Volume 27, 2016

Themed Issue: Born Digital Cultural Heritage

Edited by Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

Introduction: Born Digital Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

  1. It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage – Henry Lowood
  2. Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012 – Amanda Pagliarino & George Poonkhin Khut
  3. There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika Megler
  4. Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula
  5. Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity – Millicent Weber

Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: A Case for Institutional Proactivity  –  Millicent Weber

 

Abstract: Studies of digital manuscripts generally focus on the technical capabilities of collecting institutions, digital storage and preservation, recovery of corrupted or out-dated material, and provision of access. The potential content of future, digital or part-digital, collections, and their capacity to support sustained scholarly research, has been comparatively neglected by scholars and archival institutions alike. In response to this shortcoming, this paper presents a study into the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, this paper compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The manuscript study used the draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. This study identified five attributes of the manuscript collections necessary to support research into compositional process: the quantity of information; the completeness of information; the sequence of drafts; the preservation of material as it was created; and the availability of contextualising material such as letters. The survey showed that the majority of these attributes were only partially displayed by young writers’ draft manuscripts, but also indicated these writers’ interests in increasing and preserving the research value of their manuscripts. While the scale of this project is niche, the results are transferrable to the extent that they indicate the diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and emphasise the importance of archival institutions adopting a more active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

 

Introduction

‘Multiple, bastard, sequestered… uncouth script, black letter type’ (Nielson, 1993: 55): these are attributes of the handwritten literary manuscripts found in research libraries and other archival institutions. The relative complexity and, in some cases, inaccessibility of manuscripts to the casual reader is for the researcher an intrinsic part of these manuscripts’ value. The prominence of certain terms over others, the myriad revisions, the format of the work on the page and even the punctuation enable exploration of the creative and compositional process of writers. Such research is able to describe the genesis and the development of a particular work, and can even offer insights into the life, personality and psychology of literary figures. In the age of computers that are portable and affordable, there arises a concern that the attributes of these manuscripts that make them so useful for research may not be retained in future manuscript collections that are wholly or partially digital: digitally generated files may be corrupted or not retained, or may not contain the same kinds of information as handwritten manuscripts. This article explores how writers’ practices are changing, and the implications that this might have for researchers. Identifying connections between format and content, this research demarcates the responsibilities of both writers and collecting institutions in preserving valuable research material in a digital environment.

Background and Existing Research

Archival institutions are on the cusp of digital collecting, with institutions just now beginning to collect digital manuscripts and manuscript collections, and to provide research access to these collections. In recognition of this, scholars and archivists have begun exploring the practicalities and requirements involved in collecting this material, caring for it, and making it accessible to the public. Questions of technical capability of institutions, digital storage and preservation practices and standards, recovering corrupted material, and delivering content on- and off-site, are hugely important to continuing to uphold existing archival standards, and have accordingly garnered significant attention. They are a response to the everyday demands of this changing climate, and in many ways represent a transferral of traditional archival practices—acquisition, care, and access—over to a new, digital environment.

In his article on digital research material, David Zeidberg (1999) sketches a brief outline of some of the issues that libraries and other collecting agencies would need to address as ‘born-digital’ material—documents, websites, emails, ebooks, and other items created and accessed almost exclusively on computers—becomes an increasingly larger part of the material that society produces. Zeidberg’s insights are particularly relevant because he raises the issue of digital collection material with respect to the researchers’ needs. In advocating for greater attention to be focused on issues such as the authentication, preservation and accessibility of digital documents, there is nothing pioneering in his predictions: these, along with intellectual property, are central issues canvased in the majority of literature in the field of digital library material (Graham, 1998; Guercio, 2001; Hodge & Anderson, 2007; Zhou, 2010; Heidorn, 2011). This preoccupation with the technological issues associated with the management of digital collection material is not surprising, considering that these are practical issues that need to be addressed for appropriate infrastructure and policy to be developed to integrate this material into collections. Alongside these concerns, however, Zeidberg also raised the issue of the quality of the material that would be provided to the researcher, in terms of a comparison between handwritten manuscript drafts and their digitally created equivalents. Specifically, Zeidberg mentions concerns regarding preservation of versions and revisions and, through giving an example of a pivotal change of wording in a letter written by George III, observes: ‘Were George III to have had access to a word processor for composing his letters and documents, would we have ever seen this change or have had the opportunity to interpret the feelings behind the words? We probably would only see the final version, if even that were preserved.’ Unfortunately, he does not pursue this line of enquiry further. While there are other resources in the field that express the objective of exploring users’ research and their experiences, these are generally based on assessment of technological rather than content-based concerns (Hedstrom, Lee, Olson, & Lampe, 2006; Qayyum, 2008).

A complementary viewpoint to Zeidberg’s is that of Roy Rosenzweig (2003), which asserts the importance of the role that the creator of digital documents holds in the archival process. Rosenzweig of course reiterates the importance of authentication, preservation, and intellectual property issues, but also highlights the importance of encouraging individuals and organisations to take a more active approach in creating and maintaining their own collections of digital material as they are created. While Rosenzweig’s support for ‘grassroots’ style archival practices is advocated to mitigate against technical collection issues—mainly, the difficulty of access and preservation for a decades-old collection of digital documents, compared to a physical collection of the same age—the message also resonates with collection issues surrounding the quality of the research material produced. In the terms of Zeidberg’s hypothetical computer-literate George III, a well-regulated system of individual archival practice might have meant that both the original, and the amended, versions of the letter were saved to the hard drive and could be later transferred to an archive.

The British Library’s Digital Lives research project, led by Williams, Dean, Rowlands & John (2008), presents a stark contrast to the largely technologically-focused articles that make up the majority of those within this discipline. These researchers investigated the ways in which people create their own personal digital collections: their interactions with computers, the collection of documents that they create, how this collection is managed and used, and the way that this compares to the person’s storage and use of physical documents. By interviewing a range of people in different professions and age groups, this project collected valuable data about the material that might be entering institutions’ digital collections over the coming decades, and the ways that this material will already be organised. Some of the insights that this study provides were encouraging, particularly in relation to the quality concerns raised by Zeidberg: there was evidence of successive computer drafts being preserved, or even of drafts being printed for editing by hand.

The considerations canvased in each of these articles provide a general guide for a range of the issues that will need to be addressed as digital collections achieve more prominence within the archival structure. But this research is predominantly institutional in outlook: concerns centre on technological and infrastructural requirements for the storage, preservation and accessibility of digital items. When the researcher is referenced in these works, it is not primarily their use of the material for research which is addressed, as much as their access to that material. In approaching the considerations of digital collection management from the perspective of the researcher, this paper will therefore be able to provide better insight into the way that this material will be used – not just accessed – and the ways in which this use can best be facilitated by institutions and individuals alike.

Research Design and Data Collection

Recognising the strengths and limitations of the research conducted to date in this field, this article investigates the question: “How can we ensure that information about writers’ compositional process is preserved as writers migrate from physical to digital manuscript production?”

This question can be broken down into two distinct lines of enquiry. The first explores the insights that a researcher can gain into compositional process when comparing and analysing wholly physical collections of manuscript drafts of a literary work—the traditional manuscript collections incidentally created by writers as part of their practice, and subsequently collected by libraries and archives and made available for scholarly research. This initial line of enquiry relates to the theories and methods underpinning manuscript research as it is currently undertaken, asking how meaning is inscribed and discovered in manuscript collections. The second line of enquiry examines the partially- or wholly-digital manuscript collections that are currently being created by writers, and the extent to which these collections will offer similar insights into the writer’s compositional process.

Rather than positing an opposition between hardcopy and digital manuscript collections, this research seeks to identify the extent to which existing manuscript research—currently constructed with almost sole reference to physical manuscripts—maps onto a contemporary, hybrid situation, and to identify challenges that this may pose, and actions that can be taken, to ensure that researchers are supported. This article is framed by this focus on existing research collections, as it offers a productive and pragmatic means of investigating this particular aspect of digital manuscript collecting, but this does not diminish the significance and value of digital manuscript collections. Digital collections pose the challenges that this research identifies, but they also support research methodologies and provide important and unique material that paper-based collections cannot. The relationship between physical and digital collections is complex, collaborative and ongoing, and this article exploits one particular aspect of this relationship to explore the connection between format and content, and support the work of collection managers and researchers.

In order to explore these issues, the handwritten and typewritten manuscript drafts for a number of different poems were analysed and compared according to the methodology outlined by contemporary manuscript researchers such as Bushell (2003) and Davies (2008), and the process of composition of each poem was described. This initial research was then self-reflexively analysed to identify which of the various attributes of the collections being studied were necessary to form an understanding of the writers’ composition. Finally, a survey was distributed to a group of emerging writers to gauge the extent to which the attributes that informed the initial manuscript research are likely to be present in the collections of manuscripts that will enter archival institutions in the future. It also asked for respondents’ opinions on the possibility of creating research collections, and their receptivity to libraries’ encouragement of good archival practice. This survey emulated the work undertaken by Williams et al (2008) as part of the British Library’s Digital Lives project, but was re-designed to specifically address those attributes identified in the earlier stages of this research. The following is a brief outline of the specific methods used in this research:

Stage One: Initial Selection of Manuscripts

Following consultation with the manuscript librarians at the National Library of Australia, three poems each by Alan Gould and Chris Mansell were chosen for the initial manuscript analysis. These poets and poems were selected because they satisfied the following criteria:

  • The collections of drafts for each poem were considered to be complete, and were held in full at the National Library of Australia (in Gould’s and Mansell’s papers, MS 6635 and MS 7904).
  • The collections of drafts for each poem demonstrated a range of different compositional techniques.
  • The drafts were all created by hand or using a typewriter (no digital technologies were used).
  • Although writing at similar times, each poet has a distinctive and contrasting style.
  • Each poet was locally-based and available for interview to confirm the findings of the initial manuscript research.

Stage Two: Research into Compositional Process

The manuscripts for the poems chosen were then analysed to determine the process whereby each poem was composed. This was undertaken as follows:

  • Each draft was photographed and transcribed to provide better access in the analytical phases (see de Biasi, 2004; Bushell, 2003; and Davies, 2008)
  • A chronology of drafts was established (as per Bushell, 2003; Davies, 2008; mostly already completed by the National Library of Australia)
  • The changes within each manuscript draft and between subsequent drafts were listed and described. Changes that were identified and recorded included changes on the scale of individual words, larger changes such as the addition of a new theme or idea, and changes to the structure or arrangement of the poem. These changes correspond to the different levels of intention that Bushell (2003) describes.
  • These changes were then studied to determine patterns, building up a descriptive narrative of the composition of the poems. The compositional processes behind the different poems were compared with one another to describe each poet’s working habits and compositional style.
  • Finally, brief interviews were undertaken with each of the poets to confirm that these descriptions were consistent with their practice.

Stage Three: Identifying the Important Attributes

After this initial research was conducted, the important attributes of the draft manuscripts that contributed information about each poem’s composition were identified. This involved linking the statements about composition which were already made back to the concrete evidence that supported them, and relied heavily on the detailed descriptive work undertaken as part of the initial manuscript research.

Stage Four: Survey

The fourth stage of this research comprised the distribution of a survey to a group of emerging writers. This survey asked about writing practices and the storage of drafts, and was designed to determine to what extent those important attributes identified in the previous stages of research would still be present in the partially- or wholly-digital manuscript collections that will be available to researchers in the future. This survey was designed in recognition of the emphasis that other researchers (like Rosenzweig, 2003, and Williams et al, 2008) place on the role of the creator in ensuring digital manuscript collections are created and managed in a manner which ensures their future viability for scholarly research. The survey was administered to the creative writing cohort at the University of Canberra, and was similar to that conducted by Williams et al (2008), but with a focus on questions related to creative writing. The survey covered:

  • The extent to which composition is undertaken on the computer (or other devices).
  • The extent of computer skills and formal training.
  • The creation of different drafts of documents.
  • The filing, storage, and deleting of digitally-created and hardcopy drafts.
  • The backing up and archiving of digitally-created and hardcopy drafts.
  • Writers’ opinions about the possibility of creating research collections, and receptivity to libraries’ encouragement of good archival practice.

The results of the survey were then collated and compared with the data from previous stages of the research, and a series of recommendations were drafted that could potentially be distributed to writers, offering simple suggestions to promote the future research value of their future archives.

Findings and Recommendations

The research value of future manuscript collections will be determined by the presence or absence of those attributes of individual manuscripts and manuscript collections that were identified in the initial stages of this research project. These attributes can be collected together under five general traits that, when present, will assist detailed manuscript analysis to yield optimal results. These are: the quantity of information; the completeness of information; the sequence of drafts; the preservation of material as it was created; and the availability of contextualising material such as letters or creative stimuli. The following section of this paper connects each of these traits to the findings of this research project, and suggests some strategies that writers could use to ensure these traits are maintained in their collections of drafts. Practicing these strategies is the preserve of writers, but as this article demonstrates, ensuring writers’ practices incorporate these strategies is a challenge for collecting institutions to address. Proactive institutional intervention into writers’ storage becomes increasingly important as the permanence and fixity of draft material decline.

Quantity

The first of these attributes is the quantity of information present: both the quantity of drafts, and the quantity of revisions contained within each draft. The two manuscript collections studied demonstrated this quantity of information in different ways. Chris Mansell made fewer drafts of her poems, but each draft contained myriad revisions and re-revisions. Alan Gould created less closely-annotated drafts, but the number of drafts he created—up to 20 drafts per poem—meant that these sets of drafts were each equally able to reveal the compositional process of their respective authors.

Half of the writers who responded to the survey indicated they do generally create a similar number or more drafts writing on the computer. It can therefore be hoped that this quantity of drafts would be as useful to researchers as copious handwritten revisions. Equally, all respondents indicated that some of their drafting is always done with pen and paper, particularly plans and early drafts. The problem here is therefore also one of keeping drafts of different formats together, and putting these into a sequence. Keeping this in mind, it is important that  when working on the computer writers frequently save new drafts, ideally whenever changes are made to their work, and/or use ‘Track Changes’ or a similar program or function which preserves any altered or deleted information. Writers should also be careful to retain any drafts that are printed or transferred to a tablet or another computer to be revised.

Completeness

The second of these attributes is the completeness of information present: all drafts exist and are available for use, and all information is included in these drafts (nothing has been erased, destroyed or otherwise made illegible). This attribute of manuscript collections is connected to the researcher’s confidence in making conclusions about the progressive development of a poem from the manuscript drafts. With pen and paper writers might cross out, white-out or erase words, but these each leave a trace. With the computer, it is impossible to know what has been typed and then deleted. As the majority of survey respondents indicate they create some drafts by hand, this issue is perhaps not as severe as it could be, but on the flipside, half of writers admit they are at present unlikely to save a separate draft every time they make changes to their poems. To ensure collections are as complete as possible, writers should be encouraged to save separate drafts whenever changes are made and/or use track changes or a similar function, as per the previous recommendation.

It is equally important that no drafts are missing from the collection. As such, writers should make an effort to save all drafts of each poem in the same location, and to choose locations for saving drafts using some kind of system. Where any of these measures is not possible, or not taken, writers would ideally record any incompleteness in their collection (for example by keeping a log of their drafting practices, or writing a comment on a draft to indicate that it was preceded by a different draft in another location or format, or to indicate that parts of it were deleted).

Sequence

The third of these attributes is that the sequence of drafts can be reconstructed: there is sufficient information within the drafts, or the drafts are numbered or ordered by the writer, so as to demonstrate the sequence in which they were created. Gould’s manuscript drafts were able to be ordered through a close examination of the phrasing and development of ideas in each draft. This process was possible because of the completeness of the collection of drafts, with many new elements introduced first as an amendment to the previous draft, and then incorporated into the body of the work in subsequent versions. Mansell ordered, numbered and stapled together her earlier drafts, which meant this careful sequencing was only necessary with her later versions.

While we can encourage writers to retain relatively complete information to assist researchers to sequence their drafts (as per the previous point) it is also important that writers include sufficient information with their drafts to assist researchers to determine their order of writing, whether in the title or content of the document, as numbers, dates, or other descriptions, and comprehending handwritten and tablet-created documents as well as drafts created on the computer.

Format

The fourth of these attribute is that drafts are kept in the format in which they are created: This refers to the fact that a typed copy of a handwritten draft would be considered a separate and later draft to the original handwritten draft. The responses to the surveys indicated that a number of drafts are still handwritten, and that drafts are also written on tablets and other electronic devices, and are also often printed from the computer to be marked up by hand. It was an interesting and informative aspect of Gould’s and Mansell’s manuscripts that different drafts were written by hand, written with a typewriter, or included handwritten notes, revisions and additions on typewritten pages; different formats presented different content, but equally the choice of format hinted at the poet’s beliefs about the readiness of the poem to be typed up, or their difficulties with certain sections evident in a decision to return to handwriting.

Recognising this, it is important that handwritten and tablet-created drafts are retained in a format that preserves all contextualising information from the original draft. With handwritten drafts this is likely to be as simple as keeping the originals or scanning them to the computer; with drafts created on a tablet or other relatively short-lived electronic device, writers should ensure they use an application which allows documents to be exported from the device in a format readable on other devices (e.g. as an image or PDF document).

Supplementary Material

The fifth and final attribute is that supplementary material which inspired or influenced the work or otherwise provides context for the work is kept. It was important to the interpretation of the stimulus and development of Mansell’s poem ‘Goodbye Blue’ that the words to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Chelsea Hotel’ were included, as hastily written out by Mansell, in the collection of drafts. Other scholars also note the importance of including similar stimuli in manuscript collections; for example, Kidder’s (1980) analysis of EE Cummings’ poem ‘I am a little church’ was entirely dependent on his discovery of a photograph of the church which inspired Cummings’ reflections.

Other manuscript analysis has used correspondence or personal musings as contextualising information into a poet’s state of mind or inspiration, or to qualify their assumptions, in a similar manner to the interviews conducted with each of the poets as part of this research project. Encouraging writers to keep copies of relevant email correspondence or blog posts about their writing, as well as saving or noting any stimulus to their work alongside their drafts, would assist with this.

Survey Results: Further Discussion

The survey results indicated that poetic manuscript collections entering archival institutions in the future will be diverse and complex, often including both digital and physical manuscripts created on and accessed with a range of different devices. Every writer who responded said that they write both by hand and on the computer, and several of the writers also use their tablet or mobile phone for their writing. Not a single writer used just one format to create their drafts. We might infer that, as the range of technological devices increases, the diversity of different draft documents increases also. Hence, rather than addressing a situation where manuscripts are becoming bland and shallow, a far greater variety of different documents are being included in collections. As such, these collections have the potential to display equal or greater research value to their predecessors, but equally, gaps in collections caused by the ease of overwriting or deleting drafts and the potential for technological failures means information about the writers’ processes could be irretrievably lost.

Two thirds of writers surveyed indicated they would be encouraged by the prospect of future research potential to improve their archival practices, with multiple respondents commenting that it was something to look forward to in their careers as writers. Those who said this would not encourage them to create and keep more drafts gave two reasons. The first reason was that they did not believe their material was of a high enough standard: this implies that either they do not intend to become professional writers (and as such from a literary research perspective their manuscripts will be of limited use), or that when their writing does reach this standard they may then become open to advice in this area. The second reason was that they would not want to make draft documents available for researchers, as they would prefer the final version to stand alone as a single artistic unit. There is little that researchers can do to influence this kind of opinion, other than hope that, like in the case of Patrick White[1], threats to burn all manuscript material are hollow.

Conclusion

Writers’ practices are changing, and along with this the kinds of manuscripts that they are creating. Through combining an analysis of physical manuscripts with an exploration into contemporary writing practices, this research project identified changes in writing practices which are likely to present a problem, and detailed ways in which these might be mitigated.

The findings from this project indicate the receptivity of writers to improving the research quality of their drafts, and support more general arguments that other researchers (such as Rosenzweig, 2003) have made about creators needing to take more responsibility for the ongoing development and maintenance of their collections in an increasingly ‘ephemeral’ digital environment.

These findings indicate the necessity for archivists and librarians to advocate for creators using better practices to create and manage their drafts years before they are even considered for inclusion in manuscript archives, and the possibility for this advocacy to have a real impact of the research quality of future manuscript collections.

Finally, these findings indicate a broader need for all of us to take a proactive approach to ensuring that the incredible research value of our current manuscript collections is carried through to those collections entering archives in the future: to think about the ways in which format and content are inextricably linked, and to work productively alongside content creators to respond to the challenges and embrace the opportunities of a digital environment.

 

Works Cited

Bushell, Sally. “Intention Revisited: Towards an Anglo-American “Genetic Criticism”.” Text 17 (2003): 55-87. Print.

Davies, Alexandra. “Poetry in Process: The Compositional Practices of D.H. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas and Philip Larkin.” Diss. University of Hull, 2008. Print.

de Biasi, Pierre-Marc. “Toward a Science of Literature: Manuscript Analysis and the Genesis of a Work.” Genetic Criticism. Ed. Jed Deppman, Daniel Ferrer, and Michael Groden. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2004. 36-68. Print.

Gould, Alan. Papers of Alan Gould, MS 6635. c.1972-2004. Canberra: National Library of Australia. MS.

Graham, Peter S. “New Roles for Special Collections on the Network.” College & Research Libraries 59.3 (1998): 232-240. Print.

Guercio, Maria. “Principles, Methods, and Instruments for the Creation, Preservation, and Use of Archival Records in the Digital Environment.” Trans. Kenneth Thibodeau. The American Archivist 64.2 (2001): 238-269. Print.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., Christopher A. Lee, Judith S. Olson and Clifford A. Lampe. ““The Old Version Flickers More”: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective.” The American Archivist 69.1 (2006): 159-187. Print.

Heidorn, P. Bryan. “The Emerging Role of Libraries in Data Curation and E-science.” Journal of Library Administration 51.7/8 (2011): 662-672. Print.

Hodge, Gail and Nikkia Anderson. “Formats for Digital Preservation: A Review of Alternatives and Issues.” Information Services & Use 27.1/2 (2007): 45-63. Print.

Kidder, Rushworth. “Picture into Poem: The Genesis of Cummings’ “I Am a Little Church”.” Contemporary Literature 21.3 (1980): 315-330. Print.

Mansell, Chris. Papers of Chris Mansell, MS 7904. c.1970-2004. Canberra: National Library of Australia. MS.

Nielson, James. “Reading between the Lines: Manuscript Personality and Gabriel Harvey’s Drafts.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 33.1 (1993): 43-82. Print.

Qayyum, Asim. “Analysing Markings Made on E-Documents.” Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences 32.1/2 (2008): 35-53.  Print.

Rosenzweig, Roy. “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.” The American Historical Review 108.3 (2003): 735-762. Print.

Williams, Pete, Katrina Dean, Ian Rowlands and Jeremy Leighton John. “Digital Lives: Report of Interviews with the Creators of Personal Digital Collections.” Ariadne 55 (2008): n. pag. Web. 7 Mar 2016.

Zeidberg, David S. “The Archival View of Technology: Resources for the Scholar of the Future.” Library Trends 47.4 (1999): 796-806. Print.

Zhou, Yongli. “Are Your Digital Documents Web Friendly?: Making Scanned Documents Web Accessible.” Information Technology & Libraries 29.3 (2010): 151-160. Print.

Notes

[1] See Patrick White’s 1977 letter to the then Director General of the National Library of Australia Dr George Chandler, held in the NLA collection (number MS 8469) or available for download through the NLA ‘Media Zone’ website: http://www.nla.gov.au/media/Patrick-White/

 

Bio:

Millicent Weber is a PhD candidate in the Centre for the Book at Monash University, Melbourne. Her PhD research forms part of the Australian Research Council Discovery project ‘Performing Authorship in the Digital Literary Sphere’, and investigates audience experience at literary festivals. Millicent has worked with manuscript collections at the National Library of Australia and at the University of Melbourne Archives. Millicent’s honours project, completed at the University of Canberra, investigated the value of digital manuscript collections and the challenges that they pose for researchers and collection managers. millicent.weber@monash.edu

There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika M. Megler

Abstract: In 1981, two Melbourne University students were hired part-time to write a text adventure game. The result was the game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), based on Tolkien’s book (Tolkien), which became one of the most successful text adventure games ever. The Hobbit was innovative in its use of non-deterministic gameplay, a full-sentence parser, the addition of graphics to a text adventure game and finally “emergent characters” – characters exhibiting apparent intelligence arising out of simple behaviours and actions – with whom the player had to interact in order to “solve” some of the game’s puzzles. This paper is a case history of developing The Hobbit, and covers the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique.

 

Fig.1 - C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Figure 1.  C64/128 The Hobbit (disk version). Melbourne House.

Introduction

This paper is a case history of the development of the text adventure game, The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981). The game was a translation of Tolkien’s novel of the same name (Tolkien) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market.

As co-developer of The Hobbit, I offer my recollections of the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made the game unique. Those ideas included the use of non-deterministic gameplay – the game played differently every time and sometimes could not be completed due to key characters being killed early in the game – very different to other games, which had only a single path through the game and responded the same way each time they were played. The Hobbit contained a full-sentence parser that understood a subset of natural language, dubbed Inglish, as compared to the simple “verb noun” constructions accepted by other adventure games of the time. There were graphic renditions of some of the game locations, another groundbreaking addition to a text adventure game. And finally, “emergent characters” – non-player characters exhibiting apparent personalities and intelligence – with whom the player had to interact in order to solve some of the game’s puzzles. In combination, these features led to a game experience that transformed the industry.

Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. I compare the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time. Lastly, I discuss the legacy and recent revival of interest in the game.

“Let us not follow where the path may lead.
Let us go instead where there is no path,
And leave a trail.”

– Japanese Proverb

The Tenor of the Times 

It was early 1981. I was a Bachelor of Science student at Melbourne University, majoring in Computer Science (CS) and just starting my last year. These were the early days of Computer Science education, and the curricula required today for undergraduate Computer Science students had not yet been developed. In our classes we were studying topics like sort algorithms and data structures and operating systems such as BSD Unix. Another class focused on calculating rounding and truncation errors occurring as a result of a series of digital calculations. We were taught software development using a systems analysis method called HIPO[1] – Hierarchical Input-Process-Output, the best practice in structured programming – and that documenting our code was a good practice. Object-oriented programming was still in the future.

During our first couple of years in the CS program, programming projects were written using “mark sense cards”, which we marked up with pencils and fed into card readers after waiting in a long queue of students – sometimes for an hour or two to get a single run. You had to get the program running within a certain number of runs or the card reader would redistribute the lead across the cards, making them illegible.

By the time we reached the last year of the Bachelor’s degree, in our CS classes we were actually allowed to log onto a Unix machine in the lab and work there, if we could get access to a terminal (which often meant waiting for hours, or booking a timeslot, or waiting till late in the evening). We programmed in Pascal, Fortran, Assembler, C (our favorite), and Lisp. Our favorite editor was, universally, Vi. I remember programming a PDP8 in Assembler to run a toy train around a set of tracks, switching the tracks as instructed; we hand-assembled the program, typed it in and debugged it using a hexadecimal keypad.

By this time I’d built my own PC, from a project in an electronics hobbyist magazine. I’d purchased the mother board, which came as a peg-board with a printed circuit on it, minus any components or cross-wiring. I would go to the electronics parts store with my list of chips, resistors, capacitors and diodes, and solder for my soldering iron.  In the store they’d say, “tell your boyfriend we don’t have these” – it was not even considered possible that I might be the person purchasing them. The system had a small number of bytes – around 128 bytes, I believe (that is not a misprint) – of free memory, and used a black and white TV as a monitor. For this system we wrote programs out on paper in a simple Assembler, hand-assembled it and typed it in using a hexadecimal keypad. There was no save function, so whenever the system restarted we had to re-type in the program. It was quite impressive to see the programs we could develop in that amount of space.

I was used to being one of around 2-4 women in my university classes, whether it was a smaller class of 30 students or one of the massive Physics classes holding perhaps two or three hundred. Sexism was alive and kicking. The norm for women – for most of the fellow students at my all-girl high school, MacRobertson – was to become secretaries or nurses (although my closest friend for many of those years became a lawyer, traveling to the ‘Stans to negotiate for oil companies, and is now chairman of the board). One fellow student (luckily, I don’t remember who) gave me the ultimate compliment: “you’re bright, for a girl!” In self-defense, I partnered with another woman – Kerryn – for any pair projects. Whenever we had 4-person group projects we joined with another frequent pair, Phil Mitchell and Ray, who were amongst the few men willing to partner with us; these group experiences later led to me recruiting the other three to work at Melbourne House.

My game-playing experience was very limited. There was a Space Invaders arcade game in the lobby of the student union at the university that I sometimes played. For a while there was a game of Pong there, too. The Unix system featured an adventure game we called AdventureColossal Cave, also often referred to as Classic Adventure (CRL, 1976). In our last year I played it obsessively for some time, mapping out the “maze of twisty little passages”, until I had made it to through the game once. At that point it instantly lost interest for me, and I don’t believe I ever played it again. I was not aware of any other computer games.

State-of-the-art PC games were a very new thing – PCs were a very new thing – and at the time were written in Interpretive Basic by hobbyists. Sometimes the games were printed in magazines, taking maybe a page or two at most, and you could type them into any computer that had a Basic interpreter and play them. The code was generally written as a long list of if-then-else statements, and every action and the words to invoke that action was hard-coded. The game-play was pre-determined and static. Even if you purchased the game and loaded it (from the radio-cassette that it was shipped on), you could generally solve the puzzles by reading the code. The rare games that were shipped as compiled Basic could still be solved by dumping memory and reading the messages from the dump.

Getting the Job

I was working early Sunday mornings as a part-time computer operator, but wanted a job with more flexibility. On a notice board I found a small advertisement looking for students to do some programming, and called. I met Alfred (Fred) Milgrom, who had recently started a company he called “Melbourne House”, and he hired me on the spot to write a game for him. Fred was a bit of a visionary in thinking that hiring students with Computer Science background could perhaps do a better job than the general state-of-the-art of self-taught hobbyists.

Fred’s specifications to me were: “Write the best adventure game ever.” Period.

I told Phil Mitchell about the job, as I thought he had the right skills. I brought him along to talk to Fred, who hired him to work on the game with me. Kerryn and Ray joined us later that year to write short games in Basic for publication in the books that Melbourne House was publishing. These books featured a series of games, most of them about a page or two in length. The books were often sold along with a radio-cassette from which you could load the game rather than having to type it in yourself. Ray only stayed briefly, but Kerryn I think stayed for most of the year, and wrote many games. She’d sit at the keyboard and chuckle as she developed a new idea or played a game she’d just written.

Software Design, Cro-Magnon Style

So, what would “the best adventure game ever” look like? I started with the only adventure game I’d ever played: Classic Adventure. What did I not like about it? Well, once I’d figured out the map and solved the puzzles, I was instantly bored. It played the same way every time. Each Non-Player Character (NPC) was tied to a single location, and always did the same thing. Lastly, you had to figure out exactly the incantation the game expected; if the game expected “kill troll”, then any other command – “attack the troll”, for example – would get an error message. You could spend a long time trying to figure out what command the game developer intended you to issue; as a result, most adventure games tended to have the same actions, paired with the same vocabulary.

Phil and I split the game cleanly down the middle, with clearly defined interfaces between the two halves. I took what today we would call the game engine, physics engine and data structures (although those terms did not exist then). Phil took the interface and language portion. I don’t remember who had the original idea of a much more developed language than the standard “kill troll” style of language used by other text adventures of the time; my thinking stopped at the level of having synonyms available for the commands. I had almost no involvement in the parser; I remember overhearing conversations between Fred and Phil as the complexity of what they were aiming at increased. For a time, Stuart Richie was brought in to provide language expertise. However, his thinking was not well suited to what was possible to develop in Assembler in the space and time available, so, according to what Phil told me at the time, none of his design was used – although I suspect that being exposed to his thinking helped Phil crystallize what eventually became Inglish. No matter what the user entered – “take the sharp sword and excitedly hack at the evil troll”, say, he’d convert it to a simple (action, target) pair to hand off to me: “kill troll”, or perhaps, “kill troll with sword”.  Compound sentences would become a sequence of actions, so “take the hammer and hit Gandalf with it” would come to me as two actions: “pick up hammer”, followed by a next turn of “hit Gandalf with hammer”.

I put together the overall design for a game that would remove the non-language-related limitations within a couple of hours on my first day on the job. I knew I wanted to use generalized, abstracted data structures, with general routines that processed that structure and with exits for “special cases”, rather than the usual practice of the time of hard-coding the game-play.  My intent was that you could develop a new game by replacing the content of the data structures and the custom routines – a “game engine” concept I did not hear described until decades later. We even talked about developing a “game editor” that would allow gamers to develop their own adventure games by entering items into the data structures via an interface, but I believe it was never developed. I very early on decided that I wanted randomness to be a key feature of the game – recognizing that that meant the game could not always be solved, and accepting that constraint.

I envisaged three data structures to be used to support the game: a location database, a database of objects and a database of “characters”. The location “database” (actually, just a collection of records with a given structure) was pretty straightforward, containing a description of the location and, for each direction, a pointer to the location reached. There could also be an override routine to be called when going in a direction. The override allowed features or game problems to be added to the game map: for example, a door of limited size (so you could not pass through it while carrying too many items) or a trap to be navigated once specific constraints had been met. There’s a location (the Goblin’s Dungeon) that uses this mechanism to create a dynamic map, rather than having fixed connections to other locations: for each direction, an override routine is called that randomly picks a “next location” for the character to arrive in from a given list of possible locations. Another innovation in the location database occurred when Phil added pictures to specific locations, and drew them when the player entered one of those locations. Rather than representing the entire map of the Middle Earth in the game (as I might do today), I simplified it into a set of individual locations where noteworthy events occurred in the story, and represented those as a linked set of locations, with the links oriented in the directions as laid out on the map. So, for example, “go North” from one location would immediately take you to the next location North in the game where a significant event occurred. I did not then have a notion of variable travel time based on distance between the two locations.

Similarly, I conceived of an object database with a set of abstract characteristics and possible overrides, rather than hard-coding a list of possible player interactions with specific objects as was done in other games. Each object had characteristics and constraints that allowed me treat them generically: weight, size, and so on – in effect, a simple (by today’s standards) physics engine. An object could have the capability to act as a container, and a container could be transparent or opaque; a transparent container’s contents could be seen without having to open it first. There were generic routines that could be applied to all objects: for example, any object could be picked up by something bigger and stronger than it, or put into a bigger container (if there was enough room left in it). Some routines could be applied to any object that matched some set of characteristics; an object could also have a list of “special” routines associated with it that overrode the general routines. There was a general “turn on” routine that applied to lamps, for example, that could also be overridden for a magic lamp by a different, more complex “turn on” routine. I went through the book noting where objects were used to further the plot (swords, lamps, and most obviously, the ring), then added those objects to the game, with appropriate generic characteristics and actions (weight, the ability for lamps to be turned on) and special routines as needed (for example, the ring’s ability to make the wearer invisible).

Each non-player character (NPC) was also an object that began in an “alive” state, but could, due to events in the game, stop being alive – which allowed a player to, for example, use a dead dwarf as a weapon, in the absence of any other weapon). However, the physics engine caused “kill troll with sword” to inflict more damage than “kill troll with (dead) dwarf”.

In addition to regular object characteristics, each NPC had a “character”, stored in the third database. I conceived of an NPC’s character as being a set of actions that the NPC might perform, a sequence in which they generally performed them and a frequency of repetition. The individual actions were simple and were generally the same actions that a player could do (run in a given direction, attack another character, and so on); but again, these routines could be overridden for a specific character. The sequence could be fixed or flexible: an action could branch to a different part of the sequence and continue from there, or even jump to a random location in the sequence. The apparent complexity of the character comes from the length and flexibility of its action sequence; the character “emerges” as a result. For example, Gandalf’s short attention span and kleptomania were represented by a sequence like: “[go] <random direction>. [Pick up] <random object> [Say, “what’s this?”]. [Go] <random direction>. [Put down] <random object>.”

The division between inanimate object and NPC was left intentionally a little blurry, giving extra flexibility. For example, the object overrides could also be used to modify character behaviour. I actually coded an override where, if the player typed “turn on the angry dwarf”, he turned into a “randy dwarf” and followed the player around propositioning him.  If he was later turned off, he’d return to being the angry dwarf and start trying to kill any live character. Fred and Phil made me take that routine out.

In order to develop each character, I went through the book and, for each character, tried to identify common sequences of behavior that I could represent through a sequence of actions that would capture the “texture” of that character. Some characters were easy; for a troll, “{If no alive object in current location} [go] <random direction> {else} [kill] <random object with status ‘alive’>” was pretty much the whole list. Others were harder, such as characterizing Thorin; and yes, I did write the now-classic phrase, “Thorin sits down and starts singing about gold.” (I hereby apologize for how frequently he said that; short character-action list, you see.) An action could invoke a general routine which was the same for all NPCs – like, choose a random direction and run, or choose a live object in the location and kill it; or, it could be an action specific only to this NPC, as with Thorin’s persistent singing (as seen in Figure 2). For Gandalf, the generic “pick up” routine was used under the covers, but overridden for Gandalf to utter “what’s this”.

Figure 1. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Figure 2. Gandalf and Thorin exhibit classic behavior. Courtesy Winterdrake.

Sometimes an alternate behaviour list could be chosen based on events, as can be seen in Figure 2. For example, the friendly dwarf would become violent once he’d been attacked (or picked up). For a while, we had terrible trouble with all the NPCs showing up in one location and then killing each other before the player had the chance to work his way through the game, before I got the character profiles better adjusted. Some character would attack another, and once a battle was in progress any (otherwise friendly) character entering that location would be attacked and end up joining in. The same mechanism was used to allow the player to request longer-running actions from NPCs, such as asking a character to follow you when you needed them to help solve a puzzle in a (sometimes far) different location from where they were when you found them. In general the NPCs were programmed to interact with “another”, and did not differentiate whether the “other” was the player or not unless there was a game-related reason for doing so. The NPCs exhibited “emergent behaviour”; they just “played” the game themselves according to their character profile, including interacting with each other. In essence, the NPCs would do to each other almost anything that they could do to or with the player.

