latter tells us something about the human condition, as delivered in an entertaining manner, and maintains a cultural significance well beyond its initial creation. Films and novels, as literary narratives, hold the same degree of humanistic relevance decades or even centuries after they were written because they speak of the commonalities of man, “not just for an age, but for all time” (Barry 17). 

If certain novels are to be considered literature that is worthy of critical study, then film should be afforded the same right. After all, cinema shares its very bloodline with the written word. It would be a sweeping generalization, and an elitist one at that, to suggest that one particular medium inherently holds more artistic merit than the other, as they are merely different manifestations of the same basic principles. Labeling one as literature and the other as not would be like arguing that Michelangelo’s Pietà cannot be considered art, simply because it is not paint on a canvas.

VII. “I’ll Wait for the Movie...”

In the postmodern world, film is arguably among the most accessible and culturally pervasive media that exists. For the sake of illustration, if we narrow this focus to only include the United States, the figures are staggering. According to a poll by the Jenkins Group, “58% of the U.S. adult population never reads another book after high school” (Poynter “Statistics”), and Publishers Weekly states that “the average American spends 2.1 hours per month reading a book.” This is roughly equal to the average length of a feature film, of which the average U.S. citizen watches approximately 50 per year (Netherby “Hacking Netflix”).

Even if someone were to take the argument that proportionately, more books than movies tend to qualify as literature, the fact remains that more people (at least in this country) are watching as opposed to reading. Two conclusions can be drawn from this:  

1. If an artist wishes to speak in a literary context, it is more likely that the artist’s voice will be heard if it is expressed through film as opposed to the written word.

2. The institution of higher education has a responsibility in maintaining the very concept of literature, not by celebrating one form as superior to the other, but rather, to regard film studies as a legitimate expression of a collective human voice.

It stands to reason that an educated audience will expect more from the medium than the majority of the movie-going public currently do. In a culture that is enlightened to the potential for literary merit in cinema, movies without such substance may one day be recognized as empty and worthless, at least to those who care to notice. This is not to say that the blockbusters that exist purely for the sake of entertainment will ever disappear completely; they just may to cease to be blockbusters. For that matter, though, pop fiction will probably always be around as well, and will likely continue to top the bestsellers lists, even if they are never regarded as literature.

 Whether educators in the field of liberal arts care to acknowledge this fact or not: film is to the twenty-first century what books were to the modern era. The Great American Novel, as a form of narrative expression, may very well be a lost art and forgotten goal, but the Great American Film can still find, entertain and inform its audience, and indeed, tell them something of what it means to be human.

Works Cited:

Aristotle. The Poetics. Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Barthes, Roland; Duisit, Lionel. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of
Narrative.” New Literary History. Winter, 1975: Vol. 6, No. 3, On Narrative and Narratives.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Image, Music, Text. 1977.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University
  Press, 1972.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Homer. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin Group, 1996.

The Jerk. Dir. Carl Reiner. Perf. Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters. Aspen Film Society,

Lotman, J.M.; Pfotenhauer, Frances. “The Discrete Text and the Iconic Text: Remarks on
the Structure of Narrative.” New Literary History. Winter, 1975: Vol.6, No. 2, On Narrative and Narratives.

Martin, Wallace. Recent Theories of Narrative. London: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Netherby, Jennifer. “Hacking Netflix.” 11 November 
2006. <>.

Poynter, Dan. “Statistics.” 2004. 

Prince, Gerald. “Narrative Analysis and Narratology.” New Literary History. Winter,
1982: Vol. 13, No. 2, Narrative Analysis and Interpretation.