Have screenwriters had their day?

Art & Lit Screen

For generations of readers, the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff was shrouded in mystery; with only Nelly’s incomplete version of events to go on, they had no way of knowing exactly how the two children managed to cement their lifelong connection on the lonely moors.  That is, until they saw the 2011 movie version—with Nelly, demoted from her position of narrator to minor servant, the camera was finally free to follow the children out into their refuge in the wilderness and record in detail all the activities that led to their bond. As readers, critics and probably Emily Bronte herself would be surprised to learn, these bonding activities consisted mainly of staring at each other in silence. One wouldn’t expect chats about the weather and exchanges of recipes, but it seems strange that two such intelligent children would have no profound conversations, no exchange of stories and fantasies.

The implication, of course, is that their connection is powerful enough to transcend words; after all, this is a couple whose relationship is strongest when they are rolling around in the mud together. But they are far from being the only movie couple to find solace and strength through lack of communication, the most famous other example being Harry and Ginny. Theirs is a love forged upon awkward silences and even more awkward silent gestures, unforgettable moments like when Ginny ties Harry’s shoelaces for no apparent reason and attempts with the greatest difficulty to feed him a tart. But Harry is positively eloquent compared to the heroes of more typical action and adventure movies, who evidently consider words a threat to their manhood.

Certainly, they will bellow out the obligatory almost-witty catchphrase before diving into the melee of explosions and carnage, but otherwise they take the same approach as the brooding protagonist of Drive, a movie that embodies the expression ‘a hammer is worth a thousand words’. Significant silences are a common feature of many genres, from high culture to sheer escapist entertainment, from Wuthering Heights to Drive. But a quick glance at the movies of yesteryear will confirm that their length and frequency is a modern phenomenon. Dialogue takes center stage in the movies of the forties and fifties, with fast-paced, pun-loaded repartee in the comedies and violent verbal battles in the dramas. This emphasis on words is one of the many characteristics that these films inherited from the stage.  Directors were still filming as though action was limited to a cramped and uniform set and the most vivid images had to be evoked by the words of the characters. Today many of their movies look hopelessly artificial as a result, with characters launching into long, complicated speeches at a moment’s notice and shooting witticisms back and forth without so much as a pause for breath.

Now, of course, things couldn’t be more different. The maxim of modern movie making is ‘show, don’t tell’, which means making the most of film’s capacity for visual storytelling by cutting dialogue. As ever more spectacular visual effects are created with the growth of digital technology, this maxim looks set to become even more entrenched. But even if the death of intelligent dialogue is inevitable, the audience of Drive can hardly help wondering if it has to go in such a gristly manner. They might even feel a pang for the good old days when instead of stomping on a villain’s head, the hero would attempt to talk him to death.

Rachael Goddard-Rebstein