Phil programmed the interface to accept input from the player, and after each turn he would hand control to the NPC system, which would allow each (remaining) alive character to take a turn, as can be seen in Figures 2 and 3. For the time, this design was revolutionary; the model then was to have a single, non-mobile NPC in a single location, with only a couple of specific actions that were invoked once the player entered that location, and behaving the same way each time you played the game. Even in the arcade games of the time, we were able to identify that each object the player interacted with behaved the same way each time, and they did not interact with each other at all.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

Figure 3. The player modifies Thorin’s default behavior – to the player’s cost.

At the beginning of the game, we would generate, for each NPC, a random starting point in that NPC’s action list, giving the game much of its random nature. This combination of factors led to the “emergent characters”; or, seen another way, “a bunch of other characters just smart enough to be profoundly, infuriatingly stupid” (Maher).

I quickly transitioned to the concept of the player merely being another character, with a self-generated action list. At some point I experienced the emergent nature of the characters while trying to debug and was joking about the fact that the characters could play the game without the player being there; that discussion led naturally to the famous “time passes” function, where, if the player took too long in taking his next action (or, chose to “wait”, as in Figure 1), the characters would each take another turn. This feature, which Melbourne House trademarked as
“Animaction” (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.), was another innovation not seen in prior text adventures, where game-play depended wholly on the player’s actions. (It is also noteworthy how many of the game’s innovations began as jokes. I now believe this to be true of much innovation; certainly it has been, for the innovations I’ve been involved in.)

The next, seemingly obvious step to me was to allow – or even require – the player to ask the NPCs to perform certain tasks for him (as seen in Figure 4), and to set up puzzles that required this kind of interaction in order to solve them. This addition added another layer of complexity to the game. As commented by one fan, “As most veteran Hobbit players know, a good way to avoid starvation in the game is to issue the command “CARRY ELROND” whilst in Rivendell. In the game Elrond is a caterer whose primary function is to give you lunch and if you carry him then he will continue to supply you with food throughout the game.”[2] Another had a less tolerant view: “Sometimes they do what you ask, but sometimes they’re feeling petulant. Perhaps the seminal Hobbit moment comes when you scream at Brand to kill the dragon that’s about to engulf you both in flames, and he answers, “No.” After spending some time with this collection of half-wits, even the most patient player is guaranteed to start poking at them with her sword at some point.”[3]

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

Figure 4. The Hobbit starting location, and a player action that I never thought of.

The non-determinism of the overall game meant that it was not, in general, possible to write down a solution to the game. There were specific puzzles in the game, however, and solutions to these puzzles could be written down and shared. However, people also found other ways to solve them than I’d anticipated. For example: “A friend of mine has discovered that you can get and carry both Elrond and Bard. Carrying Elrond with you can by quite useful as he continuously distributes free lunches. And, to be honest, carrying Bard is the only way I’ve found of getting him to the Lonely Mountain. There must be a better way.” (“Letters: Gollum’s Riddle”) As commented by a retrospective, “And actually, therein sort of lies the secret to enjoying the game, and the root of its appeal in its time. It can be kind of fascinating to run around these stage sets with all of these other crazy characters just to see what can happen — and what you can make happen.” (Maher)

Inglish

While I worked on the game, Phil designed, developed and wrote the language interpreter, later dubbed Inglish. I had little interest in linguistics, so I generally tuned out the long discussions that Fred and Phil had about it – and was supported in doing so by the encapsulation and simple interface between the two “halves” of the game, which prevented me needing to know any more.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Figure 5. Opening scene from one of many foreign language versions.

Every word was stored in the dictionary, and since only 5 bits are used to represent the English alphabet in lower-case ASCII, the other 3 bits were used by Phil to encode other information about speech parts (verb, adjective, adverb, noun), valid word usages, what pattern to use when pluralizing, and so on. I’ve seen screen images from versions of the game in other languages (e.g., Figure 5), but I do not know how the translations were done or how the design worked with these other languages.

 

Phil translated player commands into simple “verb object” commands to hand to me, with some allowed variations to allow for different action results. For example, I seem to remember that “viciously kill” would launch a more fierce attack, and use up more strength as a result, than just “kill”. Rather than a set of hard-coded messages (as was the norm), we generated the messages “on the fly” from the dictionary and a set of sentence templates. At the end of some action routine, I would have a pointer to a message template for that action. The template would contain indicators for where the variable parts of the message should be placed. I would then pass the message, the subject and object to the language engine. The engine would then generate the message, using, once again, spare bits for further customization.  To take a simple example, “Gandalf gives the curious map to you” used the same template as, say, “Thorin gives the axe to the angry dwarf”.

We were so limited by memory that we would adjust the size of the dictionary to fit the game into the desired memory size; so the number of synonyms available would sometimes decrease if a bug fix required more lines of code. It was a constant trade-off between game functionality and language richness. As a result of all the encoding, dumping memory – a common method of solving puzzles in other text adventures – provided no information for The Hobbit.

Software Development, Cro-Magnon-Style

Our initial development environment was a Dick Smith TRS80 look-alike, with 5 inch floppy drives. Initially I believe we used a 16k machine, then a 32k, and towards the end a 48k or perhaps 64k machine. Our target machine for the game was initially a 32k TRS80. During development, the Spectrum 64 was announced, and that became our new target. Game storage was on a cassette tape, played on a regular radio-cassette player. As the other systems became available we continued using the TRS80 platform as the development environment, and Phil took on the question of how to ports the game to other platforms.

We had a choice of two languages to use for development: Basic, or Assembler. We chose Assembler as we felt the added power offset the added difficulty in using the language.

During initial development, the only development tool available was a simple Notepad-like text editor, and the majority of code was written that way. Later I believe a Vi-like editor became available; even later, I have faint memories of a very early IDE that allowed us to edit, assemble the code and step through it (but that also inserted its own bugs from time to time).

We initially worked with the system’s existing random number generator, but realized that its pseudo-random nature made the game play the same way each time – against what I hoped to achieve. Phil then spent some time writing a “true” random number generator, experimenting with many sources of seed values before he was successful. He tried using the contents of various registers, but discovered that these were often the same values each time. He tried using the time, but the TRS80 did not have a built-in battery or time, and most people did not set the time each time they started the system – so again, if someone turned the machine on and loaded the game, we would get the same results each time. After some experimentation he finally succeeded, and the game – for better or worse, and sometimes for both – became truly random.

Debugging was a nightmare. Firstly, we were debugging machine code, initially without the advantage of an IDE; we ran the program, and when it crashed we tried to read the memory dumps. In Assembler, especially when pushing the memory limit of the system, the Basic programmer’s technique of inserting “print” statements to find out what is happening is not available. We had characters interacting with each other in distant parts of the game, and only actions in the current location were printed on the game player’s console. In one of several cases where a game feature was originally developed for other reasons, we initially wrote the “save” mechanism to help us debug parts of the game without having to start from the beginning each time. It then became part of the delivered version, allowing players to take advantage of the same function.

At some point, the idea of adding graphics came up, I think from Phil. Fred commissioned Kent Rees to draw the pictures, and Phil figured out how to draw them on the various systems; I do know that he adapted the pictures from the originals Kent provided in order to make them easier to draw. The first version of his code always drew the picture when you entered a location that had one; however, it was so slow and annoyed us (me) so much that Phil quickly added a switch to turn them off.

Sidelines

In between coding The Hobbit, we occasionally took time to work on other games. Fred would give us $20 to go and play arcade games, sometimes as often as each week, to see what other folk were doing and what the state of the art was in that industry. Someone in our group of four wrote a version of Pac-Man. We spent hours with one person playing Pac-Man, trying to get up to higher levels in the game, while the others leant over the arcade machine trying to figure out the algorithms that caused prizes to appear and how the behaviour changed across the game levels. We didn’t see it as piracy, as arcade games and home computers were at that time seen as being completely unrelated industries – it was more in the spirit of gaining ideas from another industry for application into ours.

Another game that we wrote was Penetrator (Melbourne House, 1981). Phil was the clear lead on that game while I worked on some pieces of it, and I think Kerryn may have worked on it a bit too.  It was a copy of the arcade game Scramble (Konami, 1981). Because of the speed (or lack thereof) of the processors at the time, we had to ensure that each separate path through the game took the same amount of time; even a difference of one “tstate” (processor state) between one path of an “if-then-else” to another would interfere with smooth motion, so we spent significant time calculating (by hand) the time taken by each path and choosing different Assembler instructions that would compensate for the differences (and given that “NO-op” took 2 tstates, it was not always easy). Another difficulty was getting the radars to turn smoothly, while handling the variable number of other activities taking place in the game. It took forever to get it “right”.

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

Figure 6. Screen shot from the game Penetrator

At the beginning we drew the screen bitmaps for all the landscapes on graph paper and then hand-calculated the hexadecimal representations of each byte for the screen buffer, but that became so tedious so quickly that Phil wrote an editor that we could use to create the landscapes. In the end the landscape editor was packaged with the game, as a feature.

Another “pressing” issue for shooter games of the time was that of keyboard debounce. At the time a computer keyboard consisted of an electrical grid, and when a key was pressed the corresponding horizontal and vertical lines would register a “high”. You checked the grid at regular intervals, and if any lines were registering high you used a map of the keyboard layout to identify the key that had been pressed. However, you had to stall for just the right amount of time before re-reading the keyboard; if you waited too long, the game seemed unresponsive, but if you read too quickly, you would read several key presses for each key press that the player intended. While it was possible to use the drivers that came with the keyboard, they did not respond quickly enough to use for interactive games. “Getting it right” was a tedious matter of spending hours fiddling with timings and testing.

Perhaps A Little Too Random

In addition to all the other randomness it exhibited, The Hobbit was also known to crash seemingly randomly. There were a number of reasons for this. Firstly, The Hobbit was a tough game to test. It was a much bigger game than others of the time. Unlike the other games, it was approximately 40k of hand-coded Assembler[4], as opposed to the commonly used interpreted Basic (a few more advanced games were shipped in compiled Basic). It was written without the benefit of formalized testing practices or automated test suites. The assembly and linking programs we used were also relatively new, and during development, we would find bugs in them. I remember spending hours debugging one time only to discover that the assembler had optimized away a necessary register increment, causing an infinite loop; I had a lot of trouble trying to invent a different coding sequence that prevented the assembler from removing the required increment. Altogether, I took away lessons about not letting your application get too far ahead of the ability of your infrastructure to support it.

Secondly, the game was non-deterministic; it was different every time it was played. It exhibited its own manifestation of chaos theory: small changes in starting conditions (initial game settings, all generated by the random number generator) would lead to large differences in how the game proceeded. Due to the “emergent characters”, we constantly had NPCs interacting in ways that had never been explicitly programmed and tested, or even envisioned. The game could crash because of something that happened in another location that was not visible to the player or to person testing the game, and we might never be able to identify or recreate the sequence of actions that led to it.

It was possible to have an instance of the game that was insoluble, if a key character required to solve a specific puzzle did not survive until needed (often due to having run into a dwarf on the rampage); this was a constraint I was happy to accept, though it frustrated some players. The ability to tell the NPCs what to do also meant that people told them things to do that we hadn’t accounted for. The very generality of the game engine – the physics, the language engine, and the ability for the player to tell characters what to do – led players to interact with the game in ways I’d never thought of, and that were certainly never tested. In some cases, they were things I didn’t realize the game was capable of.

Epilogue

The Hobbit was released in 1982 in Australia and the U.K. Figure 7 shows a typical packaging. It was an instant hit; amongst other awards, it won the Golden Joystick Award for Strategy Game of the Year in 1983, and came second for Best Game of the Year, after Jet-Pac. Penetrator came second in the Golden Joystick Best Arcade Game category, and Melbourne House came second for their Best Software House of the Year, after Jet-Pac’s publishers (“Golden Joystick Awards”). A couple of revisions were published with some improvements, including better graphics. Due to licensing issues it was some time before a U.S. release followed. The book was still covered by copyright and so the right to release had to be negotiated with the copyright holders, which were different in each country. The U.S. copyright holder had other plans for a future game. As a result, future book-based game ideas specifically chose books (such as Sherlock Holmes) that were no longer covered by copyright.

Figure 7. Game release package.

Figure 7. The Hobbit. Game release package.

At the end of 1981, I finished my Bachelor’s degree. We were beginning to discuss using the Sherlock Holmes mysteries as a next games project; I was not sure that the adventure game engine I’d developed was a good fit for the Sherlock style of puzzle solving, although there were definitely aspects that would translate across. However, I was also ready to start something new after a year of coding and debugging in Assembler. I’d proved that my ideas could work, and believed that the result Phil and I had produced was the desired one – an adventure game that solved all my frustrations with Classic Adventure, and in my mind (if not yet in other people’s) met Fred’s target of “the best adventure game ever”.

I interviewed with several major IT vendors, and took a job at IBM, as did Ray. Kerryn took a job in a mining company in Western Australia. Phil stayed on at Melbourne House (later Beam Software), the only member of our university programming team to continue on in the games industry. We eventually all lost touch.

During this time, I was unaware that the game had become a worldwide hit. Immersed in my new career, I lost touch with the nascent games industry. At IBM, I started at the same level as other graduates who had no experience with computers or programming; developing a game in Assembler was not considered professional or relevant experience. Initially I became an expert in the VM operating system (the inspiration and progenitor for VMWare, I’ve heard), which I still admire for the vision, simplicity and coherence of its design, before moving into other technical and consulting position. In late 1991 I left Australia to travel the world. I eventually stopped in Portland, Oregon, with a plan to return to Australia after 2 years – a plan that has been much delayed.

A 3-year stint in a global Digital Media business growth role for IBM U.S. in the early 2000’s brought me back in contact with games developers just as the movie and games industries were moving from proprietary to open-standards based hardware and infrastructure. The differences in development environments, with large teams and sophisticated supporting graphics and physics packages, brought home to me how far the games industry had come. But while I appreciate the physics engines and the quality of graphics that today can fool the eye into believing they are real, the basis of a good game has not changed: simple, compelling ideas still captivate and enchant people, as can be seen in the success of, for example, Angry Birds. I also believe that the constraints of limitations – such as small memories and slow processors – can lead to a level of innovation that less limited resources does not.

And Back Again

As the Internet era developed, I started receiving letters from fans of The Hobbit. The first person I recall tracking me down emailed me with an interview request for his Italian adventure fan-site in 2001, after what he said was a long, long search. The subsequent years made it easier to locate people on the Internet, and the emails became more frequent. At times I get an email a week from people telling me the impact the game had on the course of their lives.

In 2006, the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) held an exhibition entitled “Hits of the 80s: Aussie games that rocked the world” (Australian Centre for the Moving Image), featuring The Hobbit. It felt a little like having a museum retrospective while still alive: a moment of truth of how much things have changed, and at the same time how little. The games lab curator, Helen Stuckey, has since written a research paper about the challenge of collecting and exhibiting videogames for a museum audience, using The Hobbit as an example (Stuckey).

In late 2009 I took an education leave of absence from IBM US to study for a Masters/PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University. (IBM and I have since parted company.) When I arrived one of the PhD students, who had played The Hobbit in Mexico as a boy, recognized my name and asked me to present on it. While searching the Internet for graphics for the presentation, I discovered screen shots in many different languages and only then began to realize the worldwide distribution and impact the game had had. Being in a degree program while describing work I’d done during my previous university degree decades before caused many conflicting emotions. I was also amazed at the attendance and interest from the faculty and other students.

In 2012, the 30-year anniversary of the release, several Internet sites and magazines published retrospectives; a couple contacted me for interviews, while others worked solely from published sources. The same year I was contacted by a fan who had been inspired by a bug (“this room is too full for you to enter”) to spend time over the intervening decades in reverse-engineering the machine code into a “game debugger” of the kind I wish we’d had when we originally developed it: Wilderland (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”). It runs the original game code in a Spectrum emulator, while displaying the position and state of objects and NPCs throughout the game. His eventual conclusion was that the location is left over from testing (and I even have a very vague memory of that testing). That a game I spent a year writing part-time could cause such extended devotion is humbling.

In retrospect, I think we came far closer to Fred’s goal of “the best adventure game ever” than we ever imagined we would. The game sold in many countries over many years, and by the late 1980’s had sold over a million copies (DeMaria) – vastly outselling most other games of the time. During one interview, the interviewer told me that in his opinion, The Hobbit transformed the genre of text adventure games, and that it was the last major development of the genre: later games merely refined the advances made. Certainly Beam Software’s games after The Hobbit did not repeat its success.

While many of the publications, particularly at the time of release, focused on the Inglish parser, it is the characters and the richness of the gameplay that most people that contact me focus on. I believe that just as the game would have been less rich without Inglish, putting the Inglish parser on any other adventure game of the time would in no way have resembled the experience of playing The Hobbit, nor would it have had the same impact on the industry or on individuals.

In 2013, the Internet Archive added The Hobbit to its Historical Software Collection[5] – which, in keeping with many other Hobbit-related events, I discovered via a colleague’s email. Late that year, ACMI contacted me to invite me to join the upcoming Play It Again project[6], a game history and preservation project focused on ANZ-written digital games in the 1980s. That contact led to this paper.

As I complete this retrospective – and my PhD – I was again struck again by the power a few simple ideas can have, especially when combined with each other. It’s my favorite form of innovation. In the words of one fan, written 30 years after the game’s release, “I can see what Megler was striving toward: a truly living, dynamic story where anything can happen and where you have to deal with circumstances as they come, on the fly. It’s a staggeringly ambitious, visionary thing to be attempting.” (Maher) A game that’s a fitting metaphor for life.

Disclaimer

This paper is written about events 35 years ago, as accurately as I can remember. With that gap in time, necessarily some errors will have crept in; I take full responsibility for them.

 

 

References

Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. The Hobbit: Guide to Middle-Earth. 1985.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image. “Hits of the 80s: Aussie Games That Rocked the World.” N.p., May 2007. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Crowther, Will. Colossal Cave. CRL, 1976. Print.

DeMaria, Rusel Wilson, Johnny L. High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games. Berkeley, Cal.: McGraw-Hill/Osborne, 2002. Print.

Golden Joystick Awards. Computer and Video Games Mar. 1984 : 15. Print.

Letters: Gollum’s Riddle. Micro Adventurer Mar. 1984 : 5. Print.

Maher, Jimmy. “The Hobbit.The Digital Antiquarian. N.p., Nov. 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

Mitchell, Phil, and Veronika Megler. Penetrator. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://www.worldofspectrum.org/infoseekid.cgi?id=0003649>.

—. The Hobbit. Melbourne, Australia: Beam Software / Melbourne House, 1981. Web. <Described in: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hobbit_%28video_game%29>.

Stuckey, Helen. “Exhibiting The Hobbit: A Tale of Memories and Microcomputers.” History of Games International Conference Proceedings. Ed. Carl Therrien, Henry Lowood, and Martin Picard. Montreal: Kinephanos, 2014. Print.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit, Or, There and Back Again,. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966. Print.

Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment. N.p., 2012. Web. 24 Feb. 2014.

 

 

Notes:

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HIPO

[2] http://solearther.tumblr.com/post/38456362341/thorin-sits-down-and-starts-singing-about-gold

[3] http://www.filfre.net/2012/11/the-hobbit/

[4] An analysis by the Wilderland project (“Wilderland: A Hobbit Environment”) shows the following code breakdown: game engine and game, 36%; text-engine for input and output, the dictionary, the graphics-engine, and the parser 22%, graphics data 25%; character set (3%), buffers (8%), and 6% as yet unidentified.

[5] https://archive.org/details/The_Hobbit_v1.0_1982_Melbourne_House

[6] https://www.acmi.net.au/collections-research/research-projects/play-it-again/

 

Bio

Veronika M. Megler now works for Amazon Web Services in the U.S. as a Senior Consultant in Big Data and Analytics. She recently completed her PhD in Computer Science at Portland State University, working with Dr. David Maier in the emerging field of “Smarter Planet” and big data. Her dissertation research enables Information-Retrieval-style search over scientific data archives. Prior to her PhD, she helped clients of IBM U.S. and Australia adopt a wide variety of emerging technologies. She has published more than 20 industry technical papers and 10 research papers on applications of emerging technologies to industry problems, and holds two patents, including one on her dissertation research. Her interests include applications of emerging technologies, big data and analytics, scientific information management and spatio-temporal data. Ms. Megler was in the last year of her B.Sc. studies at Melbourne University when she co-wrote The Hobbit. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at vmegler@gmail.com.

It Is What It is, Not What It Was – Henry Lowood

Abstract: The preservation of digital media in the context of heritage work is both seductive and daunting. The potential replication of human experiences afforded by computation and realised in virtual environments is the seductive part. The work involved in realising this potential is the daunting side of digital collection, curation, and preservation. In this lecture, I will consider two questions. First, Is the lure of perfect capture of data or the reconstruction of “authentic” experiences of historical software an attainable goal? And if not, how might reconsidering the project as moments of enacting rather than re-enacting provide a different impetus for making born digital heritage?

Keynote address originally delivered at the Born Digital and Cultural Heritage Conference, Melbourne, 19 June 2014

Let’s begin with a question. When did libraries, archives, and museums begin to think about software history collections? The answer: In the late 1970s. The Charles Babbage Institute (CBI) and the History of Computing Committee of the American Federation of Information Processing Societies (AFIPS), soon to be a sponsor of CBI, were both founded in 1978. The AFIPS committee produced a brochure called “Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” Distributed at the National Computer Conference in 1979, it is the earliest statement I have found about preserving software history. It says,

If we are to fully understand the process of computer and computing developments as well as the end results, it is imperative that the following material be preserved: correspondence; working papers; unpublished reports; obsolete manuals; key program listings used to debug and improve important software; hardware and componentry engineering drawings; financial records; and associated documents and artifacts. (“Preserving …” 4)

Mostly paper records. The recommendations say nothing about data files or executable software, only nodding to the museum value of hardware artefacts for “esthetic and sentimental value.” The brochure says that artefacts provide “a true picture of the mind of the past, in the same way as the furnishings of a preserved or restored house provides a picture of past society.” One year later, CBI received its first significant donation of books and archival documents from George Glaser, a former president of AFIPS. Into the 1980s history of computing collections meant documentation: archival records, publications, ephemera and oral histories.

Software preservation trailed documentation and historical projects by a good two decades. The exception was David Bearman, who left the Smithsonian in 1986 to create a company called Archives & Museum Informatics (AHI). He began publishing the Archival Informatics Newsletter in 1987 (later called Archives & Museum Informatics). As one of its earliest projects, AHI drafted policies and procedures for a “Software Archives” at the Computer History Museum (CHM) then located in Boston. By the end of 1987, Bearman published the first important study of software archives under the title Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives & Museums. (Bearman, Collecting Software; see also Bearman, “What Are/Is Informatics?”)

In his report, Bearman alternated between frustration and inspiration. Based on a telephone survey of companies and institutions, he wrote that “the concept of collecting software for historical research purposes had not occurred to the archivists surveyed; perhaps, in part, because no one ever asks for such documentation!” (Bearman, Collecting Software 25-26.) He learned that nobody he surveyed was planning software archives. Undaunted, he produced a report that carefully considered software collecting as a multi-institutional endeavor, drafting collection policies and selection criteria, use cases, a rough “software thesaurus” to provide terms for organizing a software collection, and a variety of practices and staffing models. Should some institution accept the challenge, here were tools for the job.

Well, here we are, nearly thirty years later. We can say that software archives and digital repositories finally exist. We have made great progress in the last decade with respect to repository technology and collection development. Looking back to the efforts of the 1980s, one persistent issue raised as early as the AFIPS brochure in 1978 is the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software. This is an important issue. Indeed, it is today, nearly forty years later, still one of the key decision points for any effort to build research collections aiming to preserve digital heritage or serve historians of software. Another topic that goes back to Bearman’s report is a statement of use cases for software history. Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it? Answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history.

As we consider the potential roles to be played by software collections in libraries and museums, we immediately encounter vexing questions about how researchers of the future will use ancient software. Consider that using historical software now in order to experience it in 2014 and running that software in 2014 to learn what it was like when people operated it thirty years ago are two completely different use cases. This will still be true in 2050. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is important to understand its implications. An analogy might help. I am not just talking about the difference between watching “Gone with the Wind” at home on DVD versus watching it in a vintage movie house in a 35mm print – with or without a live orchestra. Rather I mean the difference between my experience in a vintage movie house today – when I can find one – and the historical experience of, say, my grandfather during the 1930s. My experience is what it is, not what his was. So much of this essay will deal with the complicated problem of enacting a contemporary experience to re-enact a historical experience and what it has to do with software preservation. I will consider three takes on this problem: the historian’s, the media archaeologist’s, and the re-enactor.

Take 1. The Historian

Take one. The historian. Historians enact the past by writing about it. In other words, historians tell stories. This is hardly a revelation. Without meaning to trivialize the point, I cannot resist pointing out that “story” is right there in “hi-story” or that the words for story and history are identical in several languages, including French and German. The connections between story-telling and historical narrative have long been a major theme in writing about the methods of history, that is, historiography. In recent decades, this topic has been mightily influenced by the work of Hayden White, author of the much-discussed Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, published in 1973.

White’s main point about historians is that History is less about subject matter and source material and more about how historians write.

He tells us that historians do not simply arrange events culled from sources in correct chronological order. Such arrangements White calls Annals or Chronicles. The authors of these texts merely compile lists of events. The work of the historian begins with the ordering of these events in a different way. Hayden writes in The Content of the Form that in historical writing, “the events must be not only registered within the chronological framework of their original occurrence but narrated as well, that is to say, revealed as possessing a structure, an order of meaning, that they do not possess as mere sequence.” (White, Content of the Form 5) How do historians do this? They create narrative discourses out of sequential chronicles by making choices. These choices involve the form, effect and message of their stories. White puts choices about form, for example, into categories such as argument, ideology and emplotment. There is no need in this essay to review all of the details of every such choice. The important takeaway is that the result of these choices by historians is sense-making through the structure of story elements, use of literary tropes and emphasis placed on particular ideas. In a word, plots. White thus gives us the enactment of history as a form of narrative or emplotment that applies established literary forms such as comedy, satire, and epic.

In his book Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect, White writes about the “events, persons, structures and processes of the past” that “it is not their pastness that makes them historical. They become historical only in the extent to which they are represented as subjects of a specifically historical kind of writing.” (White, Figural Realism 2.) It is easy to take away from these ideas that history is a kind of literature. Indeed, this is the most controversial interpretation of White’s historiography.

My purpose in bringing Hayden White to your attention is to insist that there is a place in game and software studies for this “historical kind of writing.” I mean writing that offers a narrative interpretation of something that happened in the past. Game history and software history need more historical writing that has a point beyond adding events to the chronicles of game development or putting down milestones of the history of the game industry. We are only just beginning to see good work that pushes game history forward into historical writing and produces ideas about how these historical narratives will contribute to allied works in fields such as the history of computing or the history of technology more generally.

Allow me one last point about Hayden White as a take on enactment. Clearly, history produces narratives that are human-made and human-readable. They involve assembling story elements and choosing forms. How then do such stories relate to actual historical events, people, and artifacts? Despite White’s fondness for literary tropes and plots, he insists that historical narrative is not about imaginary events. If historical methods are applied properly, the resulting narrative according to White is a “simulacrum.” He writes in his essay on “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” that history is a “mimesis of the story lived in some region of historical reality, and insofar as it is an accurate imitation, it is to be considered a truthful account thereof.” (White, “The Question of Narrative …” 3.) Let’s keep this idea of historical mimesis in mind as we move on to takes two and three.

Take 2. The Media Archaeologist

My second take is inspired by the German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst. As with Hayden White, my remarks will fall far short of a critical perspective on Ernst’s work. I am looking for what he says to me about historical software collections and the enactment of media history.

Hayden White put our attention on narrative; enacting the past is storytelling. Ernst explicitly opposes Media Archaeology to historical narrative. He agrees in Digital Memory and the Archive, that “Narrative is the medium of history.” By contrast, “the technological reproduction of the past … works without any human presence because evidence and authenticity are suddenly provided by the technological apparatus, no longer requiring a human witness and thus eliminating the irony (the insight into the relativity) of the subjective perspective.” (Ernst, Loc. 1053-1055.) Irony, it should be noted, is one of White’s favourite tropes for historical narrative.

White tells us that historical enactment is given to us as narrative mimesis, with its success given as the correspondence of history to some lived reality. Ernst counters by giving us enactment in the form of playback.

In an essay called “Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View,” Ernst plays with the notion that, “To tell as a transitive verb means ‘to count things’.” The contrast with White here relates to the difference in the German words erzählen (narrate) and zählen (count), but you also find it in English: recount and count. Ernst describes historians as recounters: “Modern historians … are obliged not just to order data as in antiquaries but also to propose models of relations between them, to interpret plausible connections between events.” (Ernst, Loc. 2652-2653) In another essay, aptly subtitled “Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media,” Ernst adds that mainstream histories of technology and mass media as well as their counter-histories are textual performances that follow “a chronological and narrative ordering of events.” He observes succinctly that, “It takes machines to temporarily liberate us from such limitations.” (Ernst, Loc. 1080-1084)

Where do we go with Ernst’s declaration in “Telling versus Counting,” that “There can be order without stories”? We go, of course, directly to the machines. For Ernst, media machines are transparent in their operation, an advantage denied to historians. We play back historical media on historical machines, and “all of a sudden, the historian’s desire to preserve the original sources of the past comes true at the sacrifice of the discursive.” We are in that moment directly in contact with the past.

In “Method and Machine”, Ernst offers the concept of “media irony” as a response to White’s trope of historical irony. He says,

Media irony (the awareness of the media as coproducers of cultural content, with the medium evidently part of the message) is a technological modification of Hayden White’s notion that “every discourse is always as much about discourse itself as it is about the objects that make up its subject matter. (Ernst, Loc. 1029-1032)

As opposed to recounting, counting in Ernst’s view has to do with the encoding and decoding of signals by media machines. Naturally, humans created these machines. This might be considered as another irony, because humans- have thereby “created a discontinuity with their own cultural regime.” We are in a realm that replaces narrative with playback as a form of direct access to a past defined by machine sequences rather than historical time. (Ernst, Loc. 1342-1343)

Ernst draws implications from media archaeology for his closely connected notion of the multimedia archive. In “Method and Machine,” he says, “With digital archives, there is, in principle, no more delay between memory and the present but rather the technical option of immediate feedback, turning all present data into archival entries and vice versa.” In “Telling versus Counting,” he portrays “a truly multimedia archive that stores images using an image-based method and sound in its own medium … And finally, for the first time in media history, one can archive a technological dispositive in its own medium.” (Ernst, Loc. Loc. 1745-1746; 2527-2529.) Not only is the enactment of history based on playback inherently non-discursive, but the very structure of historical knowledge is written by machines.

With this as background, we can turn to the concrete manifestation of Ernst’s ideas about the Multimedia Archive. This is the lab he has created in Berlin. The website for Ernst’s lab describes The Media Archaeological Fundus (MAF) as “a collection of various electromechanical and mechanical artefacts as they developed throughout time. Its aim is to provide a perspective that may inspire modern thinking about technology and media within its epistemological implications beyond bare historiography.” (Media Archaeological Fundus) Ernst explained the intention behind the MAF in an interview with Lori Emerson as deriving from the need to experience media “in performative ways.” So he created an assemblage of media and media technologies that could be operated, touched, manipulated and studied directly. He said in this interview, “such items need to be displayed in action to reveal their media essentiality (otherwise a medium like a TV set is nothing but a piece of furniture).” (Owens) Here is media archaeology’s indirect response to the 1979 AFIPS brochure’s suggestion that historical artifacts serve a purpose similar to furnishings in a preserved house.

The media-archaeological take on enacting history depends on access to artifacts and, in its strongest form, on their operation. Even when its engagement with media history is reduced to texts, these must be “tested against the material evidence.” This is the use case for Playback as an enactment of software history.

Take 3. The Re-enactor

Take three. The Re-enactor. Authenticity is an important concept for digital preservation.   A key feature of any digital archive over the preservation life-cycle of its documents and software objects is auditing and verification of authenticity, as in any archive. Access also involves authenticity, as any discussion of emulation or virtualization will bring up the question of fidelity to an historical experience of using software.

John Walker (of AutoDesk and Virtual Reality fame) created a workshop called Fourmilab to work on personal projects such as an on-line museum “celebrating” Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. This computer programming heritage work includes historical documents and a Java-based emulator of the Engine. Walker says, “Since we’re fortunate enough to live in a world where Babbage’s dream has been belatedly realised, albeit in silicon rather than brass, we can not only read about The Analytical Engine but experience it for ourselves.” The authenticity of this experience – whatever that means for a machine that never existed – is important to Walker. In a 4500-word essay titled, “Is the Emulator Authentic,” he tells us that, “In order to be useful, an emulator program must be authentic—it must faithfully replicate the behaviour of the machine it is emulating.” By extension, the authenticity of a preserved version of the computer game DOOM in a digital repository could be audited by verifying that it can properly run a DOOM demo file. The same is true for Microsoft Word and a historical document in the Word format. This is a machine-centered notion of authenticity; we used it in the second Preserving Virtual Worlds project as a solution to the significant properties problem for software. (Walker, “Introduction;” Walker, “Analytical Engine.”)

All well and good. However, I want to address a different authenticity. Rather than judging authenticity in terms of playback, I would like to ask what authenticity means for the experience of using software. Another way of putting this question is to ask what we are looking for in the re-enactment of historical software use. So we need to think about historical re-enactment.

I am not a historical re-enactor, at least not the kind you are thinking of. I have never participated in the live recreation or performance of a historical event. Since I have been playing historical simulations – a category of boardgames – for most of my life, perhaps you could say that I re-enact being a historical military officer by staring at maps and moving units around on them. It’s not the same thing as wearing period uniforms and living the life, however.

Anyway, I need a re-enactor. In his 1998 book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz described historical re-enactment in its relationship to lived heritage. (Horwitz) His participant-journalist reportage begins at a chance encounter with a group of “hard-core” Confederate re-enactors. Their conversation leads Horwitz on a year-long voyage through the American South. A featured character in Confederates in the Attic is the re-enactor Robert Lee Hodge, a waiter turned Confederate officer. He took Horwitz under his wing and provided basic training in re-enactment. Hodge even became a minor celebrity due to his role in the book.

Hodges teaches Horwitz the difference between hard-core and farby (i.e., more casual) re-enactment. He tells Horwitz about dieting to look sufficiently gaunt and malnourished, the basics of “bloating” to resemble a corpse on the battlefield, what to wear, what not to wear, what to eat, what not to eat, and so on. It’s remarkable how little time he spends on martial basics. One moment sticks out for me. During the night after a hard day of campaigning Horwitz finds himself in the authentic situation of being wet, cold and hungry. He lacks a blanket, so he is given basic instruction in the sleeping technique of the Confederate infantryman: “spooning.” According to the re-enactor Scott Cross, “Spooning is an old term for bundling up together in bed like spoons placed together in the silver chest.” (Horwitz) Lacking adequate bedding and exposed to the elements, soldiers bunched up to keep warm. So that’s what Horwitz does, not as an act of mimesis or performance per se, but in order to re-experience the reality of Civil War infantrymen.

It interested me that of all the re-enactment activities Horwitz put himself through, spooning reveals a deeper commitment to authenticity than any of the combat performances he describes. It’s uncomfortable and awkward, so requires dedication and persistence. Sleep becomes self-conscious, not just in order to stick with the activity, but because the point of it is to recapture a past experience of sleeping on the battlefield. Since greater numbers of participants are needed for re-enacting a battle than sleep, more farbs (the less dedicated re-enactors) show up and thus the general level of engagement declines. During staged battles, spectators, scripting, confusion and accidents all interfere with the experience. Immersion breaks whenever dead soldiers pop up on the command, “resurrect.” In other words, performance takes over primacy from the effort to re-experience. It is likely that many farbs dressed up for battle are content to find a hotel to sleep in.

Specific attention to the details of daily life might be a reflection of recent historical work that emphasizes social and cultural histories of the Civil War period, rather than combat histories. But that’s not my takeaway from the spooning re-enactors. Rather, it’s the standard of authenticity that goes beyond performance of a specific event (such as a battle) to include life experience as a whole. Horvitz recalled that,

Between gulps of coffee—which the men insisted on drinking from their own tin cups rather than our ceramic mugs—Cool and his comrades explained the distinction. Hardcores didn’t just dress up and shoot blanks. They sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time travel high, or what hardcores called a ‘period rush.’ (Horwitz, Loc. 153-157)

Stephen Gapps, an Australian curator, historian, and re-enactor has spoken of the “extraordinary lengths” re-enactors go to “acquire and animate the look and feel of history.” Hard-core is not just about marching, shooting and swordplay. I wonder what a “period rush” might be for the experience of playing Pitfall! in the mid-21st century. Shag rugs? Ambient New Wave radio? Caffeine-free cola? Will future re-enactors of historical software seek this level of experiential fidelity? Gapps, again: “Although reenactors invoke the standard of authenticity, they also understand that it is elusive – worth striving for, but never really attainable.” (Gapps 397)

Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience. I see some similarity here with the correspondence to lived historical experience in White’s striving for a discursive mimesis. Yet, like media archaeology, re-enactment puts performance above discourse, though it is the performance of humans rather than machines.

Playing Pitfalls

We now have three different ways to think about potential uses of historical software and born digital documentation. I will shift my historian’s hat to one side of my head now and slide up my curator’s cap. If we consider these takes as use cases, do they help us decide how to allocate resources to acquire, preserve, describe and provide access to digital collections?

In May 2013, the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) of the U.S. Library of Congress (henceforth: LC) held a conference called Preserving.exe. The agenda was to articulate the “problems and opportunities of software preservation.” In my contribution to the LC conference report issued a few months later, I described three “lures of software preservation.” (Lowood) These are potential pitfalls as we move from software collections to digital repositories and from there to programs of access to software collections. The second half of this paper will be an attempt to introduce the three lures of software preservation to the three takes on historical enactment.

  1. The Lure of the Screen

Let’s begin with the Lure of the Screen. This is the idea that what counts in digital media is what is delivered to the screen. This lure pops up in software preservation when we evaluate significant properties of software as surface properties (graphics, audio, haptics, etc).

