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When adapting a written medium (such as a novel or comic book) to an audio-visual one, a common difficulty is presenting what the character is thinking on-screen, as most fiction is presented from the perspective of a character involved with the story. There are some obvious methods of translating this:

  • The narrator

    A character narrates the film to interject their thoughts. This is the most common model, and it has several sub-types depending on who is narrating:

  • Just don't

    This is probably the most common. All inner thoughts are skipped, or left up to the actors to portray. For example: Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and presumably every comic book which had thought bubbles.

  • Talking to an inanimate object

    The author knows it's weird for a character to soliloquise to themselves, so they have the character talk to an object instead (a Surrogate Soliloquy). This is less common because it could be interpreted as the character being insane, and in these cases, that's what it indicates: Cast Away, Deadwood, I Am Legend.

But are there any other methods of including the characters thoughts in audiovisual media?

  • Is this only limited to book/comic/whatever adaptations or also to original movies? – Napoleon Wilson Oct 1 '14 at 8:04
  • @NapoleonWilson Good question, I was originally thinking adaptations because they are a sort of template for the film, but I guess you could have the same issues with a script, so go ahead. – Crow T Robot Oct 1 '14 at 8:09
  • Given that you mentioned millions of non-adaptations as examples anyway. But I won't just go ahead if the question is clearly kept to speak of written source media. In addition to that it's quite a list question. But while it would be a pity to loose it and I'm certainly not going to close-vote it, hoping for explanation- rather than example-based answers, I'm not sure the question in its current form encourages these (or if the OP wants to in the first place). – Napoleon Wilson Oct 1 '14 at 8:09
  • Well nevermind, I went ahead, couldn't help it when having a chance to speak about one of my favourite aspects from one of the most impressive SciFi movies I've ever seen (and it's even an adaptation). – Napoleon Wilson Oct 1 '14 at 8:40
  • @NapoleonWilson Fair point, I'd originally written more but it became confusing with the formatting, I'll go back to my notes and clean it up. – Crow T Robot Oct 1 '14 at 8:50
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One movie that immediately sprang to my mind when reading the question was David Lynch's 1984 adaptation of Dune. It employs a very direct and obvious way of sharing a character's momentary thoughts, just having them spoken in from the off in the respective situations.

However, I would still regard that as significantly different from the narrator-based methods you listed, since in this movie there is no narrator otherwise (well ok, apart from the beginning (and end?)) and those thoughts are not merely done for one protagonist but for a multitude of characters. It's maybe similar to a classic monoloque but with the actor not visually speaking and not directing it at the audience. It feels much more situational and immersive than a fourth wall breaking monologue or a narrator (who always gives the impression of the action having already happened), like you're really hearing the actual thoughts right now and without the actor's/character's knowledge.

To me this technique was always something pretty unique and extremely effective about this movie. In the scenes where it was used it made a great contribution to overall atmosphere of the movie. This is also why I wouldn't say this was so much of a narrative story-telling device there, but much more of a stylistic device, having the audience not just know the plot, but even more so feel the characters' emotions. I also don't know if those particular thoughts were actually adapted from the source material at all.

But I haven't seen this technique used anywhere else, only (but more rarely) in the 1971 movie The Beguiled, albeit being quite an obvious way to share a character's thoughts. But maybe it is too obvious and regarded lazy or pretentious, a "cheap trick" in a medium that allows for much more elaborate or subtle ways to show rather than tell the characters' thoughts and emotions. But sometimes the obvious way might just be the most direct and effective, and for me this was the case in this movie, although I agree that this assessment is rather subjective.

  • Came here specifically to mention Dune. – System Down Oct 1 '14 at 23:03
  • This technique is also used in the TV series Rumpole of the Bailey. – Rand al'Thor Sep 16 '16 at 18:04
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Two quick examples, one of which is probably still fresh in the minds of SoA fans;

  1. In last night's episode of Sons of Anarchy, Gemma had a conversation with herself, somewhat like a soliloquoy, in the car on the way home from Abel's daycare. Although, it sort of felt like she was maybe talking to her father's spirit, because she mentioned a few things like, "You would be proud" or something along those lines.

  2. In Boogie Nights, after Phillip Seymour Hoffman's character tries to kiss Mark Wahlberg's character on New years Eve, he sits in his car and repeats the line, "I'm an idiot" over and over.

I don't think either of those fits into your "Narrator" method, but that technique (where the character is just basically talking to themselves out loud) is definitely used.

  • Just a small correction: Gemma was not spiking to her father's spirit, but to Tara's (she was doing that throughout the last season). – Fingolfin Jul 6 '15 at 10:07
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In Sherlock, Holmes thought process if often shown via floating captions on the screen. While this isn't specifically representing exactly what he is thinking, it does visually display the fact that he is having thoughts.

Suspicions about the lovely Mary

Cracked bells?

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I have a few other approaches to add.

  1. Movies frequently include what's called a "reflection character". This is a person in the movie that just tells the main character (or the main character of a certain scene) what the main character is thinking. Or points out something the main character is avoiding. Or acts as a sounding board for the main character to talk about their thoughts. Best friends, neighbors, coworkers, and other recurring secondary characters are sometimes used for this.

  2. Occasionally, characters write in a diary, journal or blog, or they'll write a letter / email / Facebook post to someone else. It's a simple way to show the character's thoughts. Bridget Jones's Diary is an obvious example of this. In some cases, another character will find / steal a secret diary or journal and read it out loud.

  3. Verbal fights are sometimes used to verbalize thoughts. For example, in the movie Parenthood (kinda old, but it's what came to mind), the mom is going through the son's stuff, when he comes home. "Why is everybody in my room?!" Mom: "I thought you were on drugs." She directly verbalizes what she was thinking.

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I've also seen these tactics used:

  • Praying to a higher being
  • Talking to a deceased or unconscious person
  • Talking to a pet/animal (as opposed to inanimate object)
  • Musing to oneself while drunk

And in the case of Al Swearengen on Deadwood on several occasions:

  • Ruminating his thoughts aloud while receiving a BJ from one of his prostitutes (these intense scenes likely helped Ian McShane win a Golden globe and Emmy nominations)

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