This lure of the screen is related to what media studies scholars such as Nick Montfort, Mark Sample and Matt Kirschenbaum have dubbed (in various but related contexts) “screen essentialism.” If the significant properties of software are all surface properties, then our perception of interaction with software tells us all we need to know. We check graphics, audio, responses to our use of controllers, etc., and if they look and act as they should, we have succeeded in preserving an executable version of historical software. These properties are arguably the properties that designers consider as the focus of user interaction and they are the easiest to inspect and verify directly.

The second Preserving Virtual Worlds project was concerned primarily with identifying significant properties of interactive game software. On the basis of several case sets and interviews with developers and other stakeholders, we concluded that isolating surface properties, such as image colourspace as one example, while significant for other media such as static images, is not a particularly useful approach to take for game software. With interactive software, significance appears to be variable and contextual, as one would expect from a medium in which content is expressed through a mixture of design and play, procedurality and emergence. It is especially important that software abstraction levels are not “visible” on the surface of play. It is difficult if not impossible to monitor procedural aspects of game design and mechanics, programming and technology by inspecting properties expressed on the screen.

The preservation lifecycle for software is likely to include data migration. Access to migrated software will probably occur through emulation. How do we know when our experience of this software is affected by these practices? One answer is that we audit significant properties, and as we now know, it will be difficult to predict which characteristics are significant. An alternative or companion approach for auditing the operation of historical software is to verify the execution of data files. The integrity of the software can be evaluated by comparison to documented disk images or file signatures such as hashes or checksums. However, when data migration or delivery environments change the software or its execution environment, this method is inadequate. We must evaluate software performance. Instead of asking whether the software “looks right,” we can check if it runs verified data-sets that meet the specifications of the original software. Examples range from word processing documents to saved game and replay files. Of course, visual inspection of the content plays a role in verifying execution by the software engine; failure will not always be clearly indicated by crashes or error messages. Eliminating screen essentialism does not erase surface properties altogether.

The three takes compel us to think about the screen problem in different ways. First, the Historian is not troubled by screen essentialism. His construction of a narrative mimesis invokes a selection of source materials that may or may not involve close reading of personal gameplay, let alone focus on surface properties. On the other hand, The Re-enactor’s use of software might lead repositories to fret about what the user sees, hears and feels. It makes sense with this use case to think about the re-enactment as occurring at the interface. If a repository aims to deliver a re-enacted screen experience, it will need to delve deeply into questions of significant properties and their preservation.

Screen essentialism is also a potential problem for repositories that follow the path of Media Archaeology. It is unclear to me how a research site like the MAF would respond to digital preservation practices based on data migration and emulation. Can repositories meet the requirements of media archaeologists without making a commitment to preservation of working historical hardware to enable playback from original media? It’s not just that correspondence to surface characteristics is a significant property for media archaeologists. Nor is the Lure of the Screen a criticism of Media Archaelogy. I propose instead that it is a research problem. Ernst’s vision of a Multimedia Archive is based on the idea that media archaeology moves beyond playback to reveal mechanisms of counting. This machine operation clearly is not a surface characteristic. Ernst would argue, I think, that this counting is missed by an account of what is seen on the screen. So let’s assign the task of accounting for counting to the Media Archaeologist, which means showing us how abstraction layers in software below the surface can be revealed, audited and studied.

  1. The Lure of the Authentic Experience

I have already said quite a bit about authenticity. Let me explain now why I am sceptical about an authentic experience of historical software, and why this is an important problem for software collections.

Everyone in game or software studies knows about emulation. Emulation projects struggle to recreate an authentic experience of operating a piece of software such as playing a game. Authenticity here means that the use experience today is like it was. The Lure of the Authentic Experience tells digital repositories at minimum not to preserve software in a manner that would interfere with the production of such experiences. At maximum, repositories deliver authentic experiences, whether on-site or on-line. A tall order. In the minimum case, the repository provides software and collects hardware specifications, drivers or support programs. The documentation provides software and hardware specifications. Researchers use this documentation to reconstruct the historical look-and-feel of software to which they have access. In the maximum case, the repository designs and builds access environments. Using the software authentically would then probably mean a trip to the library or museum with historical or bespoke hardware. The reading room becomes the site of the experience.

I am not happy to debunk the Authentic Experience. Authenticity is a concept fraught not just with intellectual issues, but with registers ranging from nostalgia and fandom to immersion and fun. It is a minefield. The first problem is perhaps an academic point, but nonetheless important: Authenticity is always constructed. Whose lived experience counts as “authentic” and how has it been documented? Is the best source a developer’s design notes? The memory of someone who used the software when it was released? A marketing video? The researcher’s self-reflexive use in a library or museum? If a game was designed for kids in 1985, do you have to find a kid to play it in 2050? In the case of software with a long history, such as Breakout or Microsoft Word, how do we account for the fact that the software was used on a variety of platforms – do repositories have to account for all of them? For example, does the playing of DOOM “death match” require peer-to-peer networking on a local area network, a mouse-and-keyboard control configuration and a CRT display? There are documented cases of different configurations of hardware: track-balls, hacks that enabled multiplayer via TCPIP, monitors of various shapes and sizes, and so on. Which differences matter?

A second problem is that the Authentic Experience is not always that useful to the researcher, especially the researcher studying how historical software executes under the hood. The emulated version of a software program often compensates for its lack of authenticity by offering real-time information about system states and code execution. A trade-off for losing authenticity thus occurs when the emulator shows the underlying machine operation, the counting, if you will. What questions will historians of technology, practitioners of code studies or game scholars ask about historical software? I suspect that many researchers will be as interested in how the software works as in a personal experience deemed authentic.   As for more casual appreciation, the Guggenheim’s Seeing Double exhibition and Margaret Hedstrom’s studies of emulation suggest that exhibition visitors actually prefer reworked or updated experiences of historical software. (Hedstrom, Lee, et al.; Jones)

This is not to say that original artefacts – both physical and “virtual” – will not be a necessary part of the research process. Access to original technology provides evidence regarding its constraints and affordances. I put this to you not as a “one size fits all” decision but as an area of institutional choice based on objectives and resources.

The Re-enactor, of course, is deeply committed to the Authentic Experience. If all we offer is emulation, what do we say to him, besides “sorry.” Few digital repositories will be preoccupied with delivering authentic experiences as part of their core activity. The majority are likely to consider a better use of limited resources to be ensuring that validated software artefacts and contextual information are available on a case-by-case basis to researchers who do the work of re-enactment. Re-enactors will make use of documentation. Horwitz credits Robert Lee Hodge with an enormous amount of research time spent at the National Archives and Library of Congress. Many hours of research with photographs and documents stand behind his re-enactments. In short, repositories should let re-enactors be the re-enactors.

Consider this scenario for software re-enactment. You are playing an Atari VCS game with the open-source Stella emulator. It bothers you that viewing the game on your LCD display differs from the experience with a 1980s-era television set. You are motivated by this realization to contribute code to the Stella project for emulating a historical display. It is theoretically possible that you could assemble everything needed to create an experience that satisfies you – an old television, adapters, an original VCS, the software, etc. (Let’s not worry about the shag rug and the lava lamp.) You can create this personal experience on your own, then write code that matches it. My question: Is the result less “authentic” if you relied on historical documentation such as video, screenshots, technical specifications, and other evidence available in a repository to describe the original experience? My point is that repositories can cooperatively support research by re-enactors who create their version of the experience. Digital repositories should consider the Authentic Experience as more of a research problem than a repository problem.

  1. The Lure of the Executable

The Lure of the Executable evaluates software preservation in terms of success at building collections of software that can be executed on-demand by researchers.

Why do we collect historical software? Of course, the reason is that computers, software, and digital data have had a profound impact on virtually every aspect of recent history. What should we collect? David Bearman’s answer in 1987 was the “software archive.” He distinguished this archive from what I will call the software library. The archive assembles documentation; the library provides historical software. The archive was a popular choice in the early days. Margaret Hedstrom reported that attendees at the 1990 Arden Conference on the Preservation of Microcomputer Software “debated whether it was necessary to preserve software itself in order to provide a sense of ‘touch and feel’ or whether the history of software development could be documented with more traditional records.” (Hedstrom and Bearman) In 2002, the Smithsonian’s David Allison wrote about collecting historical software in museums that, “supporting materials are often more valuable for historical study than code itself. They provide contextual information that is critical to evaluating the historical significance of the software products.” He concluded that operating software is not a high priority for historical museums. (Allison 263-65; cf. Shustek)

Again, institutional resources are not as limitless as the things we would like to do with software. Curators must prioritize among collections and services. The choice between software archive and library is not strictly binary, but choices still must be made.

I spend quite a bit of my professional life in software preservation projects. The end-product of these projects is at least in part the library of executable historical software. I understand the Lure of the Executable and the reasons that compel digital repositories to build collections of verified historical software that can be executed on-demand by researchers. This is the Holy Grail of digital curation with respect to software history. What could possibly be wrong with this mission, if it can be executed?   As I have argued on other occasions there are several problems to consider. Let me give you two. The first is that software does not tell the user very much about how it has previously been used. In the best case, application software in its original use environment might display a record of files created by previous users, such as a list of recently opened files found in many productivity titles like Microsoft Office. The more typical situation is that software is freshly installed from data files in the repository and thus completely lacks information about its biography, for want of a better term.

The second, related problem is fundamental. Documentation that is a prerequisite for historical studies of software is rarely located in software. It is more accurate to say that this documentation surrounds software in development archives (including source code) and records of use and reception. It is important to understand that this is not just a problem for historical research. Documentation is also a problem for repositories. If contextual information such as software dependencies or descriptions of relationships among objects is not available to the repository and all the retired software engineers who knew the software inside-and-out are gone – it may be impossible to get old software to run.

Historians, of course, will usually be satisfied with the Archive. Given limited resources, is it reasonable to expect that the institutions responsible for historical collections of documentation will be able to reconcile such traditional uses with other methods of understanding historical computing systems? The Re-enactor will want to run software, and the Media Archaeologist will not just want access to a software library, but to original media and hardware in working order. These are tall orders for institutional repositories such as libraries and archives, though possibly a better fit to the museum or digital history centre.

In Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence, James Newman is not optimistic about software preservation and he describes how the marketing of software has in some ways made this a near impossibility. He is not as pessimistic about video game history, however. In a section of his book provocatively called “Let Videogames Die,” he argues that a documentary approach to gameplay might be a more pragmatic enterprise than the effort to preserve playable games. He sees this as a “shift away from conceiving of play as the outcome of preservation to a position that acknowledges play as an indivisible part of the object of preservation.” (Newman 160) In other words, what happens when we record contemporary use of software to create historical documentation of that use? Does this activity potentially reduce the need for services that provide for use at any given time in the future? This strikes me as a plausible historical use case, but not one for re-enactment or media archaeology.

Software archives or software libraries? That is the question. Is it nobler to collect documentation or to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous software installations? The case for documentation is strong. The consensus among library and museum curators (including myself) is almost certainly that documents from source code to screenshots are a clear win for historical studies of software. Historians, however, will not be the only visitors to the archive. But there are other reasons to collect documentation. One of the most important reasons, which I briefly noted above, is that software preservation requires such documentation. In other words, successful software preservation activities are dependent upon technical, contextual and rights documentation. And of course, documents tell re-enactors how software was used and can help media archaeologists figure out what their machines are showing or telling them. But does documentation replace the software library? Is it sufficient to build archives of software history without libraries of historical software? As we have seen, this question was raised nearly forty years ago and remains relevant today. My wish is that this question of the relationship between documentation and software as key components of digital heritage work stir conversation among librarians, historians, archivists and museum curators. This conversation must consider that there is likely to be a broad palette of use cases such as the historian, media archaeologist and re-enactor, as well as many others not mentioned here. It is unlikely that any one institution can respond to every one of these use cases. Instead, the more likely result is a network of participating repositories, each of which will define priorities and allocate resources according to both their specific institutional contexts and an informed understanding of the capabilities of partner institutions.

 

References

Allison, David K. “Preserving Software in History Museums: A Material Culture Approach. Ed. Ulf Hashagen, Reinhard Keil-Slawik and Arthur L. Norberg. History of Computing: Software Issues. Berlin: Springer, 2002. 263-272.

Bearman, David. Collecting Software: A New Challenge for Archives and Museums. Archival Informatics Technical Report #2 (Spring 1987).

— “What Are/Is Informatics? And Especially, What/Who is Archives & Museum Informatics?” Archival Informatics Newsletter 1:1 (Spring 1987): 8.

Cross, Scott. “The Art of Spooning.” Atlantic Guard Soldiers’ Aid Society. 13 July 2016. Web. http://www.agsas.org/howto/outdoor/art_of_spooning.shtml. Originally published in The Company Wag 2, no. 1 (April 1989).

Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. (Minneapolis: Univ. Minnesota Press, 2012). Kindle edition.

Gapps, Stephen. “Mobile monuments: A view of historical reenactment and authenticity from inside the costume cupboard of history.” Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice, 13:3 (2009): 395-409.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., Christopher A. Lee, Judith S. Olson and Clifford A. Lampe, “‘The Old Version Flickers More’: Digital Preservation from the User’s Perspective.” The American Archivist, 69: 1 (Spring – Summer 2006): 159-187.

Hedstrom, Margaret L., and David Bearman, “Preservation of Microcomputer Software: A Symposium,” Archives and Museum Informatics 4:1 (Spring 1990): 10.

Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. Kindle Edition.

Jones, Caitlin. “Seeing Double: Emulation in Theory and Practice. The Erl King Study.” Paper presented to the Electronic Media Group, 14 June 2004. Electronic Media Group. Web. http://cool.conservation-us.org/coolaic/sg/emg/library/pdf/jones/Jones-EMG2004.pdf

Lowood, Henry. “The Lures of Software Preservation.” Preserving.exe: Toward a National Strategy for Software Preservation (October 2013): 4-11. Web. http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/multimedia/documents/PreservingEXE_report_final101813.pdf

Media Archaeological Fundus. Web. 21 Jan. 2016. http://www.medienwissenschaft.hu-berlin.de/medientheorien/fundus/media-archaeological-fundus

Newman, James. Best Before: Videogames, Supersession and Obsolescence. London: Routledge, 2012.

Owens, Trevor. “Archives, Materiality and the ‘Agency of the Machine’: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst.” The Signal: Digital Preservation. Web. 8 February 2013. http://blogs.loc.gov/digitalpreservation/2013/02/archives-materiality-and-agency-of-the-machine-an-interview-with-wolfgang-ernst/

“Preserving Computer-Related Source Materials.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 1 (Jan.-March 1980): 4-6.

Shustek, Len. “What Should We Collect to Preserve the History of Software?” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 28 (Oct.-Dec. 2006): 110-12.

Walker, John. “Introduction” to The Analytical Engine: The First Computer.” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/

— “The Analytical Engine: Is the Emulator Authentic?,” Fourmilab, 21 March 2016. Web. http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/authentic.html

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1987.

Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000.

— “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory.” In: History and Theory 23: 1 (Feb. 1984): 1-33.

 

Bio

Henry Lowood is Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and for Film & Media Collections at Stanford University. He has led the How They Got Game project at Stanford University since 2000 and is the co-editor of The Machinima Reader and Debugging Game History, both published by MIT Press. Contact: lowood@stanford.edu

 

1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy  –  Nathan Smith

Abstract: In this article, I marry star studies to haptic theory in order to explore the complex meanings of space and stardom in 1970s disaster films. I use the The Poseidon Adventure [1972] as my case study, a film often cited as one best epitomising the genre. I examine the way The Poseidon Adventure uses the physical space of the ship at the centre of the film to heighten the chaos of the sinking ship, and mediate the way we experience the (old and new) stars on screen. I consider how in disaster films we see great Hollywood stars battered, bruised, and beaten on screen and argue this allegorically signals a generic and cultural transition in American cinema, with old Hollywood film practices shed in favour of the politics and energies of New Hollywood. This paper offers insight into the underlying star politics of 1970s disaster films, which are often mediated only through the spectacle they provide audiences.

Figure 1. An original advertisement for The Towering Inferno where the two male stars are separated by the fiery burning tower in the centre, while their co-stars line the bottom of the poster.

One of the defining film genres of the 1970s was the disaster film. Depicting scenes of mass carnage, the disaster film came to prominence in the 1970s in a wave of films staging shipwrecks and airplane crashes, joined by a band of new and old Hollywood stars facing these dangers on screen (Keane 2001 2). Critically and commercially, the most successful films disaster films of the 1970s were: Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974), all of which lead to the popularity of other films or franchises including Earthquake (1974), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and When Time Ran Out (1980) (ibid. 3). While critical scholarship on the genre has mostly centred on how disaster films were widely successful and critically lauded because of the way they allegorised America’s political, social, and economic plights on screen, many of these films actually instantiate other cinematic concerns. There is actually a dearth of scholarship that moves beyond the commercial and political currency of these disaster films.

Although the spectacles themselves in these disaster films are central, this essay assesses the way the disaster film utilises space on screen, in attempt to legitimise to their importance as a cinematic genre. Disaster films actively integrate discourses of cinema as travel experience and engage with the politics of star system to offer complex commentaries on cinema’s haptic meaning and the Hollywood star culture. I argue for the importance of combining the cultural and semiotic language of the star system with haptic theory in order to demonstrate the potential of extending the meanings of disaster films. It is only by marrying the two seemingly unrelated discourse that we can garner the more complex tensions that motivates so many audiences to see and engage with disaster films.

Stars in the 1970s disaster film have an allegorical and cultural function in the literal spaces contained within the text. Films like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno embody allegorical meanings that comment on the death of the Hollywood star system and the rise of “New Hollywood” cinema (Roddick 1980 248).[i] I argue the disaster film engages in discourses on travelling and architecture in an effort to not only heighten the spectacle of its disasters, but also to create its own reference points about cinema and physical space on screen, in particular spaces for travelling (the ship, the plane, and airports). By reconsidering the haptic and star meanings of the disaster genre – examined centrally through The Poseidon Adventure here – the affects and emotional meanings of cinema and architecture can be understood away from the ocular-centricism that has dominated critical discourse on cinema for decades (Jay 1988 310).

Cinema has long been cloaked in its own aesthetic, critical, and discursive aura that has privileged the visual experience over the haptic pleasure it provides viewers (see Mulvey 1975; Sontag 1977; Deleuze 1983; Jay 1988; Thomas 2001). In recent years there has been a growing scholarly and artistic (recuperative) interest in resurrecting the intersections cinema makes with architecture. While these intersections have a longer tradition than the twenty-first century, it is only in the last decade that we have seen more explicit interventions – and marriages – between these two discourses. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), American scholar Giuliana Bruno constructs an “atlas” of philosophical, affective, and psycho-geographic responses to art, cinema, and architecture, coalescing all in an attempt to demonstrate how “site” (physical space) and “sight” (visual experience) are inherently married to each other. Likewise, The Architecture of the Image (2008), film scholar Juhani Pallasmaa examines how architecture – like cinema – works around ideas of time, space, and movement, and similar to Bruno, attempts to collapse the distinction between “sites” and “sights” in order to emphasise the potency of haptic embodiment.

These recent works highlight the emerging discourse of haptics and cinema, privileging the physical responses to architecture and cinema alike while de-emphasising the long-standing ocular approach to the world of film. Pallasmaa makes the point that every film contains an image of an architectural space (2008 4). From this, we can see an inherent relationship begin to operate between the two (ibid. 5). Whether it is a building, a room, or even specifically Central Park in New York City, film engages in the poetics and politics of architecture: they define space, grid and demarcate a physical area, while centring narrative meanings and affects around this site.[ii] Indeed disaster films – which are addressed in more depth later – are sound examples to demonstrate the potency of haptics – they are characterised by physical movement on screen. Whether it is a moving plane (the Airport series), a sinking ship (The Poseidon Adventure), or the chaotic physical destruction of Los Angeles (in Earthquake), they offer viewers a type of journey experience.

Many of these writers on haptics draw on Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) in which Benjamin considers the notions of authenticity and originality in art. In his essay, Benjamin writes on the connections between cinema and architecture, arguing that on the contrary both are “tactile arts” (1936 225). While cinema seemingly stresses its visuality and architecture emphasises its physicality, both cinema and architectural space generate and provide kinesthetic experiences to viewers and participants. Indeed vision is just as important to haptics as haptics is to film. As Kester Tauttenbury writes,

Architecture exists, like cinema, in the dimension of time and movement. One conceives and reads a building in terms of sequences. To erect a building is to predict and seek effects of contrast and linkage through which one passes . . . In the continuous shot/sequence that a building is, the architect works with cuts and edits, framings and openings (1994 35).

By re-evaluating architecture in cinematic terms – and vice-versa by re-evaluating cinema in architectural terms – the two artforms imply a kinesthetic way of experiencing space. This intersection functions importantly in The Poseidon Adventure by problematising the architecture of stairs. Poseidon is concerned with the idea of “Hell Upside Down”, or an overturned cruise ship that forces its passengers to climb “up” to the bottom of the ship in order to escape. Staircases are an excellent example of how an architectural site has been utilised repeatedly by cinema to mark meaning, divide spaces, and represent political and familial hierarchies. For Peter Wollen, “The staircase is the symbolic spine of the house” (1996 15). Here is an instance where architecture and cinema unite. The staircases are places of movement and transition that are directly experienced by the body. The stairs in cinema stage political undertones of the private/public and unseen/seen dichotomy: either one can exit to a private space or enter a social public place through a set of stairs.

The Poseidon Adventure is driven by an intersection of architectural space and cinema. The film is about the “S.S. Poseidon” cruise ship making its last journey from New York City to Athens. On New Year’s Eve, however, the ship is overturned by an enormous tsunami caused by an underground earthquake (Keane 2006 72). The film is a metaphor for this cultural and cinematic conflation with architecture and stardom. Symbolically – because the ship is overturned – the notion of this staircase is inverted in Poseidon. Hence the characters do not “climb up” the ship but “climb downwards” to the ship’s haul.

A major turning point in the narrative is when one of the surviving co-captains tells all the passengers to stay where they are (in the central dining room, near the top deck of the ship) since they are closer to the top deck of the ship. Reverent Scott (Gene Hackman) pleads with them not to listen to the co-captain and instead them that they must go “up” (down) to reach the ship’s haul, since any attempt to escape needs to be made closer to the water’s surface. Although allowing a means for escape for a select few, this inversion figuratively reverses the hierarchies of title and power on the ship and placing a small group of the passengers in charge of the ship, as the co-captain drowns (and, by extension, allows others to drown) in the sinking vessel. I would push this analogy further, arguing how this inversion demonstrates the allegory of a transition of Old Hollywood values into that of New Hollywood. Given that it is the younger Gene Hackman – the then star of the drug-themed crime film The French Connection – who leads the fight for survival (leaving the mostly-older ship-goers to drown), the allegorical meaning is rich. Indeed this moment demonstrates how Poseidon privileges its younger stars and begins to kill off its older stars, seen frequently in other 1970s disaster films (see Dyer 1975, 1979).

poseidonThe “guiding” cinematic experience of these disaster films – in particular Poseidon – is the way it exploits cinema as a travel experience. In Atlas of Emotion (2002), Bruno writes that “film is affected by a real travel bug” and that the “film ‘viewer’ is a practioner of viewing space – a tourist” (76, 61). Bruno asserts cinema has always been preoccupied with the travel experience, signalling how early cinema itself was composed on narratives of travelling to the moon (Goerges Melies’s A Trip to the Moon 1902), to outer space (Georges Melies’s The Impossible Voyage 1904), or train travel (Lumiere Brothers’ The Arrival of the Mail Train 1896).This ongoing preoccupation with not only capturing travel movement (trains, travel) onto the moving image itself but also with providing viewers with the experience of “statically travelling” is what informs the terms of references of the disaster genre (Bruno 2002 7). Given the socio-cultural climate these films were made in – with the rising popularity of the transgressive styles of New Hollywood and their interest in new filmmaking techniques and strategies – the disaster film drew on these early cinematic discourses on travel as a means to rework their cinematic and cultural meanings. Here they are reframed in light of the emerging 1970s counterculture and anti-establishment politics (Wood 2003). By this, the template of cinema as traveling/traveling as cinema began to be manipulated and exploited in texts like Poseidon and the Airport series through the presence old Hollywood stars alongside new ones.

The poetics embedded within the moving space (ship, aeroplane, blimp, bus, rollercoasters, all of which were vehicles utilised in one disaster film or another) are what serve as the central cultural, political, and cinematic meanings that the disaster film seeks to problematise. As Bruno notes, “There is a mobile dynamics involved in the act of viewing films, even is the spectators is seemingly static. The (im)mobile spectator moves across an imaginary path, traversing multiple sites and times” (2002 55). What Bruno addresses is the way film negotiates physical spaces on screen viewers can vicariously experience, while also emphasising the staticity and immobility of the viewer in their seat all at once. If we consider Poseidon – often cited as the cinematic epitome of the disaster film – the captain calls the ship in the film “a hotel with a stern and boor stuck on each end” (Roddick 1980 246). The emphasis is on the ship as a site/sight of luxury, relaxation, and pleasure. The irony in this comment, as we see later, is that indeed it is the fact that the Poseidon is not a hotel that causes it to sink – it is a ship. This comment literalises the paradox Bruno address: the hotel does not move; a ship does. These series of meanings evoke the cultural and connotative meaning that representing travel on screen embodies in the disaster genre.

The moving space – whether it is encaged within the narrative of Poseidon Adventure or in the moving airplane in the Airport series – represents an intervention in the spatial and haptic experience of cinema. In terms of narrative, the site/sight of the exploded airplane, the sinking ship, or the burning hotel makes the spatial environment contained within the film dangerous, claustrophobic, and unsafe. Bruno observes, “Film inherits the possibility of such a spectorial voyage from the architectural field, for the person who wanders through a building or site also absorbs and connects visual spaces … In this sense, the consumer of architectural (viewing) space is the prototype of the film spectator” (2002 55). Bruno’s dialogue between an architectural space and the physical space controlled by the film instantiate many of the same haptic experiences and her re-prioritisation of the affective (as opposed to the visual) qualities of cinema is what I utilise in my analysis here. The disaster film itself – in this case, Poseidon – although preoccupied with spectacle, equally engages with problematising the relationship between physical space on screen and the cultural status and capital of its old Hollywood stars.

What makes the disaster film so palpable as a cinematic experience is the way the old Hollywood stars of the film are battered, bruised, and ultimately killed off (see Dixon 1999, Feil 2005). Richard Dyer writes that while a star is a reflection of the dominant social and political ideologies, they also are symptomatic of the “fissures” in these hegemonic ideologies and have the potential to be read in profoundly different ways (1979 3). I argue two central points on stars within the disaster genre: the death of the stars in the disaster genre allegorically comments on the decline of the Hollywood studio system which had dominated America film-making since the 1930s; and second, the stars act as stand-in for the audiences to vicariously experience the wreck and ruin wrought by the destruction of the travel experiences. Bruno argues this when she writes that we must move from “optical to haptic” (2002 6). This approach figures importantly in my reconsideration of the disaster film. My contention is that Poseidon kills off its former Hollywood greats as a figurative attempt to signal the death of the Hollywood studio and star system, and legitimise the emerging tides in Hollywood cinema.

Therefore, the cultural, cinematic, and semiotic meaning of the star functions importantly in the 1970s disaster film. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno are major films that demonstrate the intersection of spatial destruction and the harm this carnage reaps on its Hollywood stars. The original advertisements for both films highlight how the stars are the central identifying features for mediating the experience of the film. The posters also imply the internal disasters within the narrative threaten the stability and indeed safety of these stars within the confines of the story. On a poster for The Towering Inferno (Figure 1), the star image of the actors is central with Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as the male leads battling not only each other (and their masculine bravodo) but to attempting to control the blazing skyscraper. The poster demonstrates the intersection of destroying the stars through floods, fire, chaos, and death. This advertisement also has a row of other Hollywood stars that appear in the film – such as William Holden alongside Faye Dunaway – and although these are ostensibly the supporting cast of the film, nevertheless, they too are presumably encaged within the wrath of the fiery tower. The original movie poster for Poseidon (Figure 2) evokes a sense of claustrophobia with its stars bordering a drawing of waves of water overflowing a ballroom. Called “Hell, Upside Down”, the graphic is engulfed with seawaters. The poster encourages viewers to believe that not all the stars of the film will be saved by narrative end. These advertising meta-texts embody the important formation these films bridge between the collapsing of space and the destruction of the star.

To demonstrate this transition, I examine Shelley Winters’ role in Poseidon. The most striking physical feature of Winters’ performance as Mrs Rosenburg is her overweight and bulging body. Winters purposely gained weight for the role and insisted that she do all her own stunts (Keane 2006 76). A successful supporting actress throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Winters’ re-emergence in this film allegorically aligns itself with the transition of Old Hollywood to New Hollywood.[iii] With the rise of more countercultural subjects and constructed around less bureaucratic institutions such as film studios, New Hollywood sought to dislocate the institutionalisation of films with the rigid studio structure (Berliner 2010 62). Winters, who embodies these cultural, star, and cinematic ties to the studio system, is forced in Poseidon to undergo a gruelling and exhausting escape that she is truly not capable of. Symbolically, her bulging and overweight body is suggestive of the hedonism and profits of Old Hollywood that is no longer able to meet the challenges of cinema of the 1970s. Winters’s Mrs Rosenburg is a figure of comic relief as the carnivalesque quality of her squatting, falling, and struggling index her weight and the fact this obese figure is the great Shelley Winters – or “that fat old cow” as another character calls her. Therefore, Winters – like Jennifer Jones’s character in The Towering Inferno – metonymically acts as a figure of the old studio system.[iv] Both Jones and Winters not only signal the star system but also are utilised by both films to heighten the danger, destruction, and claustrophobia nature of these restrictive and deathly spaces on screen (Yacowar 1977).

The disaster film “must be consider[ed] as a single group” and as part of “a long tradition of screen catastrophe”, fitting in with traditions of cinema representing spectacles on screen to heighten their haptic value (Roddick 1980 244). I argue disaster films declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s because they became an overused template that could not meet the demands of the changing cultural landscape. However, the template resurfaced in other different generic arenas such as the sci-fi action (The Terminator [1984], Die Hard [1988]), while being altered in the 1990s with less stars (Twister [1996]), or simply remade in the 2000s (Poseidon [2006]). Unlike the original 1970s disaster films, however, these later generic templates are less concerned with an ensemble of stars and are instead driven more by special effects (Keane 2006 101). As with the changes in cultural demands, the later series of films with disaster as a main narrative and thematic pull did no need to alter the star status or star value of their actors unlike the 1970s series of films – they were the reference points with which to exploit and parody the star to batter and bruise them in the film.

In this way, the disaster films of the 1970s instantiate many more complex and important cultural and cinematic meanings than existing scholarship suggests. Indeed, while the literature on the disaster film has mostly considered the financial, aesthetic, or commercial value of these films, this essay has privileged the star iconography and haptic meanings of these films to revise their cultural and cinematic value. Although this essay has only concentrated only on The Poseidon Adventure, this film nevertheless embodies many of the tropes of the disaster film, having been cited as the “epitome of the genre” (Roddick 1980 246). The disaster film marries the concerns of architecture with the haptic meanings of cinema, utilising space as a means to comment on the status of stars in the 1970s cultural milieu. Given the rise of scholarship examining the haptic experience of cinema, reconsidering bodies of cinema that have only be considering for their visual value has immense importance in understanding and legitimising some of the more meaningful concerns these films embody. This essay has explored the growing scholarship considering the physical responses cinema can provide spectators while also revising the dominant interpretations of the disaster film, arguing that in particular The Poseidon Adventure draws on histories of film as a travel experience. Ultimately, in reprioritising the spatial and star elements in films like The Poseidon Adventure, the haptic and affective experiences can be more palpably felt.

 

WORKS CITED

 

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press,1994.

Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 217-252.

Berliner, Todd. Hollywood Incoherent: Narration in Seventies Cinema. Austin:University of Texas, 2010.

Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film. New   York: Verso, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and     Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Dixon, W. W. Disaster and Memory: Celebrity Culture and the Crisis of Hollywood          Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Dyer, Richard. ‘American Cinema in the ’70s: The Towering Inferno.’ Movie 21   (1975): 30-3.

—— Stars. London: British Film Institute, 2008.

Elsaesser, Thomas & Hagener, Malte. Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses. London: Routledge, 2009.

Feil, Ken. Dying For A Laugh: Disaster Movies and the Camp Imagination. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005.

Jay, Martin. ‘The Rise of Hermeneutics and the Crisis of Ocularcentrism.’ Poetics Today 9:2 (1988): 307-326.

Keane, Stephen. Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe. London: Short Cuts, 2006.

Mulvey, Laura. ‘Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema.’ Screen 16:3 (1975): 6-18.

Roddick, Nicholas. ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies.’Performance and Politics in Popular Drama: Aspects of Popular Entertainment in Theatre, Film, and Television 1800-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980. 243-269.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Picador, 1977.

Tauttenberry, Kester. ‘Echo and Narcissus.’ Architecture and Film (Architectural Design). Ed. Maggie Toy. London: Academy Press, 1994. 20-38.

Thomas, Deborah. Reading Hollywood: Spaces and Meanings in American Film. London: Short Cuts, 2001.

Wollen, Peter. ‘Architecture and Cinema: Places and Non-Places.’ Rakennustaiteen Seura 4 (1996): 10-29.

Wood, Robin. Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan … and Beyond. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Yacowar, M. ‘The Bug in the Rug: Notes on the Disaster Genre.’ Film Genre: Theory and Criticism. Ed. B. K. Grant. London: Scarecrow Press, 1977. 90- 107.

 

FILMOGRAPHY

Airport. Dir. George Seaton. Universal Pictures. 1970.

Airport 1975. Dir. Jack Smight. Universal Pictures. 1974.

Airport 1977. Dir. Jerry Jameson. Universal Pictures. 1977.

The Arrival of the Mail Train. Dir. Auguste & Louis Lumiere. Lumiere. 1896.

Die Hard. Dir. John McTiernan. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1988.

Earthquake. Dir. Mark Robson. Universal Pictures. 1974.

The Impossible Voyage. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1904.

Poseidon. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Warner Brothers. 2006.

The Poseidon Adventure. Dir. Ronald Neame. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1972.

Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. Orion Pictures. 1984.

The Towering Inferno. Dir. John Guillerman. Twentieth-Century Fox. 1974.

A Trip to the Moon. Dir. Georges Melies. Star Film Company. 1902.

Twister. Dir. Jan de Bont. Warner Brothers. 1996.

When Time Ran Out. Dir. James Goldstone. Warner Brothers. 1980.

 

Notes

[i] “New Hollywood” refers to a period in the late-1960s and early 1970s when a wave of new American directors began producing films that moved against the classic Hollywood cinema grain. New Hollywood films, such as Bonnie & Clyde (1967) and The French Connection (1971), resisted traditional Hollywood narrative techniques, used grittier film methods, and often valorised the anti-hero at the centre of the story (Berliner 2010 51).

[ii] It is beyond the scope of this paper but also see The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard [Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958] for a comprehensive rumination on the poetics and subjective meanings invested in physical spaces.

[iii] Winters was nominated for multiple Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress, winning for her roles in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and A Patch of Blue (1965). In most of her film work (like A Place in the Sun [1951] and Lolita [1962]), Winters was often sidelined to a supporting role, with her characters later killed from the narrative. Her roles in the aforementioned films see her play a very emotional, sometimes hysterical female character. In A Place in the Sun and Lolita she is convinced that her male partner is cheating on her. (Which, in fact, prove correct in both films.)

 

Bio: Nathan Smith is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne specialising in queer and star studies. He is also a freelance culture writer whose work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and Salon.

 

When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War I – Heather L. Robinson

Abstract:

Claire Adams Mackinnon and her contributions to the war effort 100 years ago are largely forgotten. The product of two Canadian military families, she put aside her burgeoning film career when war broke out to train and work as a nurse before returning to the silent screen. This article examines available evidence to reconstruct this period of her career (1914-1919), encompassing her nursing experience, her role in a fundraising drive for the US Red Cross, and her starring role in a government sexual hygiene campaign, which ignited one of the first censorship storms of the early film industry. I will argue that the choices Adams made reflect not only a determination to aid the war effort, but also place her at the vanguard of the women’s movement during the volatile years of the mid-1910s. This successful actress, who spent the second half of her life in Melbourne and regional Victoria, has largely been forgotten by film history. However, by placing this early period of her work within a firm historical context, one dominated by the fight for women’s suffrage, sex education and the First World War, we gain an appreciation of her significance within the early film industry and the origins of her ongoing community service.

 

Introduction:

For anyone with a passing interest in silent film history, Claire Adams Mackinnon is an intriguing transnational figure. A British subject for much of her life, she was born in Canada to an English father in 1896. A singer and an actress, on both stage and screen, she was a child performer using her real name “Beryl” Adams before gaining success as a motion picture actress in New York. As a teenager in early Thomas Edison productions she was known first as “Clara” then “Peggy” Adams before publically assuming her family pet name “Claire” in 1918. In 1920 Adams moved to Los Angeles and enjoyed an eight-year Hollywood career. In 1931 she became an American citizen prior to spending the last forty years of her life as an Australian.[1] Today, however, she remains largely unknown, despite appearing in some of the silent era’s most influential, popular and profitable films alongside some of the best-known artists and producers of the era.

If Adams is remembered at all it is within select circles in Victoria, Australia. Following the death of her first husband, Adams enjoyed a whirlwind courtship and marriage to Donald Scobie Mackinnon, the scion of a Melbourne legal and horseracing family. Together they reinvented the Western District homestead Mooramong, creating a jazz age delight redolent of the Hollywood Hills lifestyle she had left behind. Now in the hands of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Mooramong remains defiantly anachronistic in a district better known for its bluestone piles and weatherboard restraint, a monument to a much-loved couple reflecting their sophisticated tastes and cosmopolitan life experiences. Mrs Mackinnon’s career is reduced to a prelude to her second marriage, like a folly of youth indulged before her adult life began.

Figure 1: Mooramong homestead, Skipton, Victoria. Image used courtesy of National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

Figure 1: Mooramong homestead, Skipton, Victoria. Image used courtesy of National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

An intensely private person throughout her life, Adams was enigmatic from her earliest interviews and has left little evidence to enable a simple or personal interpretation of her career.[2] Unlike many of her more famous contemporaries, she was not a movie star created by a studio publicity department: she was an experienced working actress, appearing across genres for a number of companies and eschewing the celebrity lifestyle. This independent approach resulted in a comparatively low public profile.[3] Nor was Adams in Hollywood when the studios began to construct their historical legacies. As such, she appears infrequently as a footnote in popular and scholarly accounts of the silent era, including the one written by her first husband, Benjamin B Hampton.[4] Eminent film scholars welcomed Hampton’s text as an authoritative account of the history of the early film industry.[5] If even her husband did not think she warranted more than an image caption, one could easily conclude that Adams was not terribly significant. However, as Lesley Speed suggests, Adams’s career is significant not only for the continuity of her workload, but for the time in which she was active, “spanning a period of major changes in the American film industry, including the transition from short films to feature-length productions, the industry’s relocation from the East coast to Los Angeles, the establishment of the star system and the formation of vertically-integrated major studios” (Speed 2015, 4).

Like the majority of women who dominated the ranks of the early motion picture industry, Adams has fallen through the gaps of film history’s indeterminacy.[6] However, as more scholars analyse the period and primary sources become more accessible, we are able to reconstruct a more accurate representation of the industry, the individuals and the era during which Adams was active, and the picture that emerges is one dominated by the women’s movement. Women made up at least 83% of the cinema audience at a time “when women’s voices were particularly valued” (Stamp 2012, 6). Women’s history scholars note that from the late 1910s “young women could not help but be influenced by the currents of the age” (Banner 1974, 151). As a young woman in New York City during the First World War, Adams was surrounded by the opportunities, debates and challenges confronting the first generation of young women free to pursue a career as a choice rather than a necessity. She was amongst the target audience for orators and activists such as Margaret Sanger promoting the birth control movement and key figures campaigning for Women’s Suffrage, which would not pass into legislation until 1920. We have no evidence that Claire Adams identified herself as an early feminist. However, through her career choices, she reflects the values and ideologies synonymous with the movement, a cultural catalyst which grew in parallel with the development of the motion picture industry.

By mainly focussing on two of her early feature films, this article will demonstrate that Claire Adams deserves recognition not only as a well-respected, adventurous and greatly admired actress of her day, but also as a young woman navigating the perils and opportunities opening up for women in the early twentieth century. She is also a representative of the forgotten contributions of countless women working in early cinema. I will examine her work of one hundred years ago, when she stepped away from Edison Studios and the early motion picture industry to train as a nurse, only to return to motion pictures in support of the troops heading off to the battlefields of Europe. By placing these early works within a firm historical context we will gain a more complete understanding of the scale and intersections of her careers, as both nurse and actress, her role at the vanguard of contentious social issues of the mid 1910s and her active participation in landmark moments of the early American film industry.

Real Life Drama

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Claire Adams worked as a nurse for the Red Cross during World War I (Maxwell, 2000). This description conjures evocative images of mud and blood, battlefields and field hospitals. What drove an aspiring young actress away from the movie studio and into a hospital theatre? What data is available to determine how much official nursing she contributed to the war effort one hundred years ago?

Figure 2: Figure 2. A young ‘Clara’ Adams (centre) with co-stars from left: Marion Weeks, Yale Boss, Elsie McLeod and Gertrude McCoy in The Office Boy’s Birthday (Charles M. Seay, 1913). From Kinetogram, 1 January 1913. Source: Seaver Centre for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Figure 2:  A young ‘Clara’ Adams (centre) with co-stars from left: Marion Weeks, Yale Boss, Elsie McLeod and Gertrude McCoy in The Office Boy’s Birthday (Charles M. Seay, 1913). From Kinetogram, 1 January 1913. Source: Seaver Centre for Western History Research, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

In 1912, Adams began performing for Thomas Edison’s film production company under the stage name “Clara” Adams and appeared in 17 motion picture shorts in two years (Internet Movie Database, 2015). At the outbreak of war in 1914, she was almost 18 years of age. Both her grandfathers had served in the British military in Canada and India before entering business and public service (Letourneau 1982; Manitoba Historical Society 2009). This family tradition and tales of exploits on the battlefield inspired Adams and her brother Gerald as children (Will 1978, 30). As young adults, they were determined to emulate their forebears and sought opportunities to volunteer for the war effort.[7] Together they had grown up in an environment that was conservative and under the influence Anglo-Victorian social strictures of duty and community service. These strictures included a strong sense of volunteerism, which saw upper- and middle-class young people from across the British Empire come forward to support their King and Country (Quiney 1998, 190). Adams set aside acting to make an active contribution to the war effort.

Like thousands of young women across the British Empire, Adams applied to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment or V.A.D service, a corps of nurses and ambulance drivers trained and managed for the Red Cross by St John’s Ambulance. However, owing to her youth and inexperience, she was turned away (“Claire Adams, Starring in ‘The End of the Road’ Is Real Western Canada Girl”, 1920). She could not change her age but was able to address her skillset. Adams enrolled at Detroit’s Grace Hospital Training School for Nurses, one of the most respected institutions of its kind in North America (“Claire Adams, Starring in ‘The End of the Road’ Is Real Western Canada Girl”, 1920). Grace Hospital was just over the border from Canada on the shores of Lake St Clair, close to Toronto where she was living with her father Stanley Adams (Sweet & Stephens transcript). By 12 June 1915, Adams was listed on a ferry passenger manifest as an eighteen-year-old student nurse travelling between the two cities (Ancestry.com, 2009).

Unfortunately the enrolment records for the Grace Hospital Training School for Nurses from this time period do not survive, but the institution’s prospectus does, specifying a strict and rigorous lifestyle for their live-in student nurses.[8] This training would equip the young ladies to assist senior staff with both male and female patients in the hospital’s surgery, children’s ward and the obstetrics wing. Other extant records from Grace Hospital include the lists of graduates, and Adams’s name does not appear there either.[9] However this would not have prevented her from gaining employment as a nursing assistant, especially at a time when people with any medical or first aid experience were in high demand. Many students enrolled and failed to make it through the rigors of training or were unsuited to the prohibitive lifestyle required of those living in (Kathleen E. Schmeling, pers. comm.).

The Canadian Red Cross website describes how anyone working as a volunteer at a hospital during the Great War was referred to as a Red Cross nurse. Unfortunately records of the thousands of people who gave their time and energies to help have been either destroyed or did not exist in the first place.[10] What do still exist though are the Canadian census records taken in 1916 (Ancestry.com, 2009). They record that Adams was staying with her mother in Winnipeg and working as a “doctor’s assistant”. As happened across the Empire, she was most likely one of the thousands of women who volunteered to work in their local hospital. Deer Lodge was one of many country houses and hotels across Canada converted to military hospitals dedicated to convalescent soldiers returning from the front (Deer Lodge Centre, 20014). The English Government was short of both funds and infrastructure to deal with the number of wounded generated by the new means of mechanised warfare. Deer Lodge was established as a repatriation hospital in Winnipeg in October 1915 following a request made by the English Government to Commonwealth nations contributing troops to the war. Each country or dominion of the British Empire became responsible for the convalescent care of their own when casualty numbers exceeded British expectations and resources.[11]

Moving back to Winnipeg to reside with her mother Lillian, a piano teacher, also offered Adams the chance to participate in another historical event. In January of 1916, the women of Manitoba Province were the first in Canada to be granted the right to vote in municipal elections and hold public office. This occurred 2 years before most of their countrywomen and 4 years ahead of women in the United States (Jackal & Millette, 2015). Even during times of war, this would have been something worth celebrating and hard to ignore.

Following the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, the number of wounded Canadian troops requiring convalescent care rose from 2,620 in July 1916 to 11,981 by the year’s end (Veterans Affairs Canada, 2015). Adams may not have experienced the action on the front, but she would have witnessed the consequences it had on soldiers. In whatever capacity she was serving, she would have been expected to meet the demands of a near five-fold increase in the number of shattered patients, some approximately her own age, in the makeshift over-crowded wards ill-equipped to deal with them.

In 1916, Adams was still only 19-years-old. The physical toll of nursing accompanied by emotional exhaustion were the reasons Adams later gave to explain her return to motion pictures, admitting that she “collapsed finally under the strain of her work” (Goldbeck 1920, 27). Although equipped with some training and experience, she may not have been capable of maintaining an emotional distance or remain objective from the suffering she confronted. Well before the Armistice was declared in November 1918, she was back with Edison Company performing for the cameras. In doing so, she continued contributing to the war effort, but it was on a scale that exceeded anything she could have achieved had she remained a doctor’s assistant in Winnipeg.

Returning to the screen in 1917 with the stage name “Peggy”, Adams appeared in 8 Edison Productions. These included Barnaby Lee (Edward H. Griffith, 1917), her first feature film running over four reels (48 minutes), and the first of several in which she was directed by Edward H Griffith.[12] She starred in Your Obedient Servant (Edward H. Griffith, 1917), the first adaptation of Anne Sewell’s classic novel, Black Beauty (see Figure 3). Her next production, Scouting for Washington (Edward H. Griffith, 1917) was a melodrama set during the American Revolution. Wild Arnica and Shut Out in the Ninth (both Edward H Griffith, 1917) show a very young Adams, all dimples and dark curls, revelling in simplistic comedy.[13]

 

Figure 3: Claire Adams with Pat O’Malley in Your Obedient Servant, (Edward H. Griffith, 1917). Edison Conquest Pictures. 1917. Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

Figure 3: Claire Adams with Pat O’Malley in Your Obedient Servant, (Edward H. Griffith, 1917). Edison Conquest Pictures. 1917. Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

The following year, Adams would make the pivotal films of her early career. They started with a short vignette, one of a series of social satires titled Girls You Know. It would be the last time she appeared in a motion picture produced by the Edison Company. Each sketch “featured a different type of American girl personally selected” by James Montgomery Flagg, the prodigious illustrator, cartoonist and photographer (“Edison Releases Flagg Social Satire Series.” 1917). The First World War was something of a career peak for Flagg. He’d had film experience, was a widely read social satirist and artist and produced recruitment and patriotic propaganda posters for the US government. Flagg’s most recognised image was his creation of Uncle Sam, the grizzled old patriarch on the recruitment posters who “Needs You for US Army”. [14]

Flagg was commissioned to provide the “one-reel photo-sketches … depict(ing) the grace, charm, foibles and frailties of ‘Girls You Know’, the likable types” (“Recollections of ‘Girls You Know’”, 1918). These “likeable types” featured such stereotypical characters as “The Art Bug”, the “Spoiled Child”, the “Bride” and “The Artist’s Model”. Adams was cast as The Man-eater (Jack Eaton, 1918). The influence of the war in this film is obvious. Adams’s character Nina bids a tearful farewell to her uniformed fiancé and dreams of medals pinned to his broad manly chest. Nina is a sprightly little flirt travelling to a picnic with friends, harmless but annoying in her need for male attention. She is eventually “doused off”, pushed into the river, pulled ashore then scolded like a half-drowned kitten.[15]

The Girls You Know vignettes were produced as light and satirical entertainment for the troops and for those on the home front. They also reflect the restrictive caricatures of young women in the early motion picture industry, characterisations of women indulgently pursuing or experimenting with a career (“The Artist’s Model” and “The Art Bug”). Others were defined by their relationships with parents or male partners (“The Spoiled Child”, “The Bride” and “The Man-eater”). As “the Man-eater”, shunned and dunked for her sexually assertive manner, Adams’s character suffers the entrenched social consequences as punishment for her morally dubious behaviour. The cast of the series were promoted as having been “all selected from (Flagg’s) models – the most famous in New York”, though featuring leading women “with no experience but clever ideas and no actresses of note” (“Recollections of ‘Girls You Know’”, 1918). Adams, however, was by this stage a well-established performer, and three of her four “Girls” colleagues also had previous motion picture experience.[16] Flagg, the producers and indeed audiences, may have been more attracted to a fresh pretty face than a talented individual with an identity, reflecting the low opinion many still held of the acting profession.[17] There is no small irony that she was at this time living against tradition, earning a respectable wage and supporting herself independently as a professional young woman.[18]

The Spirit of The Red Cross, (Jack Eaton, 1918)

When the United States entered the European conflict in 1917, the US chapter of the International Red Cross was charged by the government to raise funds and volunteers to maintain an active presence on the battlefields of Europe. The subsequent rise of American humanitarianism and the specific formation of a nation-wide Red Cross campaign coincided with a period when “sensationalistic mass media began to dominate American culture”. These forces, dominated by new motion picture technologies, were responsible for the “reshaping American ways of seeing, feeling, and responding to suffering by treating violence and pain as pleasure-producing commodities” (Rozario 2003, 426).

The Red Cross recognised the timeliness of motion pictures as an effective and expedient medium for stimulating potential donors and volunteers across the country (Rozario 2003, 429). The National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI), chaired by famed producer Jesse Lasky, was appointed to the American Red Cross to promote and “interpret the organization for the American People” through the production of a suitable motion picture (“Spirit of the Red Cross 1918). Flagg was engaged to write the script. Jack Eaton, also of the Girls You Know series, was brought in to direct. Adams was cast as the lead, a nurse named Ethel, the image and embodiment of the International Red Cross. Lasky’s production expertise ensured that the resulting film, The Spirit of the Red Cross (Jack Eaton, 1918) presented “some of the best work done in motion picture making” (“Spirit of the Red Cross 1918). With such an accomplished and professional team involved, this 2-reel film was certain to not only hit but exceed the patriotic, inspirational and philanthropic targets for which all parties were aiming.

Adams’s lead character Ethel was the sweetheart of “an American youth” Sammy, played by Ray McKee. When Sammy enlists with the army and sails for France, Ethel volunteers as a nurse. The film portrays the work of the Red Cross in the field, assisting refugees, nursing and caring for the wounded. The New York Times described Sammy heading for the battlefield, envisioning “Ethel in her white uniform, watching over him”, until:

After a charge, he lies on the ground with a bullet in his chest, half conscious. The vision of Ethel awakens him, just as a German comes forward slaying the wounded. Sammy grips his revolver and shoots the enemy. Later, removed to base hospital, Ethel finds him and nurses him back to health. [19]

The Red Cross were not averse to engaging exaggerated propagandist images for the benefit of their cause.[20] Their tactics owed much to the pulp media, sensationalist newspapers and war magazines, aiming to provoke the outraged and patriotic public into “acts of benevolence” (Rozario 2003, 430). What makes this campaign remarkable is that it was the first time such techniques had been mobilised so effectively on a broad national scale, utilising the emotive mass cultural medium of motion pictures.

The American Red Cross expected their national fund raising drive to receive “considerable impetus” from the release of The Spirit of the Red Cross (“Spirit of the Red Cross”, 1918). Newspaper listings from across the country noted that cinema proprietors were donating all takings from the screening to the cause.[21] The New York Times quoted that the goal of the organisation was to raise one hundred million dollars, or around $1.8 billion in US dollars today (Measuring Worth, 2014). By the time the Armistice was declared in November 1918, only 7 months after the film’s release, the Red Cross had raised approximately four times that sum (American Red Cross, 2014). The film is credited with playing a major role in the campaign’s success. By the war’s end, one-third of the US population, approximately 39 million people, were either contributing members of the Red Cross or serving as volunteers.[22] At the cessation of hostilities, war movies were the most successful types of films in the country and “spectacle was in the ascendant” (Rozario 2003, 439).

The promotional poster Flagg created for The Spirit of the Red Cross depicts the diaphanous vision of Adams’s character floating over the battlefield. Ethel valiantly directs stretcher-bearers toward the unseen wounded. The plaintive caption declares: “Not one shall be left behind” (See fig. 4). For the many, perhaps the millions, who attended the film or saw the poster, Adams represented the thousands of nurses serving in the field, saving the fallen and tending the refugees, even though she was not entirely happy with her performance (Lake 1922, 51). She may not have been directly ministering to the wounded any longer. However, through her contribution to this film, Adams achieved more for the war effort as a nurse on screen than would have been possible had she remained one in life. Well into her old age it was commonly accepted and reiterated in biographical entries that Adams had been a nurse for the Red Cross during the First World War. Having taken part in such a high profile and hugely successful campaign, it is fair to say that Claire Adams was not simply “a nurse” for the Red Cross: she was The Nurse, the face on the movie poster, the selfless guardian of the wounded and indeed the embodiment of The Spirit of the Red Cross.

Figure 5: Figure 4: The Spirit of the Red Cross (James Montgomery Flagg, 1918). Source: World War 1 Posters from the Elizabeth Ball Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections. Ball State University, 2011. All rights reserved.

Figure 4: The Spirit of the Red Cross (James Montgomery Flagg, 1918). Source: World War 1 Posters from the Elizabeth Ball Collection, Ball State University Archives and Special Collections. Ball State University, 2011. All rights reserved.

Adams was well positioned to maximise the opportunities offered by both the emancipation of women in general and the freedoms and opportunities offered by the motion picture industry. At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, middle-class women in North America were still expected to abide by the traditional Victorian roles of marriage, motherhood and marital obedience. As the 1920s loomed, however, “a woman’s alternatives to marriage were not only possible but exciting” (Banner 1974, 48). This social shift was influenced by women’s experiences backfilling male positions in the workforce and volunteering for the war effort (Quiney 1998, 193). By the time Armistice was declared, Adams was twenty-two years old with an independent motion picture career, an exciting new option embraced by increasing numbers of young women in the West. As such she exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between two new cultural forces at play, demonstrating that “Cinema history and history cannot be separated from one another”: “In the field of tension between the history of cinema in the 1910s and gender history, a movement of emancipation takes place” (Schlüpmann 2013, 24).

Women were not only welcomed but were highly valued in the early motion picture industry, occupying positions from theatre staff to major writers and directors. Like Adams, despite their prominent positions, most did not publically identify themselves with the early feminist movement (Slide 1996, 1-3). Crucially Adams had also proven she had the talent, experience and determination to excel. Having starred in the commendable The Spirit of the Red Cross, she had also gained her family’s acceptance and support (Lake 1922, 51). From 1919 she was known publically not as “Clara” or “Peggy” but as Claire Adams, the “pet name” favoured by her family. Following The Spirit of the Red Cross, there were several projects to which she would dedicate her talents. One of these was a leading role in Romance and Brass Tacks (Martin Justice, 1918), “the new Flagg comedy starring pretty Peggy Adams, the famous Broadway beauty” (“An Unusual Comedy at Vining Theatre” 1918). The next motion picture Adams found herself starring in was another high-profile government sponsored film, also made for the war effort and proving remarkably popular. However, it also drew the kind of attention that few respectable young ladies from Winnipeg may have welcomed. Adams starred in one of the first major censorship scandals of the motion picture industry.

The End of the Road (Edward H. Griffith, 1919)

Young girls, thrilled with patriotism, sometimes fail to realize that the uniform covers all the kinds of men there are in the world; men of high ideals … or, in the worst instances, men who feel that their own physical appeal must be gratified, no matter who suffers. And so, through ignorance, through emotion, take steps which will lead to bitter regret.

(Katherine Bement Davis from Colwell 1998, 73)

Following The Spirit of the Red Cross and the additional projects with Flagg, there is evidence that Adams returned to theatre. In May 1918, she is named amongst the cast members of a patriotic play called Loyalty, written by George V. Hobart and staged at the Belasco Theatre in Washington DC. Belying both Adams’s preference for patriotic pieces as well as the public’s support for them, Loyalty is described as:

Something more than a mere dramatic entertainment … the play also carries a message of hope to a world suffering from the hardships and horrors of war (“Loyalty Will Make First Appearance At Belasco Tonight” 1918, 14).

The war may have been over but the horror continued on the home front. The “The Spanish Flu” evolved in the trenches of Europe from a moderately innocuous virus into something quite lethal. The appearance of the disease in New York City, borne by returning soldiers, was first reported in August 1918. The vius attacked the young and healthy, becoming more infectious and lethal with each mutation. Many industries, including motion picture companies and theatres, were unable to operate normally or in some instances were forced to close. Adams may have been forced to take time off or found work options cancelled or postponed. By the time the city recovered months later, it had lost 20,000 to 24,000 of its six million citizens. (Dominus, 2009). However, influenza was not the only infection rife amongst the troops.

In her essay, “The End of the Road: Gender, the Dissemination of Knowledge, and the American Campaign against Venereal Disease during World War 1”, Stacie A. Colwell provides a detailed account of the social and political context which gave rise to Adams’s next project (Colwell 1998, 44-82). As the US entered the war, the number of new recruits infected by venereal diseases appalled doctors conducting medical examinations.[23] As had been customary for generations, many young men of the time were engaging in unprotected pre-marital and extra-marital sex, ignorant or uncaring of the consequences. This practice was intensified during the heightened emotional climate of the war. Young women at the same time were becoming more personally independent, challenging the social order and demanding equal rights and freedoms to men. These included sexual freedoms.[24] They were unfortunately doing so within a vacuum of ignorance, a symptom of the perennial code of dual morality encouraging young men to explore their sexuality while young women were kept sexually innocent, unaware of their body’s functions and frailties. Many, deeply smitten, unknowing or unable to say no, found themselves bearing the physical and social consequences of sex with strangers or sweethearts they feared they’d never see again. The result was a perfect storm of ignorance, class-based bigotry and misbegotten morality, and Adams stepped right in the middle of it.

Eugenics, racism and class tensions exacerbated both the fear and apportioning of blame for the spread of venereal diseases (Schaefer 1999, 21). At a time when eugenics was still considered to be a viable scientific theory, some believed that the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as syphilis and gonorrhoea served a deliberate political or religious agenda.[25] Others saw the epidemic as an insidious weapon activated by the working masses, crowding into industrialised urban centres to breed out the richer, more refined classes (Colwell 1998, 72). The front line troops in this intimate means of class warfare were believed to be not simply prostitutes (who had a surprisingly low level of infection due to regulatory frameworks and inspections of brothels), but liberated “diseased and promiscuous” women seducing innocent men of means who then passed the infection onto their wives (Colwell 1998, 72). In turn, these ‘pure’ middle- and upper-class women would be driven mad, infertile, or both, by the ravages of the disease.[26] With many changes being made to the social order and a popular culture rife with inflammatory propaganda regarding invaders from abroad, there’s little wonder that this kind of imbalanced fear and paranoia infected the home front, like another disease.

The U.S. War Department, ever the pragmatists, saw the issue quite clearly – sick soldiers were bad for morale, an additional expense and made for a weakened army (Colwell 1998, 47). The challenge of addressing this issue fell to the War Department’s Committee on Training Camp Activities. This committee was confronting disciplinary issues relating to groups of young, independent and assertive New Women moving to towns and areas surrounding the training facilities. Schaefer implies that some were probably entrepreneurial prostitutes. Others were most likely “the khaki mad girls”, opportunists who simply loved a man in uniform and weren’t afraid to show it (Colwell 1998, 73). The troops themselves, predictably, were considered relatively blameless.

The momentum generated by the war to stem the spread of STDs provided an opportunity for diverse community organizations with similar concerns to affiliate with the War Department. A consortium of public health and volunteer organizations was incorporated under the banner of the American Social Hygiene Association (ASHA). Combined, they represented “a hybrid of social purity and sex education movements” (Colwell 1998, 46). These organizations pressed for a means of educating the population about the facts of life, the evils of STDs and pre-marital (or extra-marital) sex. Yes, it was bad for the War Effort. However for ASHA, the spread of venereal diseases was due to ignorance within a paradoxical culture. On the one hand young people had been loosened from the corset-like confines of the Victorian moral order, yet on the other were still bound by obscenity laws that made it illegal to disseminate medical or preventative information regarding STDs.[27] A “conspiracy of silence” reigned: people did not speak openly of such things and had few available sources of information (Schaefer 1999, 21). The volatility of the subject was amplified by the controversies surrounding the birth control movement. As Margaret Sanger and her supporters discovered, it was still considered obscene and illegal in the United States to distribute materials addressing the use of prophylactics and other forms of contraception.[28] Some considered it more socially repellent to talk of venereal disease in public than to actually contract a case and not mention it (Schaefer 1999, 21). ASHA concluded that a range of sensitive and educational, yet frank and fearless, vehicles were required, aimed at both men and women to address the facts of life and some of their indelicate consequences. As the Red Cross had realised before them, the military and their new allies embraced the power of motion pictures to educate and inform the public of America. A motion picture offered an additional bonus: In the darkness of a movie theatre, no one can see you blush.

Their strategy involved dividing the audience along gender lines. Fit to Win (Edward H. Griffith, 1919) was crafted to appeal to the needs and experiences of young male recruits.[29] The End of the Road (Edward H. Griffith, 1919) was aimed at young women who, out of curiosity, ignorance or early “girl power” gone awry, were finding themselves in physically and morally perilous positions. The film was to be screened with a pre-show lecture by a medical practioner in “Ladies Only” sessions at public cinemas. In order to make the subject matter more palatable for a “delicate” female audience, the educational aspects were wrapped up in a charming love story.[30] Conveniently, director Edward H. Griffith had been drafted into the War Department’s Committee on Training Camp Activities. Previously engaged by Thomas Edison Company, and with acting experience of his own, he played a major role in the production of several films supporting the war effort. During his time at Edison, Lt Griffith had made four films with Claire Adams. She was cast as Mary, the heroine of this sensitive story, opposite renowned actor Richard Bennett, who had enjoyed an expansive and celebrated theatre career before taking to the screen.[31]

A key figure within ASHA, Katharine Bement Davis was brought in to write The End of the Road. Davis described her contribution to the project as having “been most carefully worked out in consultation with physicians on the side of fidelity to medical fact, and with teachers as to the psychological effect” (Colwell 1998, 48). Davis had an established career in education, penal reform and public health, involving intensive research into the social causes of delinquency, the efficacy of reform programs for female prisoners, as well as surveys into the nature of women’s sexuality.[32] Her work had inspired John D. Rockefeller Jr. to establish the Bureau of Social Hygiene as part of his newly established foundation (Encyclopædia Britannica Online, 2014).

The film was produced under the supervision of the Surgeon General of the US Army, a protective political arm supporting the enterprise. Additional collaborators included the National War Work Council, the YWCA, Rockefeller’s Bureau of Social Hygiene and the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (American Film Institute Catalogue, 2015). This was a high-powered group of influential stakeholders with an interest in the film’s success. There was more than the usual amount of pressure and expectation placed on the actress playing Mary, the leading lady in this high-stakes drama. The following synopsis is from the American Film Institute Catalogue:

Mary, whose mother has instructed her about love, marriage and sex, leaves her boyfriend Paul to become a nurse in a New York hospital. Vera, encouraged by her mother to marry a rich man, takes an apartment from a young millionaire who promises marriage but only gives her syphilis. Mary and her doctor treat Vera and show her examples of the ravages of the disease. Mary meets other suffering women: an Irish servant girl betrayed by a chauffeur who dies after her baby is born; a garment worker who contracted syphilis from a soldier’s forced kiss; the invalid wife of a wealthy man whose philandering caused her condition, the blindness of her child and the suicide of another of his conquests. Paul, about to enlist, suggests that he and Mary have sex before her goes. Disappointed in him, Mary also rejects the proposal of her doctor, but later in Europe after seeing the kind of man he is, she accepts him.

On all fronts, this was a brave role for Adams. Some of the scenes featured actual patients scarred and suffering from venereal diseases, filmed on location at the women’s wards of Blackwell’s Island, New York City.[33] In her role as the nurse Mary, Adams is seen conversing with these obviously frail patients, gently supporting them as they present for the camera.[34] Most of the film was shot at the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills in Mount Pleasant, New York State (Colwell 1998, 63). As a resident of New York City at this time, it would have been difficult for Adams not to be aware of the campaigns for and against women’s suffrage and access to birth control, including the incarceration and exile of Margaret Sanger, all of which received widespread publicity between 1916 and 1918 (Banner 1974, 103). There is also the possibility that she may have had first-hand experience with the physical, social and psychological impacts of these diseases during her training and duties in the obstetrics ward at Grace Hospital in Detroit. That possibility becomes more probable when considering her contact with repatriated soldiers in Winnipeg. Perhaps this experience galvanised her willingness to participate, in spite of the risks. Her participation in The End of the Road reflects the influence of her family’s military and public service background as well as her own compulsion to help others. She would require the strength of the first and her faith in the latter to confront the controversy this film was about to generate.

Figure 5: Claire Adams as the nurse Mary Lee with a patient in The End of the Road (Edward W. Griffith, 1918). Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

Figure 5: Claire Adams as the nurse Mary Lee with a patient in The End of the Road (Edward W. Griffith, 1918). Source: UC Irvine Special Collections and Archives.

The spark that ignited a furore was the sudden end of the war. This timing meant everything. Audiences and the industry had had enough of both war and sex.[35] The military units and programs that sponsored the film’s production were disbanded. Several key elements and references of the storyline were no longer relevant or threatened to offend peace-time sensibilities. Davis, however, successfully argued that the need to educate young adults, particularly young women, about their bodies remained, and that this justified public screenings. The project was permitted to “continue until a clear opinion has developed concerning the desirability or undesirability of its being shown through commercial channels” (Colwell 1998, 66). The ASHA gained control of the copyright of the film. The distribution and exhibition remained (for the time being) under the auspices of the Surgeon General, with safeguards in place to protect the film “from sensational exploitation”. Women’s groups and other officials were invited to preview screenings to judge its value and suitability for local audiences (Colwell 1998, 64).

The film premiered on 16 February 1919 in Syracuse, New York. There were fifteen hundred people at opening night and it went on to capacity crowds in a number of other cities (Schaefer 1999, 28). Most of the film’s key personnel were not there to see it. By opening night, Griffith had gone west. Davis sailed to post-war Europe pursuing her new role as General Secretary of Rockefeller’s Bureau of Social Hygiene. There was only one participant left with any skin in the game who made herself available to face down the critics and attend the film’s premiere. Colwell notes: “For the record, actress Claire Adams, who played Mary Lee, did travel to both Syracuse and Pittsburgh to defend the film she had starred in” (66). The New York Times reviewed the film in March 1919 and enthused that The End of the Road was “the most valuable motion picture of its kind yet produced.” The picture is not pleasant or euphemistic. Neither is the subject with which it deals. It is unpleasant, however, only to the degree necessary for force, and plain spoken only to the extent necessary for clearness. It is never morbid. One feels clean after seeing it (“Opening the Road” 1919). Acknowledging that audience responses would depend upon their own moral convictions, The New York Times also reassured readers: “No film would be effective without competent acting and directing and it is an important virtue of ‘The End of the Road’ therefore, that it had both in its making … Claire Adams and Joyce Fair, in the two leading female roles, were attractive in appearance and intelligent in their interpretation of their characters” (“Opening the Road” 1919).

Despite positive support in the mainstream media, critics of the film began protesting as soon as it was released. As The New York Times forewarned, the acceptance of the film was divided along the lines of the individual’s moral view and tolerance of the story’s unique premise: it was not just “patriotic prostitutes”, “army flappers” or “camouflage dames” responsible for the spread of STDs. The film dared suggest that decent middle class men played an active part.[36] The End of the Road was the first film to present the case that STDs did not always originate in women of the lower classes, demonstrating that “syphilis and gonorrhoea are equal opportunity diseases” (Schaefer 1999, 33). This perspective contributed to establishing a new set of social and political battlelines, just as the Great War ended.[37]

The pendulum swung back to a more conservative side of society, basking in victory and longing to normalise culture and behaviour (Schaefer 1999, 34). As a government sponsored project, The End of the Road drew intense criticism, more so than other sensational films that had preceded it (Schaefer 1999, 29). ­­­­­­­­­­According to critics in Moving Picture World, copies of The End of the Road and Fit to Win had also “fallen into the hands of individuals who are allegedly exhibiting it to mixed audiences composed of men, women, boys and girls” (“Association Goes After ‘Fit to Win’”, 1919, 1141). Prominent church figures denounced the film, led predictably by the Catholic Church (Schaefer 1999, 32). By July 16, 1919, it was banned in Philadelphia. National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI), so successful in their production of The Spirit of the Red Cross, succeeded by the end of 1919 in having the film banned across the United States. This reflects what Löhrer describes as “a specific American moral panic at play” (Löhrer 2011).

Although the film could no longer be shown in the US, The End of the Road travelled abroad.[38] In May 1920 it was exhibited in Canada under the auspices of the Canadian National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases and the principals of local colleges. Demonstrating her ongoing commitment to the work, Adams reached out to her fellow Canadians with a personal message printed in The Vancouver Sun, subsequently reprinted across Canada. She is an unbowed advocate, certain “that every girl in Canada could see this play”:

The message it conveys is one that society must learn, and I feel that this powerful drama is the most wonderful method of telling the important story to girls everywhere. I played my part with that thought in my mind, and in my heart the feeling that at least to the best of my ability I was performing a real service to womanhood (“Message to Girls Through Film By Claire Adams” 1920).

The End of the Road found welcoming and respectful audiences even further afield. There is evidence that the film was used as an educative tool in military training campaigns as far away as Vladivostok (McMaster 2014, 5). Over the next decade The End of the Road was also shown extensively across Australia, where Adams would spend the second half of her life. Promoted in The Sunday Times in October 1920 with the US plan in place to segregate audiences along gender lines, the film opened at the Sydney Town Hall on Saturday 6 November 1920 and played for 5 weeks. The Evening News described how it had been shown the previous week at a private screening for representatives from the clerical, medical and legal professions, and was granted approval to be screened by the Minister for Womanhood. A search of Australia’s digitised newspaper archives shows that the film travelled through major metropolitan and regional centres across the country, from Muswellbrook NSW to Charters Towers QLD, Clare SA to Katanning WA. There is little criticism of the film evident: rather it received endorsement from civic leaders, educators and the press across the country.[39] Adams received rich praise. In Melbourne it was shown at the Palace Theatre on Bourke Street where the Table Talk reviewer declared in March 1921, “Nothing better has been shown on the screen than the perfectly moulded features of Claire Adams.” When The End of the Road reached Hobart in June 1921, The Mercury reported that over 5,000 had already seen it in Launceston. The reviewer from The Advertiser in Adelaide, who had seen the film at the Adelaide Town Hall, enthused in July 1921 that “The picture defies description. There is a touch of genius in it. The screen has never disclosed a purer or more impressive lesson.” The following week, the same paper discussed how several members of the public showed great interest in Adams, enquiring after her background and identity. They make much of her youth, talent and beauty, but pay particular attention to her patriotic service during the war and her nursing experience at Grace Hospital in Detroit.

The film continued across Australia until July 1928, when The Goulburn Evening Post reported that the reels had been stolen in Broken Hill. By that time, however, Adams had retired from her successful Hollywood screen career. One decade later, Claire Adams migrated permanently to Australia, stepping off the ship in Melbourne on Valentine’s Day in 1938, where there may still have been more than a few moviegoers who remembered her work. There is evidence to suggest that Claire Adams Mackinnon had a copy of both The Spirit of the Red Cross and The End of the Road with her when she came in Australia. It is not known, however, if they were shown beyond the bounds of her new home, or if those who saw them during one of her movie nights had any idea of the films’ impact during and in the aftermath of the First World War.[40]

Figure 6: Claire Adams as Justyn Reed, the fiancé of Jim Apperson, played by silent screen idol John Gilbert in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). Image ©Warner Bros. Source: Author’s private collection.

Figure 6: Claire Adams as Justyn Reed, the fiancé of Jim Apperson, played by silent screen idol John Gilbert in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925). Image ©Warner Bros. Source: Author’s private collection.

Adams’s performance in The End of the Road drew the attention of producers in Los Angeles and New York, where they were deep in debate regarding proposed censorship measures within the motion picture industry. In 1920, independent producer Benjamin B Hampton, who had also seen her work in The Spirit of the Red Cross invited her to Hollywood to star in his productions (Lake 1922, 51). They would marry in 1924. By the time she retired in 1928 she had starred in over forty feature films alongside some of the most popular and defining artists of the era. These included Tom Mix, Rin Tin Tin, Jean Hersholt, Lon Chaney and Clara Bow. Adams’s also appeared opposite John Gilbert in his break through role in The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925), noted in the AFI catalogue as being “frequently described as the most successful silent film of all time”. Adams played Justyn Reed to Gilbert’s doughboy Jim Apperson. Justyn is a blithe ingénue, somewhat reminiscent of Adams’s flirtatious character Nina from The Man-eater, gaily encouraging her fiancé to enlist so she can see how handsome he’d look in uniform. These characters, both Nina and Justyn, could well have been constructed from characteristics of the sexually liberated yet innocent/ignorant young women who were the target audience for The End of the Road. As such, The Big Parade is a strangely coalescent bookend for her career, which practically began and ended with blockbusting war films.

Conclusion.

The value of the Claire Adams films discussed here is lost when they are removed from their historical context. They are very much a product and reflective of the era in which they were produced, which was both defining and tumultuous. The confluence of war, the women’s independence movement and the development of the motion picture industry offered women a new degree of independence and a more active role within their own lives as well as within their culture, both as consumers and producers. This relatively small period from Adams’s career encapsulates those opportunities, as well as the threats and challenges available to women in general and within the motion picture industry in particular. She is a mediator between the realities and the fictions; a nurse playing a nurse addressing current issues both on and off-screen, lending more than a modicum of verisimilitude to the productions. Her characters in The Spirit of the Red Cross and The End of the Road were strong female protagonists, created to inspire audience members and advocate for action, encouraging all women to change their lives and in doing so play an active role in changing their world.

Amidst the international commemorations of the centenary of The Great War, it is timely to assess Adams’s life of service in front of the camera and behind the scenes, not only in Australia, but also for our allies in the conflict – Canada and the United States of America. She was, after all, a proud citizen of each country at different stages of her life. That her achievements have been forgotten is also symptomatic of the times. The role of women in the motion picture industry has been undervalued and overlooked for most of the previous century, so the “loss” of Claire Adams from film history is not unusual. The scale of public awareness generated around the superstars of Silent Hollywood, fed by the scandals, stereotyping and celebrity culture that engulfed the industry, has diminished the memory of her career, especially if it is measured and evaluated in terms of current and historic memory. My biography of Adams (in progress) explores her significance, of the difference she made as an actress and as a private citizen, and how she never lost the sense of public service first demonstrated in the choice of roles discussed here. Indeed, Adams continues to support community causes, including the Australian Red Cross, via a substantial trust established after her death in 1978.[41] By avoiding the superficiality and pressures of the studio system, Adams may have missed out on Hollywood immortality. However, her personal and professional choices demonstrate that she was not overly concerned by the vagaries of popular opinion. Her priorities were always much closer to home.

 

 

DEDICATION:

Many people in Australia, the US and Canada have contributed to this article and my research into the life of Claire Adams Mackinnon. However, I would like to dedicate this article to Mr Roger Mayer, who passed away in March 2015. Some will remember him as the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Academy Award in 2005. Others will for his longstanding leadership of the U.S National Film Preservation Foundation. I will always remember him as a kind gentleman who upon hearing of my interest in Claire Adams insisted I pursue it with the words “Every piece of the story is worth saving”.

 

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“Spirit of the Red Cross.” 1918. The New York Times, 21 April. Proquest.

“Splendid Work of American Red Cross Society Graphically Told in Series of Single Reel Motion Pictures Now Ready for Screen”. 1918. Exhibitors’ Trade Review. December 7. Vol 5. No. 1.

Stamp, Shelley. 2012. “Women and the Silent Screen”. In The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. Edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundman, and Art Simon. University of Santa Cruz. Accessed 10 January 2015.

Theatre advertisements. 1919. The Youngstown Daily Vindicator. 4 April. Library of Congress.

“V.A.D Hospitals in Northumberland and Durham 1914-1918.” Donmouth Local History Society. Accessed 18 February 2015 http://www.donmouth.co.uk/local_history/VAD/VAD_hospitals.html

“What People are Saying and Doing.” 1921. Table Talk. 10 March. Retrieved from TROVE, National Library of Australia. http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article146718304

Will, Beverley. 1978. “Gallant and Romantic were the days of Claire Adams.” Green Place. October. Mooramong Collection, National Trust of Australia (Victoria).

The World War 2 US Medical Research Centre, http://www.med-dept.com/articles/venereal-disease-and-treatment-during-ww2/ Accessed 29 January 2015.

Unpublished sources:

  • Hone, Geoff. (Chair of the Scobie and Claire Mackinnon Trust.) Email to author. June 2014.
  • Miley, Nancy. Adams Family History, Unpublished Manuscript. Author’s private collection.
  • Schmeling, Kathleen Emery. (Archivist) Grace Hospital Archives, Wayne State University. Email to author, May 21 2014.
  • Speed, Dr Lesley. “‘In the best film star tradition’: Claire Adams and Mooramong”, Screening the Past, due for release 2015. http://www.screeningthepast.com/
  • Sweet, Jill and Stephens, Barbara Adams. Oral History Transcript, Author’s private collection.

Filmography:

  • Caneva, Lina, 2009, Mooramong – Private Hollywood, Caneva Media Productions.
  • Eaton, Jack, 1918, The Man-eater, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
  • Griffith, Edward H., 1917, Scouting for Washington; a tale of the Revolution, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
  • Griffith, Edward H., 1917, Shut Out in the Ninth, Thomas A. Edison, Inc.
  • Griffith, Edward H., 1919, The End of the Road, American Social Hygiene Association, Famous Players-Lasky Corp & US War Department.
  • Vidor, King, 1925, The Big Parade, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

 

Notes:

[1] Adams’s petition for US citizenship document confirms that she was a subject of the British Dominion of Canada and that her last foreign address was in Toronto. From there she entered the US permanently at Detroit on 12 June, 1915. She first declared her intention to become a US citizen in September 1922, two years before she married Hampton. Her petition for citizenship was granted in Poughkeepsie on 4 February 1931, having resided in Pawling, NY since 1 September 1928.

[2] Willis Goldbeck in Motion Picture Classic (1920) described Adams as “instinctively Britishly reserved, a person whom one cannot hope to know in a day, or a month.”

[3] As of this date, I have yet to find Claire Adams on the cover of either fan or trade magazines, though several profile interviews and letters to editors indicate she had a fan base. Without a studio publicity department behind her, and as part of a company that promoted all-star casts, she was able to enjoy a more private life and manage her own profile accordingly, hence my concept of her as an independent artist.

[4] Originally published as A History of the Movies, by Covici, Friede, New York, 1931, Hampton’s work was reissued in 1971 as History of the American Film Industry from its beginnings to 1931, edited with an introduction by film historian Richard Griffith.

[5] In his introduction to the second edition of Hampton’s book, Griffith asserted “That it is the best history of the movie business to date there can be no doubt’, and positions it in terms of authenticity and objectivity above Terry Ramsey’s A Million and One Nights (1926) and Lewis Jacobs’ The Rise of the American Film (1939).

[6] As described by Monica Dall’Asta and Victoria Duckett in “Kaleidoscope: Women and Cinematic Change from the Silent Era to Now.” 2013, 8.

[7] At only fifteen years of age, Gerald ran away to join the Scottish Highlanders, but was dragged back to London by his Great Aunt Mabel Adams with whom he was staying. As soon as he was old enough he enlisted, but had only just completed training when the war ended. He never saw any action on the front. Nancy Miley,“Gerald Drayson Adams (1900-1988)” from Adams Family History Notes, Unpublished Manuscript.

[8] This prospectus was written late in the 19th century. The Grace Hospital School of Nursing (GHSN) offered two years of vocational (if somewhat rudimentary) instruction during which time students would be under constant supervision, on and off duty. Students were permitted one afternoon off per week and were encouraged for the sake of their own health to spend one hour each day in the open air. They were allowed two weeks leave per year, one evening off per week and required permission from the school’s Principal to be out later than midnight. In return, the students would receive training in elements of hospital work, namely the dressing of wounds and burns, applications of fomentations and poultices, making beds and methods for avoiding bedsores.

[9] Adams’s name on all official documents was her birth name, Beryl Vere Nassau Adams, but this does not show up on the list of graduates either.

[10] According to the Red Cross Canada website, “Red Cross nurse” was a term applied to anyone volunteering in a hospital in any capacity, including letter writing and visiting. Millions of young women contributed to this international effort and there was simply not the capacity to establish or maintain complete records of every volunteer. “About the Canadian Red Cross”, Accessed 15 August 2014, http://www.redcross.ca/who-we-are/about-the-canadian-red-cross/history-frequently-asked-questions

[11] A New Set of Needs, from the website of Veterans Affairs Canada, describes the inadequate hospital infrastructure, and venues converted to repatriation hospitals following England’s requests to the Dominions to take care of their own wounded. Accessed 11 January 2015, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/steannes-hospital/about-us/history

[12] According to the American Film Institute Catalogue entry, Barnaby Lee was probably not widely released. http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=2108

[13] Scouting for Washington, Wild Arnica and Shut Out in the Ninth were viewed by the author at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[14] Flagg asserted that his Uncle Sam became “the most famous poster in the world”. As quoted on the American Treasures of the Library of Congress website, accessed 13 February 2015, http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm015.html

[15] The Man-eater was viewed by the author at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[16] The other lead roles in the “Girls You Know” series were played by Dorothy Wallace, Mary Arthur, Martha Mansfield and Peggy Hopkins. According to IMDb, Hopkins had appeared in 2 Columbia productions. Dorothy Wallace had one previous film credit. Martha Mansfield had four previous motion picture credits and seemed destined for a successful career. In 1920 she starred opposite Lionel Barrymore in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (John S. Robinson, 1920). Mansfield died in horrific circumstances in 1923 after her period costume caught fire on set. See IMDb http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0543806/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

[17] Banner suggests that it was considered “a disgrace for a woman’s name to appear in public print” though this began to change before the war (20).

[18] According to Nancy Milley, her father Claire’s Uncle, Ernest Adams and her Grandmother, did not approve of Claire’s profession, even into the 1920s when she was at the height of her career. “Ernest Dupin Adams” from Adams Family History Notes, unpublished manuscript, author’s private collection.

[19] Several scenes were shot in the Jackson Barracks in New Orleans, which was in use as a training and processing facility for the United States Army. This suggests that recruits may have been used as extras in the film, perhaps to add a layer of verisimilitude to the scenes of battle and troop movements. From website Hollywood on the Bayou, Louisiana Film History by Parish, http://www.learnaboutmovieposters.com/newsite/louisiana/Parishes/Orleans.asp

[20] The Red Cross War Council subsequently established a “Bureau of Pictures” in early 1918 “to tell upon the screen the splendid story of the Red Cross”. These single reel shorts featured such titles as “Broken Lives”, “Victorious Serbia” and “Russia: a Land Worth Saving”, reflecting their ongoing work in Europe and with veterans up to and following the Armistice. From “Splendid Work of American Red Cross Society Graphically Told in Series of Single Reel Motion Pictures Now Ready for Screen”. 1918. Exhibitors’ Trade Review. December 7. Vol 5. No. 1.

[21] In the El Paso Herald, for example, the proprietors of the Grecian Theatre placed a large advertisement, paid for by another local business, outlining a special “Red Cross War Fund Benefit”, from which they would donate all proceeds from the evening’s entertainment to the cause. Patrons were encouraged to “make your quarters jingle” at the box office as “Lives Over There” depended on their support. Wednesday 15 May 1918, 5.

[22] The release of the film was also accompanied by a nation wide door knock appeal (American Red Cross, 2014).

[23] The World War 2 US Medical Research Centre estimates that during the Great War, venereal disease “had caused the Army lost services of 18,000 servicemen per day.” http://www.med-dept.com/articles/venereal-disease-and-treatment-during-ww2/ Accessed 29 January 2015.

[24] As described by Banner, early feminists saw male sexuality as being at the heart of female oppression. Even before the war, early feminist Inez Milholland wrote that “we are learning to be frank about sex … and through all this frankness runs a definite tendency toward an assault on the dual standard of morality and an assertion of sex rights on the part of women” (116).

[25] According to Schaefer, “Discourses on venereal diseases and eugenics were so tightly intertwined as often to be inseparable” (21).

[26] The irony is that throughout the nineteenth century, prostitutes were seen as a necessary evil in order to protect the virtue of pure women. The North American sex industry operated in relatively structured or semi-licensed conditions where the workers were regularly checked for STDs (Banner 1974, 76). The change came in the early twentieth century when sexually active young women identified sex with strangers as a possible way out or momentary escape from the drudgery of their working class lives. If they accepted payment for sex, they could earn two to three times more than they could as a domestic servant or salesgirl (Banner 1974, 81).

[27] Schaefer laid out the confluence of concerns that surrounded the spread of STDs in American society, which included Eugenics, Industrialization, Abstinence and Prohibition. The constituents incorporated under the ASHA banner represented most of these concerns. Progressives were concerned about the political and social boundaries being blurred by the urban, industrial and technological developments of the early Twentieth Century (18 – 23).

[28] According the Katz, Sanger had already experienced exile from the US in 1914 when in 1916 she was arrested and imprisoned for opening the nation’s first birth control clinic. In 1917 she had also made a motion picture titled “Birth Control” which had been confiscated by New York authorities.

[29] Fit to Win was shown at training camps where a lecturer would be available to explain some of the finer points of the storyline and address any medical questions.

[30] The film’s writer, Katherine Bement Davis, had already conducted extensive research into the possible impact of sex education on young women, which contradicted prevailing Freudian based theories that too much knowledge of sexuality and its consequences could permanently damage young women (Colwell 1998, 60).

[31] In 1914 Bennett made his movie debut with Damaged Goods, a film adapted from the theatre script that “pictures the terrible consequences of vice and the physical ruin that follows the abuse of moral law.” Bennett had married his co-star from Damaged Goods, Adrienne Morrison, with whom he had three daughters, two of which would go on to major Hollywood careers: Joan and Constance Bennett.

[32] Banner describes Davis as a leading figure of the Progressive movement, instigating major studies and reforms in the fields of urban poverty, women’s prisons and sex education (Banner 1974, 98). The New York Times ran a major profile of Davis when she was named New York’s first female Commissioner of Correction in January 1914. See Edward Marshall’s “New York’s First Woman Commissioner of Correction”, The New York Times, 11 January 1914.

[33] The location where these scenes were shot is mentioned in the notes section for the catalogue entry for The End of the Road in the American Film Institute Catalogue accessed 29 August 2014, http://www.afi.com/members/catalog/DetailView.aspx?s=&Movie=15366. Schaefer describes how many of the more confronting scenes of open wounds were cut in order to please the censors and keep the film in theatres, but some scenes were later reintroduced by exploitative distributors (29-30).

[34] The End of the Road was viewed by the author at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

[35] The issues facing the film were compounded by the film industry’s wish to appear respectable and beyond moral reproach in the face of a growing amount of sex scandals and exploitation films (Schaefer, 30). There was also an acceptance of sex education taking place within schools, making the role of sex education films in public cinemas largely redundant (Colwell, 69).

[36] According to Colwell (71), there were around ten other films addressing the spread of STDs, however they depicted women as the source of infection and transmission. The End of the Road differs significantly by drawing attention to the complicity of men.

[37] Schaefer notes that Damaged Goods (Thomas Ricketts, 1914) also starring Richard Bennett was the first to have established this premise on film. Damaged Goods reinforced the claim that venereal diseases were the scourge of the lower classes and inflicted upon young men of means and family during moments of weakness caused by drunkenness or deliberate seduction by fallen women from the lower classes (23).

[38] The copy viewed by the author in the Library of Congress was in Dutch, indicating it was intended for audiences in the Netherlands and other Dutch-speaking colonies.

[39] This section could not have been conducted without the use of Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online database of Australia’s newspapers. The articles directly referenced are noted in the above reference section. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/result?q=The+End+of+the+Road

[40] The Mooramong Buildings and Structures: Conservation Analysis Report for the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) of July 1989 contains a list (Appendix A) of 48 motion pictures “compiled from film reels held at Mooramong”. The fate of these films is unknown.

[41] According the Geoff Hone, the Scobie and Claire Mackinnon Trust have donated approximately AU$2 million to the Royal Children’s Hospital as well as other significant amounts over the years to the Australian Red Cross.

 

Bio: Heather L. Robinson is a Research Associate & PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Creative Arts, Flinders University. She is also an Honorary Research Associate (History) at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum.

“You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin – Joseph Brennan

Abstract: This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character—that great archetype of the treacherous villain—from BBC’s Merlin (2008–2012) so as to examine his role in a series that garnered a devoted following among ‘slash fans,’ who homoeroticise male pairings. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. This reading is supported by analysis of slash fanart (known as ‘slash manips’), which support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self. This reading offers insight into the reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates.

Introduction

The Arthurian legend’s Mordred, like Bram Stoker’s (1897) Count Dracula or Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1894) Professor Moriarty, is one of literature’s most iconic villains; his portrayal in the legend’s best-known rendition, Thomas Malory’s (1485) Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, is as a Judas figure. (For those unfamiliar with the legends of King Arthur, Aronstein 2012 is an accessible introduction.) The Mordred character’s morphological qualities as the archetypal villain (see Propp 1968), combined with his weight in Arthurian literature, meant his appearance and relationship with Arthur—that great hero of Western literature and folklore, fated to die at Mordred’s hand (see Sutton 2003)—was highly anticipated from the start of the BBC’s recent television adaptation of the legend, Merlin (2008–2012). Mordred was also a major source of tension for the titular character in the series, ‘Merlin the Magician,’ who in this adaptation keeps his magical identity as the most powerful wizard in all of Albion (Britain) secret from ‘Arthur the King’ until Arthur’s death at an also-magical (and also-knight) Mordred’s hand in the climactic Battle of Camlann, which ended the program’s five-year run. This essay performs a queer reading of the Mordred character so as to examine his role in a series that has garnered a devoted following among slash fans, who create artistic works that actualise latent homoeroticism in popular texts. This reading is bolstered by analysis of select ‘slash manips’ featuring the character. A form of visual slash, these images help to anchor this author’s reading by connecting it with fans’ own queer interpretations of Mordred and his interactions with other men, Merlin and Arthur specifically. By charting the various catalysts that set this villain on his path, we are privy to insights into the representations and (queer) metaphors of this popular British series, and what these elements have to tell us about this reimagined legendary villain. Further, such a reading allows us to hypothesise about how Mordred’s villainy could all have been avoided if only his dual identities of Magician and Warrior had been accepted by his mentor, Merlin, and his master, Arthur.

Merlin (2008–2012)

Spanning five years and 65 episodes, Merlin chronicles the namesake’s acceptance and fulfilment of his destiny to assist Arthur in becoming the king of legend. Advising him along the way is his guardian Gaius (Richard Wilson) and a dragon Kilgharrah (voiced by John Hurt); while King Uther (Anthony Head), and later Morgana (Katie McGrath) and Mordred (Alexander Vlahos), are his main hindrances. It differs from most interpretations of the King Arthur legend by making Merlin and Arthur (portrayed by Colin Morgan and Bradley James, respectively) contemporaries (Sherman 2015, 93) in a world where magic is outlawed. The resultant need for secrecy from Merlin became a central narrative drive throughout the series, with the character only revealing his true self to Arthur in the final episode—an eventuality anticipated from the pilot. For many fans, Merlin’s ‘magic reveal’ in the final episode invites comparison with coming out as homosexual, for it is only after revealing his true self to Arthur that the pair’s love for each other may be acknowledged. Queer viewers can easily identify with characters such as Mordred and Merlin, who keep their identities secret in fear of an unaccepting society, forming a “wishful identification” (see Hoffner and Buchanan 2005) with such characters’ struggle for acceptance and identity in a universe hostile to ‘their kind.’

The finale saw the death of King Arthur in the arms of his manservant, Merlin, an event that was foreshadowed from the first episode of the final season.[1] Arthur is slain by his former knight and surrogate son, Mordred, who feels betrayed by both Arthur and Merlin, two men that represent two sides of himself—Warrior and Magician—that he failed to reconcile. This essay’s queer reading of the Mordred character is from the position of an aca–fan (an academic and fan, see Brennan 2014b). It is written with the belief—put forth by Henry Jenkins in his seminal text on television fan cultures, Textual Poachers—that “speaking as a fan is a defensible position within the debates surrounding mass culture.” (1992, 23) To this end, I use fan readings of the series and analyse select photo montaged fan works (known as ‘slash manips’), including some from my own practice, to support my reading and delve into typologies that help examine the construction and journey of Mordred as the archetypal villain, as well as his multiple identities of knight and magician, and queer associations of his struggle for self.

Medieval (Homo)Eroticism, Queer Readings, and Slash Manips

Scholarship on the series, in the form of chapters in edited collections (see Elmes 2015; Meredith 2015) and journal articles (see Foster and Sherman 2015 for a special issue on the subject in Arthuriana), have begun to explore its significance. In particular, scholars have examined its representations and the value of its unique version of a legend that is broadly familiar to most viewers (Britons particularly). Such familiarity, as Jon Sherman points out, makes up much of Merlin’s appeal (2015, 97). Among this scholarship is my own article (see Brennan 2015), which performs a queer reading of the Lancelot character (the great Romantic archetype) as he appears in this BBC series and the works of Thomas Malory, T.H. White, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. In this recent article, I situate the popular series in the long heritage of Arthurian adaptation. The article also includes an examination of a tradition of using queer theory to analyse Arthurian texts (see Brennan 2015, 21–22). In particular, I explore the proposition by certain medievalists (see Burger and Kruger 2001; Zeikowitz 2003) that a ‘queer approach’ (see Halperin 1995) to texts of or set in the Middle Ages can be useful in making “intelligible expressions of same-sex desire.” (Brennan 2015, 21) The applicability of queer readings to this series is perhaps illustrated best by the fan followings it has inspired, which contribute to its status as a ‘cult text.’ (See Hills 2004 and his definition of cult television as a complex interaction among television texts, discourses about them, and the fan practices these texts inspire; also see Machat 2012, who examines Merlin fanfic trailers to explore how fans of the series remix the canon relationship of its male protagonists.)

Of particular relevance to a queer approach to television series such as Merlin are the products of ‘slash’ fans and their exploration of homoeroticism in popular texts, often of which lack representations of homosexuals (see Russ 1985; Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 1992). Slash derives its name from the convention of using a forward slash (/) to designate sexual male pairings, such as ‘Arthur/Mordred’ (see Jones 2002, 80). Slash fans produce texts in the form of fiction, video, and art to depict their (often subversive) homoerotic readings. The attraction of Merlin to many slash fans can be read as a result of Merlin and Mordred’s secret identities as sorcerers in a world where the practice of sorcery is punishable by death. For many fans, magic here is a metaphor.[2] And when magic is read as a metaphor for homosexuality, as David M. Halperin reminds us, the term ‘queer’ becomes available: to “anyone who is or feels marginalized because of her or his sexual practices.” (1995, 62) I have examined the Merlin/Arthur pairing previously (see Brennan 2013) in an article that also introduces a form of slash that had at that time yet to receive scholarly attention, namely ‘slash manips.’ (See Brennan 2014a for more on the significance of slash manips with respect to how slash practice has been defined.)

Slash manips remix images from the source material (such as high resolution screen shots or promotional images from Merlin) with images from scenes selected from gay pornography. Most commonly, these works come in the form of two characters’ heads (often with expressions of exertion) digitally superimposed onto gay porn bodies (that generally match the physicality of the characters in question). It is a process I describe as the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (see Brennan 2013). This present article includes analysis of select slash manips involving the Mordred character, all of which are reproduced here with the permission of the respective artists. The inclusion of these works is useful in the context of a queer reading of Mordred because the visual impact of these digital manipulations, in addition to complementing discussion of symbolism of certain scenes, also themselves are distinctly ‘queer.’ Such imagery is in of itself an embodiment of the “project of contestation” this is queering, in addition to helping disrupt “our assumptions about medieval culture and textual practices.” (Lochrie 1997, 180)

Reading Character: Mordred-as-Villain

In his seminal syntagmatic structural analysis of folklore, Morphology of the Folktale, Vladimir Propp (1958) develops a typology that identifies seven character types in folktales, each with a role to play in forwarding the narrative, namely: Villain, Donor, Helper, Princess, False Hero, Dispatcher, and Hero. By focalising the story through Merlin, two central heroes emerge in this retelling: Merlin and Arthur. (Ordinarily Merlin would be the ‘helper’ character type, the hero’s guide who prepares Arthur and provides him with magical assistance.) As my close reading will demonstrate, with Merlin-as-hero Mordred is consigned to the villain type, as he is never viewed by this character with anything other than suspicion of villainy; from the perspective of Arthur-as-hero, conversely, Mordred is a false hero, a character once viewed as good who becomes evil, much like the series’ other false hero, Morgana (known to legend as Morgan le Fay), who in this version of the legend, Mordred turns to after being betrayed by the heroes of the story. This essay explores how the heroes’ own categorising of Mordred’s character ensures his path as villain, as confirmed by Mordred’s final words to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” (V.13 [abbreviated season and episode number]) This reading is similar to Mary Stewart’s 1983 novel, The Wicked Day, which retells the legend from Mordred’s perspective, portraying him sympathetically as a victim of circumstance and confirming that we are all the heroes of our own story.

Mordred as he appears in Merlin is fascinating not only because he is a villain of the series—and villains are often fascinating in queer readings—but further because he bridges the central characters of Merlin and Arthur, or ‘Merlin/Arthur,’ who are described in the series as “two sides of the same coin” (Kilgharrah, V.3). In a queer reading, Merlin (manservant)/Arthur (master) as two sides of the same coin create a binary chain of tails/heads, bottom/top, passive/active, sorcery/non-sorcery, intuition/rationality, magic/strength, feminine/masculine, homosexual/homosocial. Mordred as both sorcerer and knight, straddles these positions in Merlin, moving freely between them, which is in part why the titular character—with his intention to “Keep the magic secret” (a series tagline)—can only ever see Mordred as a threat. Conversely, to Mordred, Merlin represents someone with magic like himself. Someone who can help him negotiate his dual identity of knight/sorcerer. As this essay’s close reading of select episodes will reveal, by not trusting him, what Merlin ultimately denies Mordred (freedom to be himself), is also what he ultimately denies himself.

Reading Character: Mordred and the Magician/Warrior Archetype

William P. McFarland and Timothy R. McMahon (1999) employ the four masculine archetypes of King, Lover, Magician, and Warrior (see Moore 1991; Moore and Gillette 1990, 1992) to outline the respective benefits of each to homosexual identity development. The King archetype displays “qualities of order, of reasonable and rational patterning, of integration and integrity” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62); the Lover is “deeply sensual, sensually aware, and sensitive to the physical world in all its splendor” (ibid., 121); the Magician bears the characteristics of “thoughtfulness, reflection, and introversion,” exhibiting “the ability to connect with inner truths” (McFarland and McMahon 1999, 51); and the Warrior incites others to “take the offensive and to move out of a defensive or holding position about life’s tasks and problems” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 79).

These archetypes are useful in introducing the characters of Mordred, Merlin, and Arthur, each of whom, in addition to being literal personifications of these archetypes, display a combination of the corresponding traits in their representation: Mordred (as Lover, as Magician, as Warrior), Merlin (as Lover, as Magician), and Arthur (as King, as Warrior). These archetypes are useful in plotting the binary of Arthur/Merlin, primarily King/Magician, and the manner in which Mordred belongs to both men, while ultimately struggling and eventually failing to exist in the grey area between the well-defined and policed binaries the men embody. For while being Magician and Lover affords Merlin (as Helper) attributes that Arthur both needs and does not possess himself (as King and Warrior; hence the earlier ‘coin’ metaphor), these are identities that Merlin conceals, that bring shame within the context of the series, for they also bear feminine (Lover) and queer (Magician) connotations; and thus Merlin is treated as such in the series, excluded from Arthur’s homosocial circle of knights, and ridiculed for his sensitivity, his lack of masculine worth—“Pathetic. You’re pretending to be a battle-hardened warrior, not a daffodil.” (Arthur to Merlin, I.2). By being King, Arthur “stabilizes chaotic emotion and out-of-control behaviors” (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62), he controls the unruly feminine, which is how sorcery is defined (and portrayed by Morgana), and thus needed to be outlawed, by the ultimate Father and King, Uther.

In this essay I examine the otherness of Mordred and how his pole personas of Warrior/Magician, knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, toy with Merlin and his efforts to maintain separation between such identities. In particular, I consider the Druid boy’s appearances over the final season of Merlin and his transition to Arthur’s favourite knight, as well as the fluidity and openness with which he occupies positions of otherness, as is supported by slash manips featuring the character. The essay also explores how Mordred subverts the homosocial order of Camelot in a way Merlin never could, eroticising the sacred bonds between Arthur and his men.

Arthur/Mordred: The Erotic Bonds of Heroes and Villains

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Figure 1. The Arthur/Merlin/Mordred homosocial triangle (V.1).

Male heroes and villains of legend and myth share obsessive bonds and a covert homoeroticism (Battis 2006). The villain becomes obsessed with the hero’s body, “with finding his weakness, with penetrating or shattering or inflicting violence upon him” (ibid.). In his obsession, the villain becomes a “failed version” of the hero, needing to eradicate the hero to validate his own perverse ethical agenda, not just interested in ruling the world, but in “ruling the hero’s body” as well (ibid.). Writing here on the comic book tradition and the queer potential of the central antagonism of Clark Kent/Lex Luthor as they appear in the television series Smallville (2001–2011), Jes Battis’s description is also suited to the rivalry of Arthur/Morgana.[3] As villain and woman, Morgana seeks to disrupt and possess all that Arthur is—chivalric order, his reign, and his legacy—so as to impose her own worldview on the realm. “I want his annihilation, Mordred,” she tells him in V.2. “I want to put his head on a spike and I want to watch as the crows feast on his eyes.” While not homoerotic, there is a taboo eroticism inherit in Arthur/Morgana due to their blood relation, and the romantic references to the pairing in season one—such as in I.5, when Guinevere confides in Merlin that she hopes one day Arthur and Morgana will marry. Mordred, who responds to Morgana’s blood thirst by urging her to “calm yourself,” (V.2) is different. He is, in the end, fate’s and Morgana’s pawn—particularly when compared with other adaptations in which the character appears, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King particularly (see Thomas 1982). That Mordred’s villainy is an extension of Morgana’s perverse agenda is an idea put forward by Erin Chandler, who argues that at times (such as in season three):

the series focuses on Morgana playing what is essentially the legendary Mordred role, turning against her father, Uther, and everyone dear to him for his past actions and his refusal to acknowledge his errors. (2015, 109–10)

After all, while in Merlin Mordred may wield the sword that delivers the fatal blow, Morgana is the one who makes it unbeatable by forging it in dragon’s breath (Edwards 2015, 81).

Mordred’s portrayal as pawn explains why interest in the character from the perspective of slash fans seems to be less about his antagonism with Arthur—though there is certainly homoeroticism in that regard—and more about the love and devotion that turns sour and leads to respective betrayals of each other. Mordred defies Morgana at the start of season five, in fact wounds her in favour of Arthur’s vision of a nobler way, making the transition from Druid nomad to Arthur’s favourite knight in the space of a few episodes. As a man of magic, who also wishes to prove to Merlin his devotion to Arthur, the character self-sacrifices for the greater good until Arthur asks of him a sacrifice that is too much: to allow the woman he loves to be executed. To have done so, to have let the girl die, which would be to betray himself (the Lover). In the end Mordred is as betrayed by Arthur and Merlin (his mentor, his ‘helper,’ if you like) as he himself betrays. Until their mutual destruction he still desires Arthur, smiling when Arthur returns a mortal wound, welcoming the opportunity to join Arthur in death.

Mordred enacts a kind of homosocial, or ‘erotic’ (to appropriate Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s use of the term, see 1985) triangle with Arthur and Merlin, challenging Merlin and his decision to maintain secrecy. He also is endeared to Arthur, trusting him completely, a trust that is in his eyes betrayed; although there is more to it than that, Mordred has a part to play in Arthur’s fate. The triangle enacted by these men is visible from their first meeting as adults (V.1). In this scene (to be explored further in the next section), as Merlin recognises Mordred for the threat he is, an instant bond is formed between Arthur and his future knight (see Figure 1). Concerning the bond of Arthur and Mordred, there are traces of erotic connection between the men in the literature also. In Wilfred Campbell’s 1895 play Mordred: A Tragedy in Five Acts—in which the character is cast in the role of tragic anti-hero rather than villain—Mordred makes the point that Arthur’s affection for Launcelot “outweighs his affection for the queen, suggesting a possible homosexual subtext and therefore implicitly threatening Arthur with sexual blackmail.” (Yee 2014, 15) Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV takes this observation further when he suggests that Mordred’s suspicions in this play are not entirely unfounded; for, as Launcelot says, “I love thee, King, as doth no other man.” (1990, 171) The significance of such a suggestion of eroticism—whether valid or not—is that, as Pamela M. Yee argues: “the fact that Mordred introduces the possibility of inappropriate conduct between king and knight indicates that both he and Campbell are preoccupied with definitions of proper masculine behavior”. (2014, 16) In the second half of this essay, I will consider via close readings of episodes and analysis of slash manips, the ease with which Mordred negotiates and simultaneously inhabits dual positions—knight/sorcerer, hero/villain, lover/destroyer. A quality that renders him an intriguing and highly ‘slashable’ figure throughout the final season of the series, and a character that has something important to say about the villain’s journey.

V.1: Arthur’s Bane is Mordred’s Destiny

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Figure 2. Mordred (V).

Mordred (portrayed by Asa Butterfield, I–II; Alexander Vlahos, V) is first introduced as a young Druid boy in three episodes over seasons one and two (I.8, II.3, and II.11). He is the first to call Merlin by his Druid name, ‘Emrys,’ and plays a crucial role in introducing Morgana to sorcery early in the series. He is saved initially when Arthur allows him to escape execution by Uther, an act of mercy that endears Arthur to the character and explains the bond they later share: Arthur does, in a way, give Mordred life. Kilgharrah the dragon prophetesses that the young Druid will bring about Arthur’s demise and therefore that Merlin “must let the boy die.” However it is only at the end of this episode (I.8) that viewers learn this character is in fact the Mordred of legend. As Sherman points out, in Merlin the plot device of “introducing a figure or object from Arthurian legend while withholding his, her, or its name” (as with Mordred, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Excalibur, for example) is a pattern that is repeated throughout the series (see Sherman 2015, 91 and 94). Resultantly, when the character returns in season two, Merlin attempts unsuccessfully to have him captured, knowing he will be killed if he is. These are actions Mordred vows never to forgive and never to forget. He does not return again until the final season (V.1). Recast as an adult (the 24-year-old Vlahos, see Figure 2), he becomes a central character until the series’ end twelve episodes later (V.13). There is significance to be found in this recasting. For the Mordred of season five, while an adult, remains still somehow younger, more innocent, more easily corrupted than the other men who sit among Arthur’s ‘circle.’ He is also now at a suitable age to be ‘paired’ by slash fans with other adult males.

Mordred’s reintroduction comes while Merlin and Arthur are separated from the Knights of Camelot and being held as captives of slave traders. Mordred’s entrance is by way of intervention, preventing one of the men from killing Arthur: “Shouldn’t we leave it to the Lady Morgana to decide their fate?” Assisting Arthur up from the ground, their hands still clasped, Mordred says, “You don’t remember me do you? You saved my life once, many years ago.” The scene (see Figure 3) in which Arthur and Mordred first meet as adults is rich in visual symbolism. Mordred, with his black fur, clean appearance, and well-tailored-yet-exotic attire stands apart from the filthy brutes of the party he travels with. His pallid complexion, blue eyes, blood red lips, and black, curly hair makes him an alluring presence, set against a woodlands backdrop of lush greenery. All this contrasts with Arthur’s golden hair and reflective armour: he sits stark in the shot. Mordred’s appearance in furs and associations with the Druids make him almost wolf-like in appearance, a lone wolf boy with bushy fur and piercing eyes. Combined with the appearance of the character in Merlin’s dreams throughout the final season, such imagery is phallic and homoerotic, as Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ myth reveals (see 1955). The ‘Wolf Man’—as Freud’s patient has come to be known—is a case that appeared in From the History of an Infantile Neurosis. It details “the primal scene,” the witnessing by a child of a sexual act. In this case from the 1910s the patient, a Russian aristocrat, has an anal fixation: a predilection for heterosexual relations in which he penetrates his partner from behind, and where he is unable to move his bowels without an enema administered by a male attendant. The patient has a recurring dream of a tree full of white wolves, which Freud relates to a time when, just age one-and-a-half, the patient was exposed to his parents having coitus a tergo (“from behind”), and thus a “repressed homosexual attitude” developed (Freud 1955, 64). As Lee Edelman writes, “the Wolf Man observed at first hand what being used from behind entailed.” (1991, 96) Edelman, in connecting the case with passages in texts that depict sodomy between men, argues that the Wolf Man case “carries more specifically the psychic inscription of the anal-erotic organization.” (98)[4] The erotic potential of Arthur and Mordred’s first adult meeting is explored in my 2013 slash manip, The Coming of Mordred (see Figure 4). The work employs binary symbolism of colour and physiology (gold/black, muscular/slight, hairless/hairy, light/dark) to represent the contrast in the Arthur/Mordred dynamic; while the connection of their bodies, their hands exploring each other’s naked flesh, foreshadows the (erotic) intimacy to follow. Like the base image onto which the characters have been placed, it is a work of foreplay.

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

Figure 3. Mordred and Arthur’s first meeting as adults (V.1).

There is an unkempt wildness to Mordred that resembles Morgana, a character who has undergone a transition from colourful and regel gowns (I–III) to black furs and unkempt sensuality (IV–V), from the warmth of the ward of Camelot to the icy climate of exile; a transformation from young and beautiful into the series’ main antagonist (Mediavilla 2015, 52), a transformation that coincides with her embracing sorcery. Cindy Mediavilla argues that the televisual format “presents many opportunities for characters to evolve from one season to the next.” (2015, 52) And that of all characters, “Morgana’s transformation is, by far, the most profound.” (ibid.) Making Morgana “one of the most complex and fascinating Arthurian characters depicted on television.” (ibid.) Further, summing up the connection between the journeys of Mordred and Morgana in the series, Elysse T. Meredith argues that in Merlin, “Mordred’s path is a rough reversal of Morgana’s.” (2015, 165) In many regards a resemblance in the evolution of these characters is fitting, especially given that in many retellings of the legend, Mordred is the unwanted son of Arthur and Morgana (Edwards 2015, 50). There is a quality of heightened sexuality signified by the appearances of the adult Mordred and season five’s Morgana, which ties the sorcerer with the sexual, and the taboo of magic with the taboo of unbridled sexuality, at odds with the chaste chivalric order of Arthurian knights.

In the first episode of season five, despite travelling with their captors, Mordred continues to protect Merlin and Arthur, even smuggling them food. And when the pair escape and Arthur is presented with the opportunity to kill Mordred, he restrains, “He showed us kindness.” When Mordred is reunited with Morgana, she is both delighted and surprised to see him alive. “Sorcery frightens people,” Mordred says, “even those who claim to support it.” He is of course speaking of Merlin, whose decision to keep his identity secret, Mordred never fully reconciles. “You see a lot,” Morgana replies. “I’ve learned to,” Mordred says. “I’ve had to. If I was not to be burned at the stake or exploited for another man’s gain.” We realise at this point that Mordred too has changed, he no longer associates with the Druids. He is an outcast, like Merlin, having to hide in plain sight to survive. We never learn why this is, the mystery of his background adding to the suspense of the character and his intentions. Morgana becomes hostile when Mordred informs her that they had Arthur in their grasp and that he escaped. She accuses Mordred of letting him go. Mordred is clearly taken aback by Morgana’s outburst and detailing of how she wishes for Arthur’s head on a spike. Their reunion is cut short when the alarm is sounded: Arthur has come to free his men.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

Figure 4. The Coming of Mordred, Merlin/Mordred slash manip. By chewableprose.

While Morgana is successful in capturing Arthur, she is stopped from killing him by Mordred, who decides in a moment of intensity to change sides. It would seem that Arthur’s willingness to risk his life—“Had to free my men.”—inspires Mordred to literally stab his own kind in the back with a dagger. In the following scene, a confused Merlin asks the Diamair—the key to all knowledge—“If Mordred is not Arthur’s bane than who is?”, to which the Diamair replies, “Himself.” This is Arthur’s betrayal of Mordred to which I earlier referred. Mordred does, by all appearances, change sides; however it is Arthur’s later decisions that ultimately lead Mordred to double cross him, decisions ‘helped’ by Merlin. Mordred returns to Camelot and is knighted. In the scene following, Merlin offers to remove his cape, and queries Mordred’s defection:

MERLIN          You saved Arthur’s life, why?

MORDRED Because Arthur is right, the love that binds us is more important than the power we wield. Morgana had forgotten that.

Merlin disrobing Mordred is a titillating sight for slash fans. It connotes a changed dynamic for the former rivals. While Mordred was previously an outsider and Merlin had Arthur’s ear, now Mordred is granted access to Arthur’s inner circle. Merlin is now subservient to Sir Mordred, and must interact with him accordingly. Such is the symbolism attached to the removal of the ceremonial cape. Yet there is also subterfuge in the scene. Merlin veils a threat of exposure through the line, “if Arthur knew.” A threat that is of course empty, as Mordred holds the same damning knowledge over Merlin. Theirs is a stalemate. Merlin resists the shift of power, the subtext of this scene being his jealousy.

Mordred and Merlin are “not so different,” as Mordred identifies earlier in the episode. His rationale for turning on Morgana bears uncanny semblance to a scene from the previous season (IV.6), when a captured Merlin accuses Morgana of knowing nothing of loyalty, caring only for power. Also, they both keep their magical identities hidden from Arthur. This essay suggests that Merlin’s suspicion of Mordred is misplaced, and in fact helps ensure his eventual betrayal (as is argued below in regard to the events of V.5). As the focal character of the series, Merlin’s suspicion—however unwarranted—manifests itself in slash art that exploits the potential power, symbolic and supernatural, Mordred has to control Merlin. My 2013 slash manip Like A Beast is a case in point. In the work, I exploit the derogatory connotations of the ‘doggystyle’ position (of being fucked “from behind,” to refer back to the Wolf Man myth) and signifieds of dispassionate, focused, in control (Mordred) versus shocked, overwhelmed, distant (Merlin) in my selection of facial expressions. Merlin’s expression in particular evokes all the passivity, phallus-accommodating, and penetrative potential of the toothless, gaping mouths of side show carnival clowns ready for ball play. Such imagery is also supported by Merlin’s performance in the series of a medieval fool.[5] The Camelot banner and digitally-engorged scrotums combined with the ‘movement’ of the sexual position—Mordred employing elements of the ‘leap frog’ doggystyle variant, ‘balls deep’ inside Merlin—helps convey my intended subversion of Merlin, the power afforded to Sir Mordred, and the fallacy of his knighthood, which is built on a lie and a constant ‘threat-of-outing’ game with Merlin.

Other artists have also explored the new power differential between Merlin and Mordred, and further, the new affordances with Arthur that come as a result of Mordred’s knighthood. In an untitled 2014 work by wishfulcelebfak, who posts his works to LiveJournal, Mordred sits on Arthur’s cock (perhaps symbolic of a throne). In text accompanying the work, the artist situates the image:

Arthur (bradley james) helps druid Mordred (alexander vlahos) come out of his shell, by introducing him to “knights of the round table” aka sex buddy club.

Morgana can only offer Mordred some cheap magic tricks and a wooden dildo, but Arthur can offer him unlimited gay sex with all the hunks of the kingdom. Which side will Mordred choose? (wishfulcelebfak 2014)

Expressed in the above are the benefits that come with Mordred’s inclusion in the Knights of the Round Table, including certain ‘homosocial rituals,’ which wishfulcelebfak has (homo)sexualised. The work of Ruth Mazo Karras is useful here, her 2002 From Boys to Men, for example, examines formations of masculinity in late medieval Europe through a queer reading of the bonds that ignite among knights. The message of this manip is just how much Arthur has to offer.

Similarly, a 2012 work titled Breaking in a New Knights by endless_paths, also a LiveJournal artist, depicts Arthur entering Mordred ‘from behind.’ The accompanying text: “Who needs merlin when you have knights” (endless_paths 2012a), makes clear the role (once occupied by Merlin) that Mordred now fills; or in the context of the sexual act depicted, the willingness of Mordred to provide a ‘space’ for Arthur to fill. The artist implies that Mordred’s hole is more compatible with the cock of a king than that offered by his manservant. This implication is in much the same spirit as the erotic rituals that may have taken place between knights, such as bathing in front of each other to verify health and masculinity, as recounted in the 1300s by French knight Geoffroi de Charny in his Book of Chivalry (as noted by Zeikowitz 2003, 64–65; Zeikowitz also details intimate interactions between knights in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, author unknown). Concerning the erotic rituals of Arthur and his knights, Mordred specifically, my 2014 slash manip It’s Good to be Bad, describes just such a ritual:

Mordred knew it was wrong that, when the other knights were not looking and the Queen was away, he would get down on his knees in the grass in that private spot behind the castle and take Arthur’s manhood in his mouth, and keep it there until the King moaned, withdrew and showered him with his seed. Mordred knew it was bad to be so suggestive in front of the others in gesturing for his King to repeat the ritual more and more, but such dangerous displays were also what made it feel so good (chewableprose 2014)

In Arthur’s eyes Merlin and Mordred are entirely different (a theme explored in endless_paths’s manip): one is brave and noble and knightly, the other a friend and manservant yes, but not possessing qualities necessary to be a knight. Mordred is given recognition and place at Arthur’s right side, which is everything prophesised, but not realised, about Merlin and Arthur’s relationship. In Kilgharrah’s words to Merlin: “The Druid boy, his fate, and Arthur’s are bound together like ivy around a tree.” (V.3) While the legend is clear about the significance of such a statement, in Merlin there is the implication that it is the character Merlin’s unwillingness to trust Mordred’s sincerity that in part ensures Arthur’s grim fate. That Merlin may have had a role to play in the death of Arthur is supported by Chandler, who argues that in Merlin, and indeed much of the literature on which it is based, there is no single contributing factor in Arthur’s downfall (2015, 110). As Gaius, Merlin’s most trusted friend, tells him: “People change, perhaps you should give [Mordred] the benefit of the doubt.” (V.2) Merlin never does.

Seeking a Father, Seeking a Son: Arthur and Mordred’s Search for Each Other

Etymologically Mordred is Latin and means “painful,” an apt descriptor for a character difficult to watch. From a slash perspective, he is painful because he had so much promise. The promise was despite the character’s “weight of history,” a phrase used by series co-producer Julian Murphy to explain certain inevitable conclusions to the series (see Brennan 2015, 37; also see Sherman 2015, 83 who discusses audience expectations around Arthurian retellings). Being introduced as an adolescent to the ‘of age’ Merlin and Arthur early in the series, understanding Mordred’s portrayal relies on remembering that he is much younger than contemporaries Merlin and Arthur—easy to forget given that Alexander Vlahos, the actor recast in the role, is aged within two years of Merlin actor Colin Morgan. In the legend the character is often Arthur’s illegitimate son (to Morgause in Malory and White, and to Morgana in Bradley’s 1982 The Mists of Avalon), which perhaps explains Arthur’s father-like devotion, and Morgana’s protectiveness in this version of the story. Mordred wishes to please Arthur, and when that fails, repurposes this wish for Morgana. He gives up Merlin’s secret identity late in the final season (V.11) as demonstration of his devotion to Morgana’s cause, committing himself to the destruction of his father-figure, and the Law-of-the-Father (see Lacan 1977, 67).

The Oedipal potential of the Arthur/Mordred/Morgana relationship is plain to see, and has been noted by scholars (see Worthington 2002) in their readings of other iterations of the Arthurian legend. In renouncing Arthur and turning to the ‘dark side’ (see Figure 5) Mordred also foregoes all knightly, chivalric artifice. He embraces the sorcerer, traitor, feminine side of the binaries he once moved between. Keeping in mind Mordred’s age and his search for guardianship, before shifting sides, Arthur and Merlin emerge as two potential surrogate fathers, the erotic potential of which is as pronounced in Merlin as it is in the incestuous unions that spawned Mordred in many other adaptations (most notably in Malory). Mordred’s search for a father is met with Arthur’s search for a son and heir and is most evident in V.5. It is a search at odds with Merlin’s own quest to prove himself to Arthur, the tragedy of which rings true when we consider that Arthur dies before producing an heir.

Figure 11. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

Figure 5. Left–right: Mordred in service to Arthur; Mordred in service to Morgana (V).

In a scene from V.5 that follows a training session, Arthur makes clear to Merlin his intention to mentor Mordred, and speaks with an admiration and pride he does not of any of his other knights. Mordred’s prowess with a sword confirms how little we know of his life in the intermediary years since we last saw him. Where did he learn to fight in a manner that would impress the king? Furthering the surrogate father metaphor, Mordred is half Merlin, half Arthur, he has both of their skills and the potential to become the best of both men.[6] Mordred reaches out to both men, and while Arthur reciprocates Mordred’s love, Merlin shuns it. This is despite Gaius’s—Merlin’s own father-figure—efforts to convince Merlin that Mordred will not necessarily betray Arthur:

The future has many paths, that is only one. […] Seeing’s not the same as knowing, and we must know before we act.

In this episode Merlin acts before he knows, seizing an opportunity to ensure Mordred dies, actions that in fact ensure Mordred’s survival and the continuation of the prophecy of ‘Arthur’s bane.’

V.5: “I Cannot Save the Life of a Man Destined to Kill Arthur”

Arthur displays his faith in Mordred by inviting him on a routine patrol of the woods surrounding Camelot. Merlin objects in an early scene that labours his inability to afford Mordred the opportunity to prove himself, suggesting yet again that there could have been a very different outcome for all concerned if he had. The purpose of the patrol is to confront a rogue sorcerer, Osgar, who when confronted presents Arthur with a relic of the ‘Old Religion.’ Such relics and reference to magic as an ‘Old Religion’ adds to the mysticism of magic as it is represented in the series (via glowing eyes, potions, collection of herbs for poultices, etc.). Naturally, given his unsuperstitious nature and traits of King and Warrior (Moore and Gillette 1990, 62, 79), Arthur is not too concerned. The sorcerer dies from wounds sustained in his confrontation with the patrol and is buried in secret by Merlin. Mordred notices:

MORDRED What would the king say? Sorcerers are not permitted marked graves. It’s all right, Merlin, I’d have done the same. He was one of us, after all.

MERLIN          It won’t always be like this. One day we’ll live in freedom again.

MORDRED You really believe that?

MERLIN          I do.

MORDRED Until then, we go unmarked in death as in life.

It is their first scene alone since Merlin disrobed Mordred following his knighting. And Mordred begins as Merlin had before, with a veiled threat of exposure. Before the sorcerer Osgar had died he had told Arthur there was still time to find his “true path.” This warning mirrors Gaius’s “many paths” comment to Merlin. Kilgharrah confirms this later in the episode when he tells Merlin: “The future is never clear, there are many paths, they do not all lead to Camelot’s ruin.” It follows, therefore, that not all paths lead to Mordred’s villainy. Within Merlin, Mordred is seeking someone with whom he can confide, someone with magic like himself who can help him negotiate his dual identity. This is what Merlin ultimately denies him, and himself. Merlin is so used to keeping his identities separate, he is unable to understand Mordred, a man who refuses to give up on others knowing that side of himself. That becomes clear in this scene as Mordred seeks surety that he will not always have to hide who he is. In the end, it is Morgana who gives him this certainty of self. In the episode, Gaius convinces Arthur to investigate the relic, a journey that takes them to the White Mountains and the dwelling of the ‘Disir,’ representatives of the Old Religion (all women). When conflict inevitably follows, Mordred is gravely wounded while protecting Arthur. Mordred’s only hope for survival is Merlin’s magic, which Merlin will not use because of fear of who Mordred will become. Gaius rightly notes that letting someone die based on a prophecy of what they may one day do is out of character for Merlin. Interestingly, this scene is similar to the scene between Arthur and Morgana in V.1 that convinced Mordred to change sides:

ARTHUR          What happened to you, Morgana? As a child, you were so kind, so compassionate.

MORGANA      I grew up.

Merlin remains committed to his decision to let Mordred die for the greater good, as the experience of ‘growing up’ has taught him. This is perhaps where Mordred’s youth, as a man yet to ‘grow up’ and thus in need of guidance and understanding, becomes significant. Believing it his only recourse, Arthur returns with Merlin to the Disir, prepared to lay down his life for Mordred’s. The Disir tell Arthur he must embrace magic, and is given the night to decide. “My heart says do anything I can to save Mordred,” Arthur says to Merlin that night by campfire, a recurrent setting of intimacy and phallic symbolism (“tongues of flame” [Freud 1930, 37]) for the men. “But I have seen what misery unfettered sorcery brings. Before my father outlawed magic, Camelot was almost destroyed by sorcery. In my own time, Morgana has used it for nothing but evil. What would you do? In my place?” Arthur seriously considers the prospect that magic may not be as evil as his father thought, and even if it is, seems prepared to accept that threat in exchange for Mordred’s life. He asks Merlin for his advice on what he thinks they should do: “So what should we do? Accept magic? Or let Mordred die?” Merlin chooses the latter, and seals the fate of both men: “There can be no place for magic in Camelot.”

Arthur tells the Disir of his decision, returning with a heavy heart to Camelot. When he arrives he is delighted to discover that Mordred is alive and well, Mordred running and embracing Arthur. Merlin then realises in a scene with Gaius that by influencing Arthur not to allow magic to return to the realm, he had ensured Mordred’s path to bring about Arthur’s death:

MERLIN          How could I have been so stupid?

GAIUS             You did what you thought was best.

MERLIN          I assumed the best way to protect Arthur was to kill Mordred.

GAIUS             A perfectly natural assumption.

MERLIN          But all I did was make sure he lived. That was the Disir’s judgment. Mordred’s life is Arthur’s punishment for rejecting magic.

GAIUS             You mustn’t blame yourself.

MERLIN          But it is my fault. Mordred is alive and well. He’s free to play his part in Arthur’s death and there’s nothing I can do to prevent it. Nothing.

I am inclined to disagree with Merlin’s logic, as expressed in the above dialogue. Given reference in this episode to the many paths of fate, and the Disir’s promise to spare Mordred’s life should Arthur accept magic, it seems more plausible that it is not Mordred’s life that is punishment, but rather forthcoming catalysts—namely the character Kara—that will lead Mordred to stray onto a different path. Merlin is right in so far as this cannot now be prevented; the sentence has been passed: Arthur will die at Mordred’s hand, and Merlin ensured it. This reasoning makes sense when considered in relation to a key fan criticism (see Caspers 2013) of Merlin ending when it does, which is that the prophecy of Merlin and Arthur side-by-side, uniting the lands of Albion and returning magic to the realm is never realised. It would seem this is the hero’s critical mistake. As Gaius words it, Merlin did what he thought was ‘best,’ but not what was ‘right.’ As Arthur prophetically told Merlin in V.1: “No matter what adversity we face, we stand for what is right. To betray our beliefs, Merlin, that is what would destroy everything we strive for.”

This is the tragedy of this particular retelling. By betraying the beliefs that Arthur and Merlin had lived by, and that had seen them escape certain death many times previous, Merlin had ensured Arthur’s destruction. This point also explains another fan criticism of the plotting of the final episode (see Caspers 2013), which is that Arthur and Merlin had survived worse in the past. This time was different, this time Arthur’s fate was decided in advance. The earlier scene where Mordred doubts whether magic will ever not be outlawed lends further credence to the argument that had Arthur chosen Mordred’s life over his decree, Mordred would not need to go on “unmarked in death as in life.” The episode ends with Arthur with his arms around Mordred, hoisting him into the air (see Figure 6), it serves as grim reminder—for Arthur/Mordred shippers[7] particularly—of what might have been.

Figure 6 Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

Figure 6. Arthur hoists Mordred into the air in a playful embrace (V.5).

V.9: “Three’s Better than Two, Isn’t That Right, Merlin?”

Mordred continues to reach out to Merlin in the lead-up to the cataclysmic event that reroutes him onto the path of Arthur’s destruction. And Arthur continues to treat Mordred like a son. The events of V.9 are a good illustration of this. In the plot for this episode, Mordred and Leon are the only knights Arthur trusts with information of a plan intended to disrupt potential leaks in the ranks. The episode is the final in the ‘evil!Guinevere trilogy,’ in which Guinevere is enchanted to serve Morgana, and in it Merlin and Arthur set out with an unconscious Guinevere to meet ‘The Dolma,’ a mysterious elderly female sorcerer, in hopes of a cure. Mordred, having noticed Merlin acting strangely, follows them. It is just as well he does too, coming to the rescue when a cliff fall leaves Merlin unconscious and Arthur pinned beneath a boulder. Mordred is praised that evening around a campfire: that site of homoerotic significance. There, sitting around erect flames, Arthur makes reference to the triangle Mordred effects in the Arthur/Merlin dynamic: “Good to have you with us. Three’s better than two, isn’t that right, Merlin?” That evening, Mordred once again confronts Merlin, expressing a desire for amicable relations between them:

MORDRED You don’t trust me do you, Merlin?

MERLIN          I believe you to be a fine knight.

MORDRED But not one to be trusted. It’s all right, I know you have the king’s best interests at heart. I only wish you would believe that I do too. One day I shall prove my loyalty to you and the king. Then I hope we may be friends.

MERLIN          I would wish for nothing more.

When an attack from Morgana renders Mordred unconscious, Merlin convinces Arthur to leave him for dead. Yet another refusal by Merlin to believe in Mordred, which in turn facilitates Morgana and Mordred’s first meeting since his defection:

MORDRED Why don’t you kill me?

MORGANA      My argument’s not with you, Mordred. How could it be? We’re of a kind.

MORDRED Never.

MORGANA      You wear the uniform well but we both know what lies beneath. Do you think Arthur would tolerate you for one minute if he knew the truth? One of his knights, a sorcerer.

MORDRED One day he will know. One day we will be accepted.

MORGANA      Your naïveté would be charming if it wasn’t so dangerous.

Mordred defeats Morgana using magic, his eyes glowing gold: symbolising the fire Morgana has ignited within (see Figure 7); ambers of doubt—and of Camelot’s destruction, as the prophecy goes—are being fanned, which again would not have been the case had Arthur embraced magic in V.5. At the episode’s end Mordred reveals that he had known the mysterious sorceress Arthur had gone to meet was in fact Merlin, and vows to keep his secret yet again, to trust that Merlin’s intentions are just: “Have no fear. I will not divulge your secret. I admire you. It can’t be easy to do so much for so little reward.” This episode and the meeting with Morgana marks the beginning of the end.

Figure 13. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

Figure 7. Mordred defeats Morgana using magic (V.9).

V.11: “You’re Breaking His Heart. You’ll Lose His Trust”

Arthur’s sentence—to die at the hands of a Druid—begins with Mordred’s betrayal in V.11 and is complete only two episodes later. In V.11 Mordred (as Lover) shelters a childhood friend and implied lover, Kara, who is subsequently captured and sentenced to death after killing several of Arthur’s men and making an attempt on Arthur’s life. Mordred pleads with Arthur on Kara’s behalf for clemency, weeps and kneels before him, “I beg you, Arthur.” Arthur is moved by the display and responds in a father-like manner: “You know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” Yet refuses to yield the sentence, for she is a danger to his people. Merlin watches these events unfold with great interest, well aware of what is a stake, and pleads to Arthur on Mordred’s behalf:

MERLIN          You’re breaking his heart. You’ll lose his trust.

ARTHUR          There’s nothing I can do. In time Mordred will understand that. He’ll come to forgive me.

MERLIN          I fear you’re wrong, Arthur.

Kara exploits Mordred’s feelings for her, poisoning him against Arthur to further her own cause against Uther’s doctrine: “No matter what he preaches, he is no different from his father.” Mordred resolves to free Kara and smuggle her out of Camelot. However before he does, he returns to Arthur to apologise for what he is about to do, and to say goodbye: “You took me in. I will always remember that, and everything you’ve done for me.” Recognising Mordred’s speech for what it is, Merlin confronts Mordred and his intention to free Kara. Mordred warns Merlin not to betray his trust. “Tell me you wouldn’t do the same for the woman you love,” Mordred says. “You see, you can’t.” When Merlin discusses the situation with Gaius, he is reminded that what Mordred is planning: “It’s nothing you haven’t done yourself a hundred times before.” And yet, as Merlin has always done, he applies a double standard where Mordred is concerned, betraying his trust and telling Arthur of Mordred’s intentions. It is one final failure on Merlin’s behalf to choose another path for Mordred, the man who so admires him.

Mordred and Kara are captured in the woods beyond the castle, Kara having killed a guard during the escape. They are imprisoned, Kara’s sentence standing and Mordred’s pending. Merlin makes another attempt to persuade Arthur to free Kara. And it works. The next morning, in the throne room before all of the court Arthur offers Kara a chance: “If you repent your crimes, I will spare your life.” Arthur’s love for Mordred is such that he would betray his own beliefs—allowing a sorcerer and killer to go free—if it will mean winning back Mordred’s favour. Slash manip artist endless-paths speculates on Arthur’s devotion and the seductiveness of the Mordred character in a 2012 Arthur/Mordred manip titled A Knight Doing His Duty. In a brief statement accompanying the work and setting up the action depicted, endless_paths writes: “Sometimes the power of a sorcerer is to [sic] much to resist.” (2012b) The manip configures the two in the missionary position and is set in Arthur’s chambers, two qualities that connote intimacy and familiarity between the pair: they have done this before. In line with the ‘semiotic significance of selection’ (Brennan 2013) in the work, Mordred, as you would expect, is slighter in stature, while Arthur is particularly limber. In a plank position, Mordred folds Arthur’s knees back and by his sides, elevating his arse for deeper penetration. Arthur’s arms reclined behind his head; his toes pointed and clenched; and his chin pressed to his chest allowing for full view of Mordred’s cock entering him: Arthur is entirely committed to the act and maximising the full range of his penetrator’s motion. Both men have relaxed expressions and line of sight to each other.

Despite Arthur’s best efforts to
alleviate tensions with Mordred via an offer of clemency, Kara
remains resolute: “You deserve everything that’s coming to you, Arthur Pendragon.” Mordred never learns of Arthur’s offer to pardon Kara. In a state of acute grief, Mordred uses magic to free himself following her execution (see Figure 8) and travels to Morgana directly, to whom he reveals that the identity of the man who had been stalking her dreams, Emrys, is none other than Arthur’s manservant, Merlin. Once again, connection can be made here between Mordred and Morgana’s journeys to villainy, in particular this critical episode and its sequence of events, which can be compared with a storyline from season one. As Jennifer C. Edwards explains, after witnessing Uther’s resolve to execute a man of magic (Alvarr in I.12) who had provided her with comfort, “Morgana changes from a loving ward to a treacherous rebel and even goes so far as to plot Uther’s death.” (2015, 51) A similar fate befalls Mordred here, whose “betrayal of Arthur results not from inherent malevolence but from the death of his childhood sweetheart.” (Meredith 2015, 165)

Figure 14. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Figure 8. In a state of grief, Mordred uses magic to set himself free from his cell and from Arthur (V.11).

Conclusion

Reflecting on her experience of the aftermath of a public execution of a criminal during a residence in Scandinavia, Mary Wollstonecraft (1802) writes:

[…] executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify. Besides, the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deterred any one from the commission of a crime; because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances. It is a game of hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favour; never reflecting on the chance of ruin, till it comes. In fact, from what I saw, in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character, which renders a man a daring villain, would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized. (208)

Wollstonecraft’s reflection is resonant with the execution of Kara, which is the catalyst for spurring Mordred the Lover to betray and destroy his King. In her critique of the spectacle of the public execution, Wollstonecraft makes the case that villainy is not innate, but rather due to some external, societal failure. Such an observation is comparable with my argument in this essay about the Mordred character, that great archetype of the treacherous villain. That the societal failure of a pre-unified Albion, in which magic is banned and Merlin the Magician feels the need to hide himself, is what leads Mordred onto his villainous path. This reading offers insight into the popular reimagining of an iconic villain, as well as the various types and queer metaphors the character’s journey in this popular series illuminates and rouses within the minds of fans. The inclusion in this essay of works by slash manip artists both demonstrate the appeal of a queer reading of the Mordred character, while also supporting broader queer readings of Merlin as a program full of homoerotic potential.

T.H. White’s adaptation of the Arthurian legend has been read by some scholars as an allegory to the horrors of the Second World War. In it Mordred is a Hitlerian character. He turns to new technology to bring about a ‘New Order’ (1958, 620–21). If Hitler sought to destroy civilisation; in White, by valorising power above honour, Mordred destroys chivalry (Thomas 1982, 50). In Merlin, Mordred is more a pawn of fate than an agent of destruction; he carries out Arthur’s sentence from the Triple Goddess (V.5) under Morgana’s—High Priestess of the Triple Goddess—instruction. He stands as example of the dire consequences of secrecy. Merlin’s unwillingness to trust him, and resolve to remain closeted about his secret identity, seals Mordred and Arthur’s fate of mutual destruction. When Mordred strikes the fatal blow in V.13, he says to Arthur: “You gave me no choice.” When Arthur returns with a fatal strike of his own, Mordred smiles, he will not go into death unmarked or alone.

 

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Notes

[1] During Arthur’s quest to save his knights from Morgana in V.1, Merlin encounters a Druid seer who tells him of ‘Arthur’s bane,’ the prophecy of Arthur’s death at the hands of a Druid (Mordred). Merlin is told: “Now more than ever it is you and you alone that can keep Arthur safe.” It sets a sinister tone for the final season. Coupled with the season’s tagline “The die is cast,” it suggests that Arthur’s death is an inescapable destiny, which ushers back to season one’s tagline, “You can’t escape destiny.”

[2] See Tollerton 2015, who discusses the “freer hand” Merlin has “to gesture toward modern concerns and make ethical judgements on issues of diversity and society.” (123)

[3] Not surprising, given that the format of Smallville (depicting Clark Kent before he became Superman) served as principal inspiration for Merlin (Brennan 2015, 39).

[4] Also see Padva 2005, who uses Freud’s reading of the homoerotic symbolism in the wolf dream to read a gay male comic, Jon Macy’s ‘Tail.’

[5] In a scene from V.1, Arthur delights in the opportunity to humiliate Merlin, forcing him to juggle for the entertainment of Queen Annis and her guests.

[6] Producing offspring based on a digital composite of two male faces is a popular practice among digital slash artists.

[7] A ‘shipper’ is a fan who wishes for a particular pairing to share a romantic relationship (see Scodari and Felder 2000).

 

Bio:
Joseph Brennan
is a sessional lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, where he was recently awarded his Ph.D. His doctoral work involved textual analysis of photo-montaged fan works inspired by BBC’s Merlin. Known as ‘slash manips,’ in these photo remixes fans layer images of male characters from popular media with gay, and often pornographic, material. He argues that these works are of scholarly interest because they have something to tell us about sex and bodies, about the divides we erect within male sexuality, between popular and pornographic, homosocial and homosexual, the implied and the explicit. He was Teaching Fellow at the University of Sydney, 2012–2013, and a critic with Australian Art Review, 2008–2013.

“Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie – Erin Hawley

Abstract: In this paper, I explore the possibility of retelling Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein in a children’s media text.  Like most material within the horror genre, Frankenstein is not immediately accessible to children and its key themes and tropes have traditionally been read as articulations of “adult” concerns.  Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  With this in mind, I consider how the Frankenstein tale has been transformed within the constructed space of a child’s worldview in Tim Burton’s 2012 animated film Frankenweenie.  I argue that the film neither simplifies nor expresses great fidelity to Shelley’s novel, but instead cultivates a sense of curiosity and cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and the horror genre itself.

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

Sparky the dog. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

The horror genre has long been considered “off limits” to children.  From the rewriting of fairytales to erase their violent and scary content (Zipes 1993) to the literal defacement of eighteenth century children’s literature to remove traces of the Gothic (Townshend 2008), efforts to disentangle children’s texts from horror have given rise to the notion that children cannot derive the same sort of pleasure from “being scared” that adults can.  Recent scholarship has suggested, however, that children can and do take pleasure in horror material.  In her work on child cinema audiences in Britain, Sarah Smith has found that horror films in the 1930s were “extremely popular with children” due to the “mixed feelings of fear and fun” they evoked (2005, 58).  Writing of James Whale’s film Frankenstein (1931), Smith observes that children were “fascinated by its appeal and attended in droves” (2005, 70).  Similarly, David Buckingham’s research into children as horror viewers reveals that, while fright reactions to horror material can be powerful and long-lived, child audiences also take pleasure in the conventions of the horror text – they enjoy watching “evil destroyed” but also watching it “triumph”; they enjoy the feeling of fear itself and, like adult viewers, find pleasure in horror’s momentary destabilisation of societal norms (1996, 112-116).

The pleasures of horror from a child’s perspective have also been explored by Neil Gaiman (2006), who tells an interesting story about his daughter’s fascination with James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  “My daughter Maddy loves the idea of The Bride of Frankenstein,” he writes: “she’s ten”.  Such fascination leads to dress-ups and play, and eventually to young Maddy and her friend watching the horror classic under Gaiman’s supervision.  When confronted with the movie itself, however, the enthusiasm wanes: the kids don’t get it.  As Gaiman observes, “They enjoyed it, wriggling and squealing in all the right places. But once it was done, the girls had an identical reaction. ‘Is it over?’ asked one. ‘That was weird,’ said the other, flatly. They were as unsatisfied as an audience could be”.

To some extent, this reaction is not surprising.  The Bride of Frankenstein is based on Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein, a text that – like most material within the horror genre – is usually read as an articulation of decidedly adult concerns.  From the original novel to its more recent manifestations in popular media, the Frankenstein tale is peppered with depictions of violence and violation, murder and misogyny; across the long history of its remaking in popular culture it has been interpreted as a story about genetic manipulation (Waldby 2002, 29), sexual transgression (Mellor 2003, 12-13), and post-partum depression (Johnson 1982, 6), to name just a few of its more adult-centric resonances.

Yet Frankenstein is also a tale with surprisingly child-centric themes.  At its heart, it is a story about what it means to be an outsider and what it means to encounter, experience, and negotiate otherness; these are themes that have more recently been explored by writers of children’s and young adult fiction from Roald Dahl to Stephenie Meyer.  As Barbara Johnson has pointed out, Frankenstein is also essentially a story about parent/child relationships: with its themes of monstrosity and technology, Johnson tells us, Shelley’s novel explores “the love-hate relation we have toward our children” (1982, 6).  Building on Johnson we can suggest that by offering us a glimpse of the world through the monster’s eyes the novel also briefly presents this “love-hate relation” from the child’s perspective, and that decades of Frankenstein movies continue this by offering the misunderstood monster as an icon of all that is unruly, confused, and frightening about childhood itself.

The story Gaiman tells about his daughter’s fascination with The Bride of Frankenstein and her reaction – “that was weird” – to the movie itself is a lovely articulation of the way children may be simultaneously drawn to and locked out of the Frankenstein tale.  It is interesting to note that Gaiman’s daughter and her friend were not frightened by the film or put off by its horror elements (indeed, they seemed to enjoy this aspect of the movie, “wriggling and squealing in all the right places”); instead, it was a certain indefinable strangeness that informed their ultimately “unsatisfied” reaction.  All this suggests that children can engage meaningfully and pleasurably with material in the horror genre, especially if that material is rewritten with a child’s perspective in mind.

In this article, I explore the relationship between Frankenstein and young audiences and consider the possibility of retelling Shelley’s novel in a children’s media text.  My analysis is inspired by the recent appearance of characters from Shelley’s novel and its various adaptations in three children’s animated films: Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012), in which a boy named Victor Frankenstein reanimates his dog Sparky after a tragic car accident; Igor (Anthony Leondis, 2008), in which a hunch-backed laboratory assistant brings a female monster to life; and Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012), in which the Frankenstein monster and his Bride join Dracula and a host of other characters from the horror genre.  This trend towards engaging the Frankenstein myth in children’s media begs the question: how have such texts made Shelley’s tale accessible to young audiences, and with what degree of success?

Below, I take up this question with specific reference to Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie.  Not only is Burton’s film (as we shall see) the most highly regarded and in some senses the most successful of these three texts, it is also the most complex and arguably does not “dumb down” its source material.  My analysis of Frankenweenie will examine how the film constructs a “child’s eye view” and transforms the Frankenstein tale so that its characters, themes, and narratives make sense within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I will demonstrate that Burton’s film captures the spirit of its source text without necessarily striving for fidelity.  I will also consider some of Frankenweenie’s extra-textual material, exploring how reviews, product tie-ins, and even the film’s intertextual references contribute to its overall project of transforming but not simplifying the Frankenstein tale for children.

Adaptation, simplification, and transformation

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton's homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Victor and his dog Sparky from Tim Burton’s homage to the Frankenstein story, Frankenweenie (2012).

Frankenweenie is a stop-motion animation inspired by Burton’s earlier live-action film of the same name.  Here, the Frankenstein tale is relocated to one of Burton’s characteristic suburbia-scapes (“New Holland”), complete with manicured lawns, hedge sculptures, and monstrously mediocre residents.  Within this new narrative space, “Victor Frankenstein” is a child: a troubled, creative loner who spends his time tinkering in the attic, playing with his beloved dog Sparky, and making movies.  Tragedy enters Victor’s life when Sparky is killed in a car accident.  Inspired by his science teacher, the delightfully dour Mr Rzykruski, Victor steals Sparky’s body from the pet cemetery, drags the corpse back to the family home, and reanimates him in the attic.  When Victor’s classmates learn his secret, they try to replicate the experiment.  Chaos ensues as pets both living and dead are transformed into monsters who descend on New Holland, leading to a climactic showdown at the windmill overlooking the town.

The relationship between Frankenweenie and its source text, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is complex.  Burton’s film both diverges from and intersects with Shelley’s novel, defining itself through patterns of fleeting fidelity and moments of spectacular transformation.  At the same time, the film makes reference to a plethora of other texts both within and beyond the Frankenstein mythos, thereby demonstrating the ways in which “adaptation” approaches and merges with “intertextuality” (see Elliott 2014; Martin 2009; Leitch 2003).  In other words, Frankenweenie is by no means a “faithful” retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein.  It should be noted, however, that Shelley’s novel – despite being adapted many times in the centuries since its publication, across different media and in different genres – has not tended to inspire fierce fidelity in adapting authors.  As Albert Lavalley points out, Frankenstein tends to be “viewed by the playwright or the screenwriter as a mythic text, an occasion for the writer to let loose his own fantasies or to stage what he feels is dramatically effective, to remain true to the central core of the myth, [but] often to let it interact with fears and tensions of the current time” (1979, 245).

The notion of “fidelity” to an original text as the means of measuring an adaptation’s success, strength, and value has itself been thoroughly contested and problematised in recent years.  Fuelled particularly by the work of adaptation theorists such as Robert Stam (2005), Thomas Leitch (2003, 2007), and Imelda Whelehan (1999), this problematisation of the fidelity model has been an intervention in established ways of thinking about the relationship between an adaptive text and its source material.  As Will Brooker observes, though, fidelity criticism may be “outmoded and discredited within academia” but it has managed to “retain its currency within popular discourse” (2012, 45); in particular, it still informs the critical reception of films that adapt well-known novels or works of literature.  Even within academia, moreover, fidelity criticism has tended to linger in discussions of children’s media texts, particularly when the texts in question are retellings of classic or literary works.  It is often assumed that such adaptations carry some degree of responsibility for encouraging children to read and connect with the source material (Napolitano 2009, 81); in this way, the issue of fidelity becomes more urgent in the context of children’s media.

Concerns about fidelity in children’s adaptations are compounded by the issue of simplification.  Frankenweenie, for instance, is both an adaptation of a literary text and a reworking of classic horror films within the space of a child’s animation: the question we may immediately wish to ask, then, is “what has been lost in this process?”.  Both Shelley’s novel and the films of James Whale are today held in high regard as cultural classics, while the Frankenstein myth itself is a repository of ideas and cultural conversations about selfhood, embodiment, subjectivity, life, and death.  Potentially, the simplification of this myth for children would involve more than just a strategic removal of violent and sexual content in order to achieve a PG rating: it would be a process of dumbing down, a cleaning up of a story that works best when it is not “clean”.  It would also be a form of commercialisation, a reduction of a complex tale so that it can be packaged and marketed to young audiences.

These problems of simplification, commodification, and the dumbing down of source material are frequently mentioned by analysts of children’s adaptations, especially when the adaptation in question is a Disney product (as is Frankenweenie).  Writing in 1965 for the journal Horn Book, Frances Sayers refers to the “sweet” and “saccharine” nature of Disney adaptations and argues that, in order to both address and construct a child or family audience, Disney texts present life as lacking “any conflict except the obvious conflict of violence” (609).  Her concerns have been echoed by Hastings, who writes of the “conscious effort [by Disney] to produce children’s movies with no alarming moral ambiguities” (1993, 84).  Zipes, in turn, laments the way Disney has “‘violated’ the literary genre of the fairytale and packaged his versions in his name through the merchandising of books, toys, clothing, and records” (1995, 38).  Marc Napolitano’s work on the “Disneyfication of Dickens” is particularly relevant here because it explores the intersection between adult literature and children’s media.  Napolitano argues that the films Oliver & Company and The Muppet Christmas Carol – both Disney texts that retell canonical works by Charles Dickens – are “simplified and sanitized adaptations of Dickens that were marketed to families by the Walt Disney Company” (2009, 80).  In Oliver & Company in particular, Napolitano argues, Disney “lightens the material significantly and uses cute, cuddly animal characters, all of whom would be reproduced as stuffed toys, McDonald’s Happy Meal prizes… and countless other types of child-friendly merchandise to market the film to kids” (2009, 82).

All such criticism of Disney’s treatment of literary material is important, and functions as part of a wider interrogation of the seemingly “apolitical” and “critically untouchable” world of children’s animated film (Bell, Haas, and Sells 1995, 2).  As analysts of Disney products, it is essential that we disentangle ourselves from our own enjoyment of the Disney “magic”; this is part of what Zipes has called “Breaking the Disney Spell” (1995).  At the same time, however, claims about “Disneyfication” can be problematic when they make sweeping assumptions about young audiences, their levels of media literacy, and the ways in which they engage with media texts.  In other words, when accusing a children’s text of simplification we ourselves risk making an overly simplified reading of the child audience.  The charge of simplification becomes especially problematic when it lapses into what Semenza (2008) has termed the “dumbing down cliché”: the notion that adapting a literary text for children must always and automatically involve a process of reduction and commodification.

In the context of these concerns, Frankenweenie provides us with an interesting example because it resists the simplification process and simultaneously encourages its young audience to reconnect with the source material through means other than fidelity.  The film’s refusal to “Disneyfy” the Frankenstein tale is signified by the transformation of the Disney logo in the opening sequence: lightning strikes the familiar Disney castle and the picture turns black and white, a suggestion that there will be no fairies or cute, singing animals in the film that follows; that there will be no attempts to render the Frankenstein tale “safe” and “simple” even as it is opened up for young viewers.  While this transformation of the Disney logo is indicative of the mediating presence of Burton in the adaptation process, and of the supposed clash between the Disney and Burton brands, it can also be read as a resistance to simplification – a suggestion that the film will be “Frankenstein for kids” but not “Frankenstein lite”.

In what follows, I explore how Frankenweenie transforms (rather than simplifies) the Frankenstein tale within the imagined space of a child’s world.  I use the term “transformation” with an awareness of its applicability to studies of animation as an art form, a technology, and a mode of representation.  As both Susan Napier (2000) and Paul Wells (1998) have noted, animation has metamorphic qualities that distinguish it from live-action cinema and that manifest at the levels of story, body, and space.  Wells has also argued that the process of adapting a literary text into animated film can involve “an act of literal transformation which carries with it mythic and metaphoric possibility” (2007, 201).  In this way, the idea of transformation allows us to discuss children’s animated films as adaptations without making assumptions about animation as a medium (for instance, that it is inferior to live-action cinema) or about children as audiences (for instance, that they are incapable of understanding textual and intertextual complexities).

Transformation and the child’s eye view

In her analysis of the filmic adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved picture book Where the Wild Things Are, Sarah Annunziato (2014) explores the construction of a “child’s eye view”, arguing that the film – while drawing attention and public comment for its scariness and mature themes – is appropriate for young audiences because it imagines the world as seen through a child’s eyes.  Similar claims can be made of Frankenweenie, which constructs a child’s view of the world and repeatedly invites its viewers to inhabit this childlike space.  In both these films, the creation of a child’s eye view specifically involves moments of scariness rather than excluding them.  The relationship between Frankenstein and Frankenweenie differs, however, from that between the book and film versions of Where the Wild Things Are because it involves a shift from adult to child audience.  In Burton’s film, therefore, employing a child’s perspective allows for a significant rethinking of the original tale.

In its simplest sense, this child’s eye view is visible in the depiction of New Holland and its residents.  While certainly reminiscent of some of Burton’s other visions of suburbia, New Holland is best described as a small town landscape seen through a child’s eyes: a place of long shadows and neat lines, of fantasy and darkness, of strange children and menacing adults.  The frequent use of low camera angles to depict some of these adult characters (such as the mayor Mr Bergermeister and the science teacher Mr Rzykruski) aligns us with Victor and invites us to adopt a child’s perspective.  While not menacing or imposing, Victor’s parents, too, are adults as seen by children: simplistic to the point of caricature, caught up in trivial or meaningless “grown-up” concerns (Victor’s father talks endlessly about his work as a travel agent; Victor’s mother is repeatedly seen vacuuming the house and/or reading romance novels).  On the other hand, the world of Victor (the child’s world) is depicted as complex, detailed, and intricate.  This is best represented by the attic, a cluttered space of creativity, invention, and play – and a notable contrast with the rest of Victor’s house and suburb, which are neat, sparse, and boring.

This inherent difference between adults and children – and the resultant conflict, always seen from the child’s perspective – is central to the plot of Frankenweenie.  From the opening scenes we learn that Victor is misunderstood by his mostly well-meaning parents, who worry that he spends too much time alone and will “turn out weird”.  His father encourages Victor to take up baseball, which leads inadvertently to Sparky’s death: the little dog meets his doom while chasing a ball hit by Victor.  The subsequent depiction of Victor’s grief is highly moving, all the more so because his parents do not seem to understand the extent of his sadness.  His mother offers clichés and platitudes: “If we could bring him back, we would” and “when you lose someone they never really leave you – they just move into a special place in your heart”, which Victor interprets as hollow and macabre (“I don’t want him in my heart”, he objects, “I want him here with me”).  These early scenes suggest a sense of turmoil beneath the calm surface of even the most loving parent-child relationship: a version, perhaps, of the “love-hate relation” that Johnson (1982, 6) detects within Shelley’s visions of monstrosity.  They also reveal that the world seen through a child’s eyes is not a simple place, even though it may be dominated by fantasies (such as the desire to bring Sparky back to life, which Victor soon fulfills).

It is through these early depictions of conflict, death, and grief that the film captures the thematic spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel.  In Shelley’s text, Victor Frankenstein is driven to create his monster by a desire to suspend mortality and escape the horrors of death and decay: Shelley’s Victor is both haunted and inspired by the death of his mother, Caroline, which leads him to seek out scientific means of “renew[ing] life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 1993, 43).  For children, the death of a pet is often a first experience of mortality; thus in Frankenweenie it is the dog, Sparky’s, death that allows Victor to confront the notion of perishability that so horrifies his predecessor in Shelley’s novel.  This experience of death and perishability also precipitates the story events and initiates the move into the horror genre by inspiring Victor’s act of monster-making.

The scene in which Victor reanimates Sparky provides Burton and his team with much opportunity to revel in horror movie history and to pay homage to the films of James Whale, particularly Frankenstein (1931) and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  Lightning flashes and thunder crashes as Victor sews Sparky’s body back together and fixes bolts to his neck; the body is then covered by a sheet and raised through the roof to receive the life-giving electric charge.  Yet here, too, the child’s eye view is at work.  Attentive viewers will notice that Sparky’s body is laid out on an ironing board, and that toys, appliances, and other household objects form part of the elaborate life-giving apparatus.  Signifiers of “childhood” and “ordinariness” are thus interwoven with the signifiers of life, creation, and monstrosity borrowed from Whale.  Instead of fingers twitching and eyes opening, Sparky’s “alive-ness” is signified by a wagging tail; and instead of proclaiming “It’s alive!” like his predecessor in the Whale films, young Victor Frankenstein says “You’re alive”.  This shift in language reveals that the monster has been created according to a child’s desires and wishes: the moment of creation is framed by Victor’s desire not only for Sparky to still be alive but for the friendship, happiness, and unconditional love that a pet often represents.  Accordingly, the child views the monster as a friend and companion (you) rather than as the product of an experiment (it).

This transformation of Frankenstein to suit a child’s perspective certainly involves a degree of softening, a removal of some aspects of violence and conflict that define the original tale.  For instance, Shelley’s novel and most of its adaptations are constructed around the conflict between monster and maker – this conflict is not present in Frankenweenie.  As we would expect given the film’s target audience, Burton and his screenwriter John August also de-sexualise the Frankenstein tale: another notable absence is Shelley’s sub-plot involving the creation of a mate for the monster, and the resultant murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.  This does not mean, however, that Frankenweenie shies away from an exploration of monstrosity and horror.  Indeed, while Sparky himself is not depicted as a true monster, the film is replete with images of monstrosity.  These come particularly in the form of the creatures that Victor’s classmates bring to life: pets and other icons of familiarity, domesticity, and innocence (sea monkeys, a fluffy white cat, a dead hamster) who become snarling, terrifying, rampaging beasts.  The image of these monsters running amok through the fairground of New Holland encapsulates the film’s transformation of its source material.  This scene is only tenuously connected to Shelley’s plot, yet it resounds with Frankensteinian questions and dilemmas, particularly as they might be understood by children: When you have created your monster, what are you going to do with him/her/it?  And what happens if your monster (your game, your story) escapes your control?  While exploring the lighter side of monster-making, then, the film also explores the darker side of play, re-interpreting the Frankensteinian themes of creativity, perishability, and the life/death boundary so that they are seen from a child’s perspective.

Paratexts, intertexts, and the complex world of Frankenweenie

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

From Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. One of the many examples of the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky.

While not a notable box office success, Frankenweenie received a generally positive critical reception.  The film is rated highly – at 87% – on the aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes, and is frequently described by reviewers as an enjoyable product for both children and adults (see, for instance, Paatsch 2012; Chang 2012; Mazmanian 2012).  Occasionally, charges of simplification are levelled at the film: Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes Frankenweenie as “a sentimental kind of retro gothic lite, appearing under the Disney banner” (2012), while A.O. Scott in the New York Times writes that “the movie, a Walt Disney release, also feels tame and compromised” (2012).  Other reviewers found the film dark enough to be entertaining, with many making positive mention of Burton’s ability to balance the sweetness of a children’s story with the darkness of a horror film.  Leigh Paatsch in the Herald Sun, for instance, commends the film for “deftly balancing blatant eeriness with a chipper cheeriness that excuses many a macabre event” (2012).  Lou Lumenick in the New York Post praises the film for its “creepy but basically sweet humor” (2012), as does Matthew Bond in the Daily Mail Australia who describes it as “strange, but also touching and lovely” (2012).  In Time magazine, Richard Corliss addresses the film’s boundary-crossing quality when he notes approvingly that “Frankenweenie’s message to the young” is that “children should play with dead things” (2012).

This positive reception sets Burton’s film apart from other recent children’s films that play with horror tropes and characters, such as the aforementioned Hotel Transylvania and Igor, both of which received lukewarm reviews.  Hotel Transylvania in particular was frequently criticised for its shallow approach to the narratives it draws upon, including Shelley’s Frankenstein (see, for instance, Reynolds 2012; Collin 2012).  L. Kent Wolgamott in the Lincoln Journal Star (2012) observes that while Frankenweenie did not perform as well at the box office as Hotel Transylvania, it is “by far, the superior film” (and he contextualises this comment by urging readers not to “consider box-office returns to be the only measure of a film’s success”, adding that with Frankenweenie Burton has created a “masterpiece”).

Some reviews of Frankenweenie mention the construction of a child’s eye view.  Adam Mazmanian in The Washington Times, for instance, identifies this as the means by which the film “draw[s] in young audiences”, adding that its “knowing winks at horror-movie history will appeal to grown-ups” (2012).  It is interesting that Mazmanian feels the need to separate the film’s audience into these two distinct categories, and that he distinguishes the “adult” and “child” sections of the audience by an ability (or lack thereof) to “get” the film’s intertextual references.  Wolgamott takes this further, praising the film for its references to classic horror movies but adding “that’s not anything the preschool through middle school animation crowd is going to get, or could possibly care about” (2012).  Both critics agree that intertextuality is a means by which Frankenweenie resists simplification and becomes something more than a light and fluffy children’s film.  At the same time, both critics produce distinct readings of the film’s child and adult audiences, and locate the qualities of media literacy and cultural awareness (which might enable the decoding of the film’s intertextuality) squarely within the adult space.

It is certainly true that Frankenweenie is littered with intertextual references: to other texts in the Frankenstein mythos (particularly the films of James Whale), to films in Burton’s oeuvre (such as Edward Scissorhands), and to texts in the horror genre more broadly (such as the Japanese monster movie Gamera).  This is coupled with a playful self-reflexivity that we often see in filmic adaptations of Frankenstein.  As Esther Schor (2003) has pointed out, adaptations of Shelley’s novel – from the early stage productions to the first known Frankenstein film in 1910, and beyond – often depict the monster’s coming-to-life in a spectacular and self-referential way; most filmic versions, in particular, play upon what William Nestrick (1979, 292) has termed the “myth of animation” – a thematic link or bridge between the Frankenstein tale and cinema’s own powers to bring a still image, body, or scene to life.  Frankenweenie, of course, is an animated film, and this brings new meaning to Nestrick’s “myth”.  The technologies of movie-making and, specifically, stop-motion animation are spectacularised in the image of Sparky’s coming-to-life, adding another layer of intertextuality to a film already rich with cultural references.

It may be tempting to assume, as do Mazmanian and Wolgamott, that children are excluded from this intertextual conversation.  Indeed, it has become increasingly common for children’s films to engage in a dual mode of address, enchanting children with stories, songs, and imagery while offering jokes, intertextual references, or clever moments of self-awareness to adults.  The implication is that long-suffering parents should be rewarded for watching films with their children or otherwise lured into the watching process by the promise of adult-centric entertainment.  Burton’s film is somewhat different because the intertextual references are closely bound to the narrative – they are less an amusing aside for adults than part of the film’s very fabric.  They are also, potentially, a means of encouraging audiences to connect with the source material.  While Frankenweenie does not openly strive to generate reverence for (or even awareness of) Mary Shelley, her novel, and the act of reading Frankenstein, it arguably promotes a more complex form of literacy that speaks directly to the process of adaptation itself.  By referencing the movies of James Whale, in particular, Burton positions his film within a web of Frankenstein texts and also destabilises the primacy of Shelley’s novel as source text: adapting Frankenstein, we are told, is a complex business that involves the engagement with already apparent intertextuality rather than the “recovery” of a single source text from out of the depths of adaptation history.

It is likely, furthermore, that many of the children who constitute Frankenweenie’s primary audience are able to decode the film’s intertextual references due to their familiarity with the horror genre and its tropes, characters, and conventions.  As noted above, children have traditionally been locked out of the horror genre; in recent years, however, encounters between young audiences and horror have been initiated through a plethora of child-friendly horror texts: as well as Hotel Transylvania and Igor, these include the films ParaNorman (Sam Fell and Chris Butler, 2012) and Monsters vs Aliens (Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon, 2009), the video game Plants vs Zombies (PopCap Games, 2009), the books and television series Grossology (Sylvia Branzei, 1992-1997; Nelvana Limited, 2006-2009), and Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl books (2013-2015), as well as older but still relevant texts such as The Simpsons (which frequently lampoons the genre through its “Treehouse of Horror” episodes).  Meanwhile, imagery and tropes from the Frankenstein tale have been so pervasively circulated in popular culture for such a long time that children are likely to have some degree of familiarity with the tale even if they do not connect it to its original source.  Indeed, it is not uncommon for children’s texts to make passing reference to the tale and its characters (for instance, an episode of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants is entitled “Frankendoodle”, while Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants books contain a character named “Frankenbooger”).

It is also likely that children today are familiar with complex levels of intertextuality and are adept at negotiating intersecting currents of media; thus Cathlena Martin writes of the “overlapping intertextual nature of children’s culture” (2009, 86).  In her analysis of the transmedia adaptation of the novel Charlotte’s Web, Martin claims that an enjoyment and understanding of intertextuality may come more naturally to today’s children, who “experience transmedia stories on a regular basis” and therefore “no longer view the printed text as the only way to experience [a literary classic such as] Charlotte’s Web”, whereas adults are more likely to “resist multi-media adaptation, relying on the supremacy of print text as ‘high art’” (2009, 88).  This returns us to the concept of “fidelity” to an original text, and suggests that in discussions of adaptation for children fidelity is likely to be a concept imposed by adult readers and critics rather than something inherently understood or valued by children.  If this raises concerns over the disappearance of “the book” as a cultural object, it also demonstrates that “simplicity” is not a concept that sits well with the highly interconnected, transmedia quality of children’s culture today.

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled "Return of the Vampire Cat".

The promotional release of the free Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book. The e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews. This is a promotional mock poster for a film titled “Return of the Vampire Cat”.

Interestingly, the promotional material for Frankenweenie played upon this ability in young audiences to understand and enjoy intertextuality.  Elliott reminds us that “[t]ie-in merchandise produces and distributes the culture of Disney beyond the cinema” (2014, 195); yet the marketing campaign for Frankenweenie took a very different route from the usual toys, games, and Happy Meals associated with Disney and with the process of Disneyfication.  Instead, the film was promoted through such unusual means as the release of six mock B-movie posters each featuring one of the child characters together with the monster he/she creates (including Night of the Were-Rat: a Tale of Terror featuring “Edgar E. Gore” and Return of the Vampire Cat featuring “Weird Girl”).  These promotional texts not only foreground the film’s child protagonists (as opposed to its adult characters) but serve to locate “childhood” within the parameters of the horror genre and within monster-movie history.  If entryway paratexts guide and instruct our viewing of a media text, as Gray (2010) suggests, these posters invite us to connect childhood with monstrosity in a way that “preps” us for the viewing of Frankenweenie itself (whether we are adults or children).  They also underscore the overall playfulness of the film and relatedly its resistance to the processes of Disneyfication and simplification.  Due to the foregrounding of the child characters, furthermore, the posters specifically address child audiences and clearly include them in the film’s intertextual conversation.

Another key aspect of the film’s promotion was the release of a free e-book entitled Frankenweenie: an Electrifying Book.  Designed for audiences of all ages, the e-book explores the production of Frankenweenie: readers are given access to production photographs, original artwork, and interviews, with particular emphasis on the process of stop-motion animation and the making of Sparky (who we can view as a sketch, a 3-D model, and a finished “product”).  In this way, the e-book allows children access to Nestrick’s “myth of animation” and to the idea of animation as a “bridge” between the narrative and the technology of Frankenweenie.  The e-book also makes the film’s intertextuality more evident.  It begins, for instance, with a foreward by actor Martin Landau accompanied an image of the character he voices (Mr Rzykruski); Landau discusses his previous collaboration with Tim Burton, the film Ed Wood, and his role in this film as Bela Lugosi, star of the horror classic Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931).  A pop-up button informs us that Landau’s character is also “a nod to Vincent Price, the late actor known for his iconic roles in various horror films” (Disney Book Group, 2012).  The e-book thus enables or enhances the ability of any audience member (including children) to decode the film’s intertextual references – and even, arguably, leads young audiences back to the various source texts that inspired Frankenweenie.

In this way, the film (together with its promotional material) both assumes and encourages a level of cultural literacy regarding the Frankenstein tale and, more broadly, the horror genre itself.  As this analysis has demonstrated, the film’s intertextuality works together with its paratexts to cultivate an awareness of what lies beyond its own textual boundaries.  Frankenweenie thus imagines and constructs its audience to be a media-literate and curious child.

Conclusion

Prior to the release of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, the thought of an animated film based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and released under the Disney banner might have horrified literary purists and fans of horror cinema alike.  An animated Frankenstein, in which darkness and moral conflict are replaced by cute animal side-kicks and catchy songs, may well have been taken as a sign of Disney’s cultural domination and its ability not just to appropriate literary material but to colonise sites of literary and cultural meaning.  Burton’s film, however, demonstrates that “Disneyfication” is not the only route to adapting a literary classic for children, and that the transformation of such a tale within the space of a child’s worldview need not involve a simplification process.  As noted above, we can contextualise Frankenweenie within a recent trend in media and popular culture that has seen the horror genre re-imagined for young audiences; yet Burton’s film can be read not just as an example of “horror for kids” but as a startlingly successful transformation of a previously inaccessible tale in line with the concerns that define a child’s world.  Importantly, Frankenweenie’s most powerful images are not cartoonish renditions of monsters and mad scientists – they are the images of Victor grieving for Sparky, and of the neighbourhood kids struggling to control the monsters they have unleashed.  These themes of loss, and of losing control, are central to the film’s re-imagining of a classic horror tale according to a child’s eye view.  In this way, Frankenweenie makes Frankenstein accessible to children and also gives adult viewers a sense of what horror, otherness, and monstrosity could mean to a child.

 

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 Nestrick, William.  1979.  “Coming to Life: Frankenstein and the Nature of Film Narrative”.  In The Endurance of Frankenstein: Essays on Mary Shelley’s Novel, edited by George Levine and U.C. Knoeplfmacher, 290-315.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Paatsch, Leigh.  2012.  “Film review: Frankenweenie Enchants Adults Too”.  Herald Sun, October 25.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.heraldsun.com.au/entertainment/movies/frankenweenie-enchants-adults-too/story-e6frf8r6-1226503055322

Reynolds, Simon.  2012.  “Hotel Transylvania Review”.  Digital Spy, October 9.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.digitalspy.com.au/movies/review/a422323/hotel-transylvania-review.html#~oM8bcdFfwKA0yf

Sayers, Frances Clarke.  1965.  “Walt Disney Accused”.  Horn Book 41: 602-611.

Schor, Esther.  2003.  “Frankenstein and Film”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley, edited by Esther Schor, 63-83.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scott, A.O.  2012.  “It’s Aliiiive! And Wagging Its Tail – ‘Frankenweenie,’ Tim Burton’s Homage to Horror Classics”.  The New York Times, October 4.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/05/movies/frankenweenie-tim-burto…age-to-horror-classics.html?smid=tw-nytimesmovies&seid=auto&_r=0

Semenza, Gregory M. Colón.  2008.  “Teens, Shakespeare, and the Dumbing Down Cliché: The Case of The Animated Tales”.  Shakespeare Bulletin 26 (2): 37-68.

Shelley, Mary.  1993.  Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus.  Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Smith, Sarah J.  2005.  Children, Cinema and Censorship: from Dracula to the Dead End Kids.  London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Stam, Robert.  2005.  “Introduction: the Theory and Practice of Adaptation”.  In Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation, edited by Robert Stam and Alessandra Raengo, 1-52.  Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Townshend, Dale.  2008.  “The Haunted Nursery: 1764-1830”.  In The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders, edited by Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis, 15-38.  London and New York: Routledge.

Waldby, Catherine.  2002.  “The Instruments of Life: Frankenstein and Cyberculture”.  In Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, 28-37.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Wells, Paul.  1998.  Understanding Animation.  New York: Routledge.

Wells, Paul.  2007.  “Classic Literature and Animation: All Adaptations are Equal, but Some are More Equal Than Others”.  In The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 199-211.  Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Whelehan, Imelda.  1999.  “Adaptations: the Contemporary Dilemmas”.  In Adaptations: From Text to Screen, Screen to Text, edited by Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan, 3-19.  London and New York: Routledge.

Wolgamott, L. Kent.  2012.  “Frankenweenie a box-office bomb, but superior film”.  Lincoln Journal Star, October 10.  Accessed August 6, 2014.  http://journalstar.com/entertainment/movies/l-kent-wolgamott-fran…b-but-superior/article_42409e82-89b9-5794-8082-7b5de3d469e2.html.=

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Films cited

Burton, Tim.  2012.  Frankenweenie.  USA: Walt Disney Pictures.

Leondis, Anthony.  2008.  Igor.  USA: Roadshow Entertainment.

Tartakovsky, Genndy.  2012.  Hotel Transylvania.  USA: Columbia Pictures.

Whale, James.  1931.  Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

Whale, James.  1935.  The Bride of Frankenstein.  USA: Universal Pictures.

 

Bio:

Erin Hawley teaches in the Journalism, Media, and Communications program at the University of Tasmania.  Her current research interests include children’s media culture, adaptation, and media education.

Our Sherlockian Eyes: the Surveillance of Vision – Sean Redmond, Jodi Sita and Kim Vincs

Abstract

For this inter-disciplinary article, we undertook a pilot case study that eye-tracked the ‘Holmes Saves Mrs. Hudson’ sequence from the episode, A Scandal in Belgravia (Sherlock, BBC, 2012). This small-scale empirical study involved a total of 13 participants (3 males and 10 females, mean age was: 27 years), comprised of a mixture of academics and undergraduate students at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. The article examines its findings through a range of threaded frames – neuroscience, forensics, surveillance, haptics, memory, performance-movement, and relationality – and uniquely draws upon the interests of the authors to set the examination in context. The article is both a reading of Sherlock and a dialogue between its authors. We discover that the codes and conventions of Sherlock have a direct impact on where viewers look but we also discover eyes emerging in the periphery of the frame, and we account for these ways of seeing in different ways.

My Sherlockian Eyes

Sean Redmond

I have always been fascinated, perhaps even obsessed, with my eyes. I have often felt them looking into things, as if they had their own embodied consciousness that I was entirely, simultaneously, conscious of. It was as if we, my eyes and I, saw the world separately and together, possessing a double vision, one set within the meaty windows of my sockets, and the other looking outside, grasping the world with a replete hapticity, sending shivers across my pupils and retinas as they did so.

I have found myself trying to catch my eyes out, to second guess their movements, their sightlines, and their interests. I must be a sight for sore eyes on the rush hour train, wrestling with what I will allow my eyes to see. I often try to resist my conforming eyes, to make them look towards the cultural periphery, to the aesthetic margins, and to the haphazard shards of broken, refracted light on oily windows that few others see as they go about their busy, and sometimes dreary lives. I have a deep yearning to see my eyes politicised, to turn them completely into organs of touch (Marks, 2000), and to feel them wander freely across the intricate layers of the film and television screen. I want Sherlockian eyes.

I have held a rather romantic notion about my viewing eyes, and the eyes of some viewers: that they sometimes wander freely across the spaces, objects, lights, colours, bodies, movements and sounds of the diegetic world they are presented with. Narrative action may be centre frame, and all the elements of the mise en scène may be attempting to draw one’s eyes to this interaction, but I will catch myself looking to the far left of the screen, to hold my sight on an obscure pattern on a wall, or to search for the origins of a distant minor or insignificant sound just off-screen. I want to see inside and outside the narrative simultaneously. I imagine my eyes as Sherlock-like, searching for narrative clues, new plot developments, and for the sensuous expression of character, mood and feeling. But I also see them loosing or freeing themselves; my eyes (unconsciously) float within all the elements of filmic or televisual material as they happen on the screen.

I see in Sherlock’s eyes this double vision: the ability to have foresight, to see into the margins of things, and to be consciously aware of the vision within and all around him. As Sherlock sees into the finest grain of things, so do my eyes and I. My Sherlockian eyes are forensic, haptic, self-processing and are blessed with twenty twenty vision – they have the power to see into all things clearly. Sherlock mirrors or rather embodies the very qualities of the cinema machine (Metz, 1982), and of the surveillance regimes (Foucault, 1977), that emerged at the time the first Sherlock Holmes books were written (1887-1927). Sherlock is a text that already embodies the eye tracking experience.

But is this so, or just a fictive longing? What evidence do we have that our eyes do what we say they do? What evidence do we have that viewers possess a double vision? This romantic, phenomenological notion of the viewing, carnal, haptic eyes, then, we wanted to test, to explore, to see in action and interaction…

The Science of the Sherlockian Eye

Jodi Sita

I can often be found staring off into space, deep in thought, looking at nothing in particular. If I were being eye tracked it would look like I was staring at something. Where people look and, more particularly, why they are looking there, are questions that fascinate me and make me think about the phenomenon of blank stares. Human beings have fascinating eyes that, because they are housed independently, with their own localized environments, need to and can move about quite a lot. A tiny spot on the back of the eye, the retina, houses the receptors for high visual acuity, and this spot must be directed at the object we want to see, in order for us to see it clearly, and see its fine detail. People tend to move their eyes to aspects of a scene which are interesting or useful. The visual system in the brain directs these movements; they are not random. Bottom–up control processes (see; Itti & Koch, 2000) help direct some shifts in visual gaze and involve features that are thought to attract attention due to their ability to be noticeable. These include salient features such as luminosity, colour and movement. More importantly, in the human gaze we know that top-down processes are at play when viewing complex or meaningful scenes; our eyes employ feature selection which are based on our understanding of the scene and our internal expectations about where important things are or are likely to occur (Torralba et al., 2006; Birmingham et al., 2008, and Vincent et al., 2009).

What I am curious to learn more about is how our viewing behavior is shaped by what we are doing, by how we are interacting with the world and how our brains are responding to that and shaping that encounter. Thus, my involvement in this work comes from these curiosities, however, it also stems from my own forensic tendencies. It develops from my own need to ask the Sherlockian questions about viewers viewing Sherlock.

My early research had me investigate a branch of forensic science; handwriting and signature examination. At the time the area had a lot of practitioners, many quite experienced and successful, and there had been a substantial amount written about it, yet very little objective evidence for the fields’ claims had been produced. What the field needed were studies which produced hard evidence to support or dispute its original claims. My work was part of a large and ongoing body of work, where the field’s ideas and claims are tested objectively, and whose results can be used as evidence to support existing notions or derive new ones. It was within this area of research that I started using eye tracking, yet it has also led me to want to bring eye tracking to this moving-image field; where the focus of the eye tracker, shining like an objective lens over some of the theories of the area, can help bring to it some other method for its practitioners to use – to examine how viewers watch and are involved with what they are watching.

The Optometry of Sherlock

Kim Vincs

The science of the gaze—of how eyes fixate or fail to fixate—has always been of great interest to me, firstly in my original career as an optometrist, and more latterly as a choreographer and then a transmedia dance artist. As an optometrist, I was less concerned with where people looked than with whether they could look, and with the accuracy and resolution of the sensory information they received and interpreted when they did look. What do I mean by this? In considering whether people could look, I am referring to whether they were able to accurately fixate the static and moving targets they wanted and needed to. Fixating, that is, aiming one’s eyes at a static or moving target, is a function of attention, and integrated as action by the sensory and muscular systems of the eye and brain. There are many pathological conditions that interfere with the capacity to fixate a static visual stimulus quickly, accurately and efficiently. As an optometrist, I was primarily concerned with detecting these conditions and referring patients who had them for appropriate treatment. I was, in a very real sense, perfectly happy to allow my patients to decide for themselves what to fixate on. My job was simply to ensure that, should they wish to, they would be capable of locating and tracking something. This willingness to allow dissociation between capacity and will, between ability and decision, is something I consider foundational to the ways in which I have pursued my subsequent research into creative practices. I have never, as a choreographer or an interactive / transmedia artist, wished to dictate to people where they should look or what they should perceive. I consider my job to be to place appropriate objects / events / movements within a context in which they can be perceived should people so choose.

This outlook has had some specific implications for my art practice. As a choreographer, I have never thought to ask what someone watches when they observe a dancer moving. Cognitive psychologist Kate Stevens’ seminal work on eye movements in dance has demonstrated a classic novice/expert shift in the way that observers view dance. As with many other fields of expertise such as airline pilots, and driving instructors, experts make significantly fewer saccades, that is, changes in fixation, watching a dance performance than do novices, where experts are people with professional experience in dance and novices are people with no particular prior experience of the artform (Stevens et al., 2010). The implication of these results is that experts do not need to change fixation as many times as novices because they are able, to some extent, to predict where the dancing body will move. In essence, they understand what they are looking for, and are therefore able to maximize the efficiency of their fixation choices.

What Steven’s work does tell us is which movement features most attract fixation when watching a dancing body. My own work in motion capture analysis of dance movement provides me with a theory about why this might be a difficult thing to measure. Dance, at the movement level, comprises movement of some 33 major joints, each of which may make movements of entirely different velocity, acceleration and magnitude to achieve an overall aesthetic effect. The dancing body essentially has no ‘centre of focus’ that can be interpolated from movement data such as the speed, momentum or even position of specific body parts, because the semantics of dance movement are only meaningful in relation to the composition across the body. As I have argued previously, (Vincs, 2014) the semantic significance of a movement bears no relationship to its metrics, such as amplitude or speed. In some aesthetic contexts, tiny movements of the fingers may be essential to the meaning and feeling tone of the movement. In others, such as large virtuosic or acrobatic movement forms, hand gestures may contribute relatively little to a movement’s significance.

Dance grammars are aesthetically and culturally, rather than anatomically determined. I think that this fact has also contributed to my attraction to the notion of Sherlockian eyes. As a choreographer, I am always a detective, seeking potential significances in movement rather than predetermined ones. I value the opportunity to go looking for the dancing body, browsing, shuffling, wandering through the multiple and complex joint actions that comprise a single ‘step,’ looking for something of newness and emotional value rather than assuming I know what it is and where I will find it. Yet I am always aware that my aesthetic search is underpinned by a neurosensory apparatus that is primed to respond selectively to human movement (Hagendoorn, 2004, Vincs, 2009). I am therefore armed, at least potentially, with an inherent ‘grammar’ that is defined by the morphology and physical capacity of the human body, and I am curious as to what predilections and biases my visual sensory system imposes on my seemingly adventurous gaze.

What now follows is an exploration of our different approaches to the eye tracking data that we generated. Jodi is first off, outlining our empirical method and undertaking a close reading of the preliminary results. Jodi shows how the results begin to tell us that the viewers’ gaze patterns and fixations are closely clustered together, and she situates these findings in relation to the science of the eye, the importance of the face in human communication, and to the visual and narrative codes and conventions of Sherlock. Sean then explores the results in terms of haptic visuality and the surveillance gaze, drawing upon phenomenology and the discourses of conspiracy to argue that the vision in Sherlock is marked by touch, texture, and control. Kim examines the results in terms of movement and relationality, examining the eye tracking data in terms of the way it supports and confirms the necessary nature of vision in seeing into moving things. Kim shows that even though there is a high degree of direction in terms of where viewers are being asked to look, visual perception allows or enable the eyes to wander. Finally, we conclude our article together, drawing together our voices to offer an interdisciplinary way forward.

Eye Tracking Sherlock (the objective viewing): Methods and Preliminary Results

Jodi Sita

We undertook a pilot case study that eye-tracked the ‘Holmes Saves Mrs. Hudson’ sequence from the episode, A Scandal in Belgravia (Sherlock, BBC, 2012). This small-scale empirical study involved a total of 13 participants (3 males and 10 females, mean age was: 27 years), comprised of a mixture of academics and undergraduate students at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

A Tobii X-120 remote eye tracker (Tobii Technology, Stockholm, Sweden) was used to record participants eye movements which has an accuracy of 0.5ºof visual angle and allows a moderate amount of free head movement (30 x 22 x 30 cm at 70 cm (Width x Height x Depth)). This data collection technique uses reflected infrared light from the eye to determine participants viewer gaze positioning and allows for natural head movements and natural human responses to screened material. The eye tracker was connected to a PC running an Intel ® core ™ i7 CPU ‘Cool Master’ hard-drive. The eye tracker used Tobii Studio 2.3.2 professional edition software for the presentation of the movie scene stimuli and recording eye movements. The eye tracker was set up on a desk, situated below a Dell PC monitor (1680×1050), which was utilised by the participants to view the Sherlock sequence. Participants were seated on a sturdy chair between 55-65cm away from the eye tracker and between 65-75cm from the viewing screen. A second screen (Dell; 1920×1080) was utilised by the researchers to view, in real time, the eye movements of the participants as they were being tracked and calibrated, although all computer analyses and statistics reported here was based on stored data.

Participants were recruited via posters advertising the study at La Trobe University, with ethics approval (Ethics approval number: FHEC13/101). Participants were required to be at least 18 years of age to be considered eligible. People whom expressed interest in taking part in the study were contacted via email to attend a single recording session. In preliminary tests participants were introduced to the study and screened for exclusion criteria such as taking medications (e.g. benzodiazepines) that may potentially affect their eye movement, known neurological conditions, disorders or injuries that could potentially affect their eye movement. All participants were screened for normal or corrected to normal near visual acuity of N8 or better on the Designs for Vision near sighted visual acuity test, and with a pen-torch eye movement excursion test to screen for symmetrical movement of the eyes. Participants who were ametropic were allowed to wear their glasses to watch the stimuli.

Prior to eye movement data being collected, the eye tracker was configured for each participant using a 9-point on screen calibration test within the Tobii Studio recording software. Participants were told only that they would watch short segments from a variety of films. Recording sessions typically lasted between 15-25 minutes, and each participant was tested individually.

First, we found that our viewers’ eyes were strongly drawn to follow movement and directional cues and signs. This included camera and character movement. In the opening scene, where Mrs. Hudson’s fingers scrape along the wall, followed by Sherlock’s fingers retracing her steps (03-010 seconds), we see all viewers making strings of successive fixations – each following these finger movements (see Figures 1 and 2). The sound of these fingers scraping along the wall was heavily amplified, and fully sychronised, and we suggest, then, that sound was also an aesthetic device being employed to direct where viewer’s looked. These results confirm previous findings where camera movement, sound, character behavior, and editing patterns are seen to inform gaze patterns and fixations (see Smith, forthcoming, Smith and Mital, 2011).

In one brief shot in the middle of this scene, we cut to a close-up of Mrs. Hudson’s face, full of anguish. All the subjects discern this face in amongst the movement and chaos of the surrounding action, as seen by their fixating to its features. Her face is captured in the center of the screen, making it central to the scene’s visualisation. However, the face is known to be a strong attractor of what the eye attends to (Treuting (2006)), and with it being such an important narrative component in this scene, would have been a strong attentional cue.

Figure 1: Finger drag: 2 subjects

Figure 1: Finger drag: 2 subjects

Figure 2: Finger drag: 13 subjects

Figure 2: Finger drag: 13 subjects

Second, we observed an alignment in vision with regards to where Sherlock was looking. This sight co-proximation is referred to as ‘joint attention,’ in which what one attends to seems to shift automatically to where another is looking (Birmingham et al, 2009). Interestingly, this is a common misdirection trick used by magicians (Kuhn, et al, 2009).

In particular, we observed that Sherlock’s’ point of view in the scene very often produced a close proximity in viewers focus and attention (participant’s looked where Sherlock looked, and with the same overall gaze patterning, see from 1.05 to 1.14). This also supports the findings reported by other film scholars using eye tracking methods, such as Rassell et al. (forthcoming, 2015) who found that a character’s point of view and subjective experiences have an influence on where  viewers look.

The trends for this short sequence support the idea that Sherlock is a character-driven drama in which his vision is not only foregrounded but given omnipotent and omniscient power. Thus, viewers are not only being positioned to observe from his authorial position but to trust where he looks and what he discovers there. There are recognizable genre codes and conventions also in play, structuring the looking patterns we have observed. This is a detective-thriller series that repeats a series of camera and editing motifs that become familiar to audiences (Neale, 1990).

Sherlock Image 3

Figure 3: A heap map showing the hot spots where viewer’s gazed; red indicating longer dwelling time

Figure 4: The gaze plots showing the sequence of looks that viewers made over Sherlock’s face

Figure 4: The gaze plots showing the sequence of looks that viewers made over Sherlock’s face

Third, we found that viewers focused heavily on the characters faces, both in scenes with dialogue and those without. In scenes where Sherlock was clearly putting together the evidence, viewers focused heavily on his eyes, dwelling there for almost the entire shot. (Figures 3 and 4).

Viewers fixated back and forth between the eyes, face, and mouth of the central characters. These viewing patterns are characteristic of the movements made in facial and emotional recognition (Ekman & Friesen, 1971; Hernandez, et al, 2009) and show some indication that viewers were paying attention to the different character’s in the scene, working out the role of each character and what their intentions and emotions might be. These patterns of eye movements suggest that viewers are engaging with the scene as they would in a normal face-to-face encounter, using eye movements to verify who people are and what they are feeling. It is interesting to note that people who are not able to perform these socially informative tasks, such as those with the disorder schizophrenia, and with some traumatic brain injuries, do not show the same eye movement behaviors (Watt & Douglas, 2006; Loughland et al, 2002; Williams,et al, 1999).

Our viewers clearly followed narrative cues in line with the dialogue exchanges, looking back and forth between the character’s interpersonal relays (Figures 5, 6 and 7). These results are similar to those of Treuting (2006), who eye-tracked 14 participants viewing short clips from such films as Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001). Treuting found that gaze clusters emerged in and around the central character’s faces involved in dialogue and moments of heightened drama (see also, Redmond, Sita, 2013).

Sherlock-5.-Single-viewer-charecter-alighnment

Figure 5: Single viewer character alignment

Figure 6: 6 subjects and the relay of looks on eyes, mouths and faces.

Figure 6: 6 subjects and the relay of looks on eyes, mouths and faces.

Figure 7: Final scene, last 12 seconds, searching for information: 13 subjects (most of the fixations are falling over the faces of the 2 central character’s in dialogue)

Figure 7: Final scene, last 12 seconds, searching for information: 13 subjects (most of the fixations are falling over the faces of the 2 central character’s in dialogue)

Fourth, we saw evidence that viewers searched for narrative information and cues: this included fixating on aspects of the background wall before Sherlock first enters the scene (from 0.33-0.36 seconds), then moving between the image of a smile seen on the wall and Holmes’ face, spending time ‘reading’ the shop window signs and the note on the front door (Figure 8) as Watson arrives at the scene (from 2.22 to 2.37). One can understand such scanning as influenced by the meticulous work of the mise en scène: where all the elements have been carefully placed to enact this type of searching for narrative cues (see Smith, forthcoming).

Clip-8

Figure 8: Searching for narrative information

Finally, albeit in relation to our last point, we observed that certain viewers looked at more elements of the mise en scène (Figure 9, shows gaze patterns for 4 of the 13 viewers), including the interior lights, the computer, and furniture, even as the more dramatic moments of the scene were taking place.

These findings were interesting but not totally unexpected; we would hope that not all people viewing the same scene would watch it in the same way (this is something that is discussed further below). Insights like this allow us to see that even though there are some aspects that are strong attention grabbers, such as faces and movement within a scene, other aspects can captivate and draw attention away from those areas of interest. For example, the scene shown below (Figure 9) involves a particularly emotive exchange between two key characters, Mrs. Hudson and Dr. Watson. The fact that 4 of the viewers were attending elsewhere helps us to see these aspects of interest outside the main narrative at play. Why certain viewers look to the margins of the screen, to the more ‘insignificant’ elements of the mise en scène remains of great interest. One possibility would be that these viewers were not fully engaged with the exchange between the characters, and their attention therefore drifted to other elements in the scene. Another possibility is that these scenic elements drew particular interest because of their pattern, colour, etc. Further testing is needed to begin to tease out whether this response is scene-dependent, or a characteristic of these particular observers.

Figure 9: A slightly different patterning – 4 subjects – and wider viewing

Figure 9: A slightly different patterning – 4 subjects – and wider viewing

It should be noted, nonetheless, that these observations come from only a very small sample (13 participants to date), which will be increased, and which still needs to undergo further data analysis and interpretation.

In summary, what have we see in these results so far? Evidence of the eyes being held to attention by narrative cues, by camera and character movement, faces, dialogue, point of view and performance. These were elements to be expected and add to the growing body of eye tracking evidence that supports much of current film and television theory, particularly those working in the cognitive tradition such as David Bordwell (2007) and Noël Carroll (1996). The results equally support the results of other studies into; narrative centered visual texts (see Batty et al, forthcoming, 2015); and how sound and movement affect gaze patterns (Rassell et al, forthcoming, 2015) Further, they speak to the way viewers are pulled seamlessly into the diegetic worlds they believe and invest in.

In this article we would now like to apply two different theoretical filters to the results just summarized; the first will be an examination of the gaze, by Sean, and the second will be an examination of the physiological and perceptual processes of the eye in relation to movement, by Kim. Both filters will attempt to make deeper sense of the results from the traditions in which the scholars operate from. Following this analysis, a summary conclusion will draw their approaches together to make further inter-disciplinary sense of Sherlock’s eyes.

Sherlock’s Gaze

Sean Redmond

The concept of the gaze has a long and contentious history in Film Studies if much less so in the study of television. In fact, John Ellis has suggested that the domestic context in which television viewing has historically taken place, with a host of likely distractions, and in a context of constant programme flow and segmentation, produces a glance aesthetic whereby the image isn’t looked into deeply or for a sustained period of time (1982: 138). Sherlock, of course, contests this idea since the programme is heavily built around the details of forensic gazing.

Most notably, the idea of the gaze has been employed in psychoanalytical film theory to make the argument that the cinema looking apparatus is patriarchal and heterosexual, and viewers are positioned as ‘male’ subjects through which masculine identifications emerge (Mulvey, 1975, 1989). Its main male characters, and male writers and directors of course control the vision regime in Sherlock, although its objects of focus are rarely to-be-looked-at female characters.

Critical race theory, by contrast, has employed the concept of the gaze to demonstrate how the racial Other is fixed in inferior, marginal and fetishized subject positions (Hall, 2001). Sherlock can be read as a post-colonial text enacting a present England that centres whiteness and ‘invisibly’ marginalizes the Other from its panopticon empowered centre (Cuningham, 2004). The Other in Sherlock of course extends to those who sit outside the bourgeois social centre; there are particular class dimensions to the way crime is surveyed and defined (Jann, 1990).

In terms of surveillance discourse, film has been read as a vision machine set within a invasive visual culture that promotes:

the normalizing gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates and judges them (Foucault, 1977: 25).

Sherlock can be read as a text that carries out this normalizing gaze, defining the parameters of law and order and the way the criminal can be discovered, classified, and ultimately disciplined. That is not to say that the visual excesses of the programme do not at times undermine its simple binaries. To the contrary, Sherlock is constantly troubled by its own dominant discourses particularly through the way Sherlock is also a maverick outsider.

Finally, film phenomenology has made use of the gaze to demonstrate how looking and seeing is always embodied, experiential, and depending on the text, haptic and synesthetic – where ‘the eyes themselves function like organs of touch’ (Marks, 2010, 162). Sherlock creates the conditions of both embodied presence and haptic visuality through the way the gaze is employed to see deeply into things, while the programmes textural mise en scène ‘demands’ to be attended to.

What I would now like to do is analyse two particular aspects of the way the gaze can be understood in Sherlock, relating my reading back to the eye tracking results that we have, and to eye tracking technology itself. First, I will explore Sherlock through its forensic gazing and the way this creates the particular conditions for the way viewers become locked into particular viewing patters and relations. Second, I will explore Sherlock through its haptic elements whereby the viewer is understood to gaze at and touch (things) simultaneously.

The Forensic Gaze

In Sherlock one can argue that camera movement and position are motivated by the following factors. First, to reveal narrative information such as a new location, or setting; character relations and their relative physical proximity; time, and temporal detail; and moments of revelation where a new angle or focus reveals something previously hidden or a new ‘enigma’ emerges. Second, as a dramatic device: the camera is re-positioned to signal and cue moments of narrative development, crisis, reaction, and activation. Third, there are repeated and recognised televisual conventions of the programme: one can locate and expect certain camera motifs to function in Sherlock, such as the way we enter Sherlock’s mind’s eye to see what he is unearthing in microscopic close-up. Finally, camera movement and position signals certain emotional states and modes of feeling. The cut to a close-up, for example, a moment of affecting intensity, such as is the case with the fingers being scraped along the wall in the scene under analysis in this article.

When one takes these Sherlockian codes and conventions into consideration one can make better sense of the eye tracking results that we have gotten. The eyes of the viewer seem to be relentlessly led and directed. Viewers familiar with the programme’s codes can be expected to have expectations of its visual tapestry, and to make predictions about where to look (see Rassell et al. forthcoming). This would explain both the way that viewers seem closely aligned with the looking operations of the scene (figures 1-7), and the way that viewers scan shots for narrative information (figures 8-10).

However, I also think there is something more telling to discover here – one around a consistent forensic looking regime where the text and the viewer align. This is the ‘double vision’ we refer to in my introduction to this article. Viewers come to embody the gazing powers that Sherlock possess and look at the diegetic world through his eyes even where no direct or imagined point of view is in operation. Viewers experience their very own form of social surveillance becoming detectives and snoopers in the process. Sherlock, then, can be read as a text of and for paranoid surveillance, fuelled by the constant search for facts, omissions, falsehoods, and half-truths. At a more general cultural level, trust is at issue here in what is perceived to be an age of ‘faithless’ activity and widespread corruption, where politicians are regarded to be as corrupt as the criminals they covertly support. Sherlockians ultimately become part of this age of conspiracy (Knight, 2002).

As does, in a very real sense, eye tracking technology and the data it produces. Sherlock is his very own eye tracker – he creates his own heat maps and relays and through this inbuilt biotechnology he sees into everything. Eye tracking technology is Sherlocklian and the data it produces allows us to see into everything the viewer sees. Or, at least mostly…

The Haptic Gaze

Laura U Marks (2010) has written that haptic visuality is a more intimate form of looking, where the eyes, ‘move over the surface of its object rather than plunge into illusionist depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture” (162). For Marks, film and video may be “thought of as impressionable and conductive, like skin.” (2000: xi-xii) and this sensory materiality is heightened by it containing:

Grainy, unclear images; sensuous imagery that evokes memory of the senses (i.e. water, nature); the depiction of characters in acute states of sensory activity (smelling, sniffing, tasting, etc.); close-to-the-body camera positions and panning across the surface of objects; changes in focus, under- and overexposure, decaying film and video imagery; optical printing; scratching on the emulsion; densely textured, effects and formats such as Pixelvision… and alternating between film/video.  (Totaro, 2002)

The gaze found in Sherlock is very often a haptic one. The programme’s entire mise en scène evokes the activity and memory of sensation. Lights, objects, clothes, furniture, exteriors are given deep and layered textures. Sherlockian environments are populated with objects and qualities that are themselves sensory driven (poison, oil, tactile fabrics, beads of sweat, cigarette smoke, wet soil). The camera very often dwells on these, picks them out, and tracks and pans over them in close and proximate detail. Sherlock of course is a master of haptic visuality – his eyes touches the things that he observes or that he conjures up in his imagination. In many respects, then, the viewer is also invited to see Sherlock through a haptic lens.

If one was to return to the eye tracking results on the scene what we might be observing is not just an alignment in vision, and the search for narrative information, but eyes that have been turned into organs of touch and deep sensual appreciation. For example, in image 1 and 2 viewers are not just following the fingers that scrape along the wall but touching (with) them, and in touching them feeling them as if it is their fingers suffering this pain. In figures 5-7 viewers are not just following the relay of looks between the two characters but ‘touching’ faces, eyes and mouths. In figures 8-10, viewers are not just searching for narrative information and clues but are actively seeing into the textures, lights, objects, items that populate those scenes. The heat maps that eye tracking technology can generate may be more apt than we imagine since the suggestion of temperature, of body-heat, may well give truth to the embodied and carnal nature of vision. This is one of the limitations of eye tracking technology, however, since it cannot tell us what people are feeling when watching a film or television text.

I would like to make one final observation about the eye that searches the mise en scène for narrative information or clues, as in figures 8-10. This is a point about the privacy or individualism of watching a screen text so co-dependent it is on personal memory, biography, and the contexts one finds one self-viewing something. After the viewing of the scene one of our subjects remarked that they had actually spent much of the time trying to figure out whom the actor was playing Dr Watson. Any number of ‘personal’ factors might get in the way of the looking regime of the text and for why we might scan a particular text.

Roland Barthes (1981) has usefully employed the concept of the punctum (a Latin word derived from the Greek word for trauma) to viewing photographs. He argues that the still image inspires an intensely private meaning, one in which an affecting ‘partial object’ emerges from its centre to ‘prick’ or ‘wound’ the viewer. The punctum is personal and as soon as it emerges it holds the viewer’s gaze. Although Barthes is singularly writing about the photograph I think the idea of the punctum can be applied to the moving image text, to Sherlock. Although a dynamic media, television and film still settle on images and representations that reach out into the private realm of the viewer; and the viewer still finds their memories, traumas, life events activated and mobilised in the fictive worlds constructed. The wandering eyes of figures 8-10 are caught in their own biographical exploration, looking for objects that may ultimately wound them, their haptic eyes. In Sherlock we are not just being positioned as objects and subjects of surveillance but as carnal beings.

The Eyes of Sherlock; the Eyes of the Viewer

Kim Vincs

Coming, as I do, from the perspective of a dancer and choreographer, I read these eye tracking results not exactly as touch, but as a search for relationality. Erin Manning, in her seminal work on the philosophy of movement (Manning, 2009) emphasizes the incipiency of movement—movement as something in the act of becoming something, of reaching towards something or someone—over its positionality. That is to say, movement, in Manning’s terms, is always a process of relationality or reaching towards the world, rather than simply a series of coordinates on a grid. Bodies, or, more precisely “bodies-in-the-making,” are a means of thought rather than simply of action because they define, by the possibilities embedded in the moment of pre-articulation, a relationship or set of relationships within the world (Manning, 2009: 78).

Our eye movement data defines very clearly the relationships between the protagonists. In figures 1 and 2, ‘finger drag,’ the fixations map the pathway of Mrs. Hudson’s fingers along the wall. The relationships between Mrs. Hudson’s fingers and the texture of the wall are, in fact, the only potential human relationships within the scene. These relationships are not ‘positional’— that is to say, fingers defining points on the wall—but, by virtue of their spatial distribution, an articulation of the trajectory of Mrs. Hudson’s hand in relation to the wall.

Figures 3—6 reveal fixation patterns that are concentrated around the face, and in particular the eyes. These fixations address the origin of relationality in the scenes within the eyes, as if the eyes are understood to reveal the incipient thought of the characters. In Manning’s terms, incipiency the moment in which a movement is in a state of ‘pre-acceleration,’ organizing and mobilizing itself, yet still capable of any number of actual outcomes, is the most potent aspect of a movement. The predominance of fixations on the eyes and face, while perfectly interpretable in as simply a biological reflex designed to respond to and recognize human faces, also speaks of the process by which relationality is thought into being.

Figures 7—10, with their fixations distributed between human-to-human gaze and gesture, (Figure 7) non-human scenic elements that lend cognitive elements or ‘clues,’ (Figure 8) and poetic elements such as the look and texture of surrounding objects in Figures 8 (curtain texture) and 10 (lens flare), articulate an expanded notion of relationality in which human and non-human elements are implicated within a web of actions.

For me, these results suggest a mutability between human and non-human elements that is reminiscent of Manning’s understanding of relationality as something that can have both interpersonal and person-world dimensions, and also points to the kind of ‘Sherlockian body’ I seek as a dance artist. A purely ‘narrative’ approach to the filmic bodies analysed here would suggest that only human factors would feature in the gaze analysis. Similarly, a biologically driven notion of human movement perception as pre-wired to detect human shapes and actions would not predict migrations to and from the bodies to surrounding objects.

I read these results as revealing a semantic ambiguity that can form the basis for a Sherlockian search for relationality that is produced and constructed by the viewer as much as it is dictated by the film-maker. These scenes offer relatively few visual details from which to construct such a relationality, and this, no doubt, is indicative of a film-making style designed to direct the eye, and hence the mind, to very specifically and deliberately arranged narrative events. However, despite the seeming prescriptiveness of these images, they offer the viewer an opportunity, to construct relational scenarios across like and non-like (human and non-human) scenic elements. They therefore demonstrate at least the potential for a Sherlockian approach to the visual perception of movement.

Conclusion

So, what have we seen with your eyes? On the one hand, we have demonstrated how Sherlock’s narrative and mise en scène pulls the viewer into taking certain (emotive, forensic, relational) viewing positions. Sherlock is tightly bound by a number of codes and conventions and its palette and composition are highly constructed, creating spaces and interactions that focus our eyes. On the other hand, we have looked at the way haptics and relationality open up the possibility for better understanding the synaesthetic and organic/inorganic ways through which the vision of movement takes place. A televisual text such as Sherlock intends to marshal our viewing experience but as we have also seen, eyes wander; they search, their own movement and the poetics of movement opening up textual encounters not always pre-determined by the scenes deliberate operations. Our eyes escape themselves. Finally, we have noted how memory and biography can impact on where and why we look, or why we might look away. One of our respondents searched Watson’s face in the hope of remembering the actor’s name. The brutal violence metered out on Mrs. Holmes may be looked at (felt) differently by someone who has themselves undergone such misery. This is ultimately about our-being-in-the-world, and about how we make sense of beings-in-the-fictive world. Vision is never disembodied but full of the drink, food and love of life itself.

Vision needs to be understood as something that can only be fully understood through combining different theoretical and methodological frameworks. What we have found in this article, and in the broader work of the Eye Tracking the Moving Image Research group – see the introduction to this special edition for more on this group – is that it is in the conversations and deliberations, provocations and discussions between vision scientists, neuroscientists, anatomists, choreographers, film makers, ethnographers, screen theorists, and screen writers where insights are best made, conclusions thickened, and arguments enriched and extended. What we have found in this article is that Sherlock exists at the eye of the ArtsScience nexus, and it is at this nexus where the authors would like to situate their work.

The language of film and television constantly creates these spaces of vision and for seeing to take place, whether this be; the embodied point-of-view shot which allows us to become the character; aerial cinematography that brings wide open exteriors and bejeweled cityscapes into view; the furtive camera that glimpses into dark corners, allowing us to happen on to what is supposedly hidden; or the interiorized gaze that expressionistically captures the nightmare visions of the lost, the hunted, and the alien. With a close-up shot one can trace the undulating valleys of emotion on a character’s face and feel their affecting eyes reaching out and into yours. In Sherlock, the very force of his vision, mobilized through special effects and the power of digital photography, enables his/our eyes to create mathematical formulations out of thin air and to re-visit crime scenes as if one is witnessing, experiencing it all over again. Sherlock establishes the sense that all vision is embodied and personally engineered, and to the wider conceit that television is an artform that gives a miraculous, omnipotent and omnipresent vision to its ever watchful viewers.

 

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Bios

Sean Redmond is an Associate Professor in Media and Communication at Deakin University. He has research interests in film and television aesthetics, film and television genre, film authorship, film sound, stardom and celebrity, and film phenomenology. He has published nine books including The Cinema of Takeshi Kitano: Flowering Blood (Columbia, 2013), and Celebrity and the Media (Palgrave, 2014), and with Su Holmes he edits the journal Celebrity Studies. Sean Redmond and Jodi Sita set up the Eye Tracking the Moving Image Research group in 2011.

Jodi Sita is an academic working within the areas of neuroscience and anatomy with expertise in eye tracking research. She has extensive experience, with multiple project types using eye tracking technologies and other biophysical data. Her current research uses eye tracking to study viewers gaze patterns while watching moving images; to examine expertise in Australian Rules Football League coaches and players and to examine the signature forgery process.

Professor Kim Vincs is Director and founder of Deakin Motion.Lab, at Deakin University. Kim integrates scientific and artistic approaches through research. She is currently working on a three-year project, supported by the Australian Research Council’s Discovery program. Her collaborations with mathematicians, biomechanists and cognitive psychologists span Deakin and the Universities of Sydney, Western Sydney and New South Wales.

From Subtitles to SMS: Eye Tracking, Texting and Sherlock – Tessa Dwyer

Abstract

As we progress into the digital age, text is experiencing a resurgence and reshaping as blogging, tweeting and phone messaging establish new textual forms and frameworks. At the same time, an intrusive layer of text, obviously added in post, has started to feature on mainstream screen media – from the running subtitles of TV news broadcasts to the creative portrayals of mobile phone texting on film and TV dramas. In this paper, I examine the free-floating text used in BBC series Sherlock (2010–). While commentators laud this series for the novel way it integrates text into its narrative, aesthetic and characterisation, it requires eye tracking to unpack the cognitive implications involved. Through recourse to eye tracking data on image and textual processing, I revisit distinctions between reading and viewing, attraction and distraction, while addressing a range of issues relating to eye bias, media access and multimodal redundancy effects.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Press conference in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Introduction

BBC’s Sherlock (2010–) has received considerable acclaim for its creative deployment of text to convey thought processes and, most notably, to depict mobile phone messaging. Receiving high-profile write-ups in The Wall Street Journal (Dodes, 2013) and Wired UK, this innovative representational strategy has been hailed an incisive reflection of our current “transhuman” reality and “a core element of the series’ identity” (McMillan 2014).[1] In the following discussion, I deploy eye tracking data to develop an alternate perspective on this phenomenon. While Sherlock’s on-screen text directly engages with the emerging modalities of digital and online technologies, it also borrows from more conventional textual tools like subtitling and captioning or SDH (subtitling for the deaf and hard-of-hearing). Most emphatically, the presence of floating text in Sherlock challenges the presumption that screen media is made to be viewed, not read. To explore this challenge in detail, I bring Sherlock’s inventive titling into contact with eye tracking research on subtitle processing, using insights from audiovisual translation (AVT) studies to investigate the complexities involved in processing dynamic text on moving-image screens. Bridging screen and translation studies via eye tracking, I consider recent on-screen text developments in relation to issues of media access and linguistic diversity, noting the gaps or blind spots that regularly infiltrate research frameworks. Discussion focuses on ‘A Study in Pink’ – the first episode of Sherlock’s initial season – which producer Sue Vertue explains was actually “written and shot last, and so could make the best use of onscreen text as additional script and plot points” (qtd in McMillan, 2014).

Texting Sherlock

Figure 2

Figure 2: Watson reads a text message in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

The phenomenon under investigation in this article is by no means easy to define. Already it has inspired neologisms, word mashes and acronyms including TELOP (television optical projection), ‘impact captioning’ (Sasamoto, 2014), ‘decotitles’ (Kofoed, 2011), ‘beyond screen text messaging’ (Zhang 2014) and ‘authorial titling’ (Pérez González, 2012). While slight differences in meaning separate such terms from one another, the on-screen text in Sherlock fits all. Hence, in this discussion, I alternate between them and often default to more general terms like ‘titling’ and ‘on-screen text’ for their wide applicability across viewing devices and subject matter. This approach preserves the terminological ambiguity that attaches to this phenomenon instead of seeking to solve it, finding it symptomatic of the rapid rate of technological development with which it engages. Whatever term is decided upon today could well be obsolete tomorrow. Additionally, as Rick Altman (2004: 16) notes in his ‘crisis historiography’ of silent and early sound film, the “apparently innocuous process of naming is actually one of culture’s most powerful forms of appropriation.” He argues that in the context of new technologies and the representational codes they engender, terminological variance and confusion signals an identity crisis “reflected in every aspect of the new technology’s socially defined existence” (19).

According to the write-ups, phone messaging is the hero of BBC’s updated and rebooted Sherlock adaptation. Almost all the press garnered around Sherlock’s on-screen text links this strategy to mobile phone ‘texting’ or SMS (short messaging service). Reporting on “the storytelling challenges of a world filled with unglamorous smartphones, texting and social media”, The Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes (2013) credits Sherlock with solving this dilemma and establishing a new convention for depicting texting on the big screen, creatively capturing “the real world’s digital transformation of everyday life.” For Mariel Calloway (2013), “Sherlock is honest about the role of technology and social media in daily life and daily thought… the seamless way that text messages and internet searches integrate into our lives.” Wired’s Graeme McMillan (2014) ups the ante, naming Sherlock a “new take” on “television drama as a whole” due precisely to its on-screen texting technique that sets it apart from other “tech-savvy shows out there”. McMillan continues, that “as with so many aspects of Sherlock, there’s an element of misdirection going on here, with the fun, eye-catching slickness of the visualization distracting from a deeper commentary the show is making about its characters relationship with technology – and, by extension, our own relationship with it, as well.”

As this flurry of media attention makes clear, praise for Sherlock’s on-screen text or texting firmly anchors this strategy to technology and its newly evolving forms, most notably the iPhone or smartphone. Appearing consistently throughout the series’ three seasons to date, on-screen text in Sherlock occurs in a plain, uniform white sans-serif font that appears unadorned over the screen image, obviously added during post-production. This text is superimposed, pure and simple, relying on neither text bubbles nor coloured boxes nor sender ID’s to formally separate it from the rest of the image area. As Michele Tepper (2011) eloquently notes, by utilising text in this way, Sherlock “is capturing the viewer’s screen as part of the narrative itself”:

It’s a remarkably elegant solution from director Paul McGuigan. And it works because we, the viewing audience, have been trained to understand it by the last several years of service-driven, multi-platform, multi-screen applications. Last week’s iCloud announcement is just the latest iteration of what can happen when your data is in the cloud and can be accessed by a wide range of smart-enough devices. Your VOIP phone can show caller ID on your TV; your iPod can talk to both your car and your sneakers; Twitter is equally accessible via SMS or a desktop application. It doesn’t matter where or what the screen is, as long as it’s connected to a network device. … In this technological environment, the visual conceit that Sherlock’s text message could migrate from John Watson’s screen to ours makes complete and utter sense.

Unlike on-screen text in Glee (Fox, 2009–), for instance (see Fig. 3), that is used only occasionally in episodes like ‘Feud’ (Season 4, Ep 16, March 14, 2013), Sherlock flaunts its on-screen text as signature. Its consistently interesting textual play helps to give the series cohesion. Yet, just as it aids in characterisation, helps to progress the narrative, and binds the series as a whole, it also, necessarily, remains at somewhat of a remove, as an overtly post-production effect.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Ryder chats online in ‘Feud’, Glee (2013), Episode 16, Season 4.

While Tepper (2011) explains how Sherlock’s “disembodied” (Banks, 2014) texting ‘makes sense’ in the age of cross-platform devices and online clouds, this argument falters when the on-screen text in question is less overtly technological. The extradiegetic nature of this on-screen text – so obviously a ‘post’ effect – is brought to the fore when it is used to render thoughts and emotions rather than technological interfacing. In ‘A Study in Pink’, a large proportion of the text that pops up intermittently on-screen functions to represent Sherlock’s interiority, not his Internet prowess. In concert with camera angles and “microscopic close-ups”, it elucidates Sherlock’s forensic “mind’s eye” (Redmond, Sita and Vincs, this issue), highlighting clues and literally spelling out their significance (see Figs. 4 and 5). The fact that these human-coded moments of titling have received far less attention in the press than those that more directly index new technologies is fascinating in itself, revealing the degree to which praise for Sherlock’s on-screen text is invested in ideas of newness and technological innovation – underlined by the predilection for neologisms.

Figure 4

Figures 4: Sherlock examines the pink lady’s ring in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Figure 5

Figures 5: Sherlock examines the pink lady’s ring in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Of course, even when not attached to smartphones or data retrieval, Sherlock’s deployment of on-screen text remains fresh, creative and playful and still signals perceptual shifts resulting from technological transformation. Even when representing Sherlock’s thoughts, text flashes on screen manage to recall the excesses of the digital, when email, Facebook and Twitter ensconce us in streams of endlessly circulating words, and textual pop-ups are ubiquitous. Nevertheless, the blinkered way in which Sherlock’s on-screen text is repeatedly framed as, above all, a means of representing mobile phone texting functions to conceal some of its links to older, more conventional forms of titling and textual intervention, from silent-era intertitles to expository titles to subtitles. By relentlessly emphasising its newness, much discussion of Sherlock’s on-screen text overlooks links to a host of related past and present practices. Moreover, Sherlock’s textual play actually invites a rethinking of these older, ongoing text-on-screen devices.

Reading, Watching, Listening

As Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) explain, research into subtitle processing builds upon earlier eye tracking studies on the reading of static, printed text. They proceed to detail differences between subtitle and ‘regular’ reading, in relation to factors like presentation speed, information redundancy, and sensory competition between different multimodal channels. Here, I focus on differences between saccadic or scanning movements and fixations, in order to compare data across the screen and translation fields. During ‘regular’ reading (of static texts) average saccades last 20 to 50 milliseconds (ms) while fixations range between 100 and 500ms, averaging 200 to 300ms (Rayner, 1998). Referencing pioneering studies into subtitle processing by Géry d’Ydewalle and associates, Szarkowska et al. (2013: 155) note that “when reading film subtitles, as opposed to print, viewers tend to make more regressions” and fixations tend to be shorter. Regressions occur when the eye returns to material that has already been read, and Rayner (1998: 393) finds that slower readers (of static text) make more regressions than faster readers. A study by d’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 202) found “the percentage of regressions in reading subtitles was globally, among children and adults, much higher than in normal text reading.” They also report that mean fixation durations in the subtitles was shorter, at 178 ms (for adults) and explain that subtitle regressions (where the eye travels back across words already read) can be partly explained by the “considerable information redundancy” that occurs when “[s]ubtitle, soundtrack (including the voice and additional information such as intonation, background noise, etc.), and image all provide partially overlapping information, eliciting back and forth shifts with the image and more regressive eye-movements” (202).

What happens to saccades and fixations when image processing is brought into the mix? When looking at static images, average fixations last 330 ms (Rayner, 1998). This figure is slightly longer than average fixations during regular reading and longer again than average subtitle fixations. Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) note that “reading requires many successive fixations to extract information whereas looking at a scene requires fewer, but longer fixations” that tend to be more exploratory or ambient in nature, taking in a greater area of focus. In relation to moving-images, Smith (2013: 168) finds that viewers take in roughly 3.8% of the total screen area during an average length shot. Peripheral processing is at play but “is mostly reserved for selecting future saccade targets, tracking moving targets, and extracting gist about scene category, layout and vague object information”. In thinking about these differences in regular reading behaviour, screen viewing, and subtitle processing, it is noticeable that with subtitles, distinctions between fixations and saccades are less clear-cut. While saccades last between 20 and 50ms, Smith (2013: 169) notes that the smallest amount of time taken to perform a saccadic eye movement (taking into account saccadic reaction time) is 100-130ms. Recalling d’Ydewalle and de Bruycker’s (2007: 202) finding that fixations during subtitle processing last around 178ms, it would seem that subtitle conditions blur the boundaries somewhat between saccades and fixations, scanning and reading.

Interestingly, studies have also shown that the processing of two-line subtitles involves more regular word-by-word reading than for one-liners (D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker, 2007: 199). D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 199) report, for instance, that more words are skipped and more regressions occur for one-line subtitles than for two-line subtitles. Two-line subtitles result in a larger proportion of time being spent in the subtitle area, and occasion more back-and-forth shifts between the subtitles and the remaining image area (201). This finding suggests that the processing of one-line subtitles differs considerably from regular reading behaviour. D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 202) surmise that the distinct way in which one-line subtitles are processed relates to a redundancy effect caused by the multimodal nature of screen media. Noting how one-line subtitles often convey short exclamations and outcries, they suggest that a “standard one-line subtitle generally does not provide much more information than what can already be extracted from the picture and the auditory message.” They conclude that one-line subtitles occasion “less reading” than two-line subtitles (202). Extrapolating further, I posit that the routine overlapping of information that occurs in subtitled screen media blurs lines between reading and watching. One-line subtitles are ‘read’ irregularly and partly blind – that is, they are regularly skipped and processed through saccadic eye movements rather than fixations.

This suggestion is supported by data on subtitle skipping. Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) find that longer subtitles containing frequently used words are easier and quicker to process than shorter subtitles containing low-frequency words. Hence, they conclude that cognitive load relates more to word familiarity than quantity, something that is overlooked in many professional subtitling guidelines. This finding indicates that high-frequency words are processed ‘differently’ in subtitling than in static text, in a manner more akin to visual recognition or scanning than reading. Szarkowska and Kruger find that high-frequency words in subtitles are often skipped. Hence, as with one-line subtitles, high-frequency words are, to a degree, processed blind, possibly through shape recognition and mapping more than durational focus. In relation to other types of on-screen text, such as the short, free-floating type that characterises Sherlock, it seems entirely possible that this innovative mode of titling may just challenge distinctions between text and image processing. While commentators laud this series for the way it integrates on-screen text into its narrative, style and characterisation, eye tracking is required to unpack the cognitive implications of Sherlock’s text/image morph.

The Pink Lady

Figure 6

Figure 6: Letters scratched into the floor in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

Sherlock producer Vertue refers to the pink lady scene in ‘A Study in Pink’ as particularly noteworthy for its “text all around the screen”, referring to it as the “best use” of on-screen text in the series (qtd in McMillan, 2014). In this scene, a dead woman dressed in pink lies face first on the floor of a derelict building into which she has painstakingly etched a word or series of letters (‘Rache’) with her fingernails. As Sherlock investigates the crime scene, forensics officer Anderson interrupts to explain that ‘Rache’ is the German word for ‘revenge’. The German-to-English translation pops up on screen (see Fig. 6), and this time Sherlock sees it too. This superimposed text, so obviously laid over the image, oversteps its surface positioning to enter Sherlock’s diegetic space, and we next view it backwards, from Sherlock’s point of view, not ours (see Fig. 7). After an exasperated eye roll that signals his disregard for Anderson, Sherlock dismisses this textual intervention and we watch it swirl into oblivion. Here, on-screen text is at once both inside and outside the narrative, diegetic and extra-diegetic, informative and affecting. In this way it self-reflexively draws attention to the show’s narrative framing, demonstrating its complexity as distinct diegetic levels merge.

Figure 7

Figure 7: Sherlock sees on-screen text in ‘A Study in Pink’, Sherlock (2010), Episode 1, Season 1.

For Carol O’Sullivan (2011), when on-screen text affords this type of play between the diegetic and extra-diegetic it functions as an “extreme anti-naturalistic device” (166) that she unpacks via Gérard Genette’s notion of narrative metalepsis (164). Detailing numerous examples of humourous, formally transgressive diegetic subtitles, such as those found in Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) (Fig. 8), O’Sullivan points to their metatextual function, referring to them as “metasubtitles” (166) that implicitly comment on the limits and nature of subtitling itself. When Sherlock’s on-screen titles oscillate between character and viewer point-of-view shots, they too become metatextual, demonstrating, in Genette’s terms, “the importance of the boundary they tax their ingenuity to overstep in defiance of verisimilitude – a boundary that is precisely the narrating (or the performance) itself: a shifting but sacred frontier between two worlds, the world in which one tells, the world of which one tells” (qtd in O’Sullivan 2011: 165). Moreover, for O’Sullivan, “all subtitles are metatextual” (166) necessarily foregrounding their own act of mediation and interpretation. Specifically linking such ideas to Sherlock, Luis Perez Gonzalez (2012: 18) notes how “the series creators incorporate titles that draw attention to the material apparatus of filmic production”, thereby creating an complex alienation-attraction effect “that shapes audience engagement by commenting upon the diegetic action and disrupting conventional forms of semiotic representation, making viewers consciously work as co-creators of media content.”

Figure 8

Figure 8: Subtitled thoughts in the balcony scene, Annie Hall (1977).

Eye Bias

One finding from subtitle eye tracking research particularly pertinent to Sherlock is the notion that on-screen text causes eye bias. This was established in various studies conducted by d’Ydewalle and associates, which found that subtitle processing is largely automatic and obligatory. D’Ydewalle and de Bruycker (2007: 196) state:

Paying attention to the subtitle at its presentation onset is more or less obligatory and is unaffected by major contextual factors such as the availability of the soundtrack, knowledge of the foreign language in the soundtrack, and important episodic characteristics of actions in the movie: Switching attention from the visual image to “reading” the subtitles happens effortlessly and almost automatically (196).

This point is confirmed by Bisson et al. (2014: 399) who report that participants read subtitles even in ‘reversed’ conditions – that is, when subtitles are rendered in an unfamiliar language and the screen audio is fully comprehensible (in the viewers’ first language) (413). Again, in intralingual or same-language subtitling – when titles replicate the language spoken on screen –hearing audiences still divert to the subtitle area (413). These findings indicate that viewers track subtitles irrespective of language or accessibility requirements. In fact, the tracking of subtitles overrides function. As Bisson et al. (413) surmise, “the dynamic nature of the subtitles, i.e., the appearance and disappearance of the subtitles on the screen, coupled with the fact that the subtitles contained words was enough to generate reading behavior”.

Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) reach a similar conclusion, explaining eye bias towards subtitles in terms of both bottom-up and top-down impulses. When subtitles or other forms of text flash up on screen, they affect a change to the scene that automatically pulls our eyes. The appearance and disappearance of text on screen is registered in terms of motion contrast, which according to Smith (2013: 176), is the “critical component predicting gaze behavior”, attaching to small movements as well as big. Additionally, we are drawn to words on screen because we identify them as a ready source of relevant information, as found in Batty et al. (forthcoming). Analysing a dialogue-free montage sequence from animated feature Up (Pete Docter, 2009), Batty et al. found that on-screen text in the form of signage replicates in miniature how ‘classical’ montage functions as a condensed form of storytelling aiming for enhanced communication and exposition. They suggest that montage offers a rhetorical amplification of an implicit intertitle, thereby alluding to the historical roots of text on screen while underlining its narrative as well as visual salience. One frame from the montage sequence focuses in close-up on a basket containing picnic items and airline tickets (see Fig. 9). Eye tracking tests conducted on twelve participants indicates a high degree of attentional synchrony in relation to the text elements of the airline ticket on which Ellie’s name is printed. Here, text provides a highly expedient visual clue as to the narrative significance of the scene and viewers are drawn to it precisely for its intertitle-like, expository function, highlighting the top-down impulse also at play in the eye bias caused by on-screen text.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Heat map showing collective gaze weightings during the montage sequence in Up (2009).

In this image from Up, printed text appears in the centre of the frame and, as Smith (2013: 178) elucidates, eyes are instinctively drawn towards frame centre, a finding backed up by much subtitle research (see Skarkowska and Kruger, this issue). However, eye tracking results on Sherlock conducted by Redmond, Sita and Vincs (this issue) indicate that viewers also scan static text when it is not in the centre of the frame. In an establishing shot of 221B Baker Street from the first episode of Sherlock’s second season, ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, viewers track static text that borders the frame across its top and right hand sides, again searching for information (See Fig. 10). Hence, the eye-pull exerted by text is noticeable even in the absence of movement, contrast and central framing. In part, viewers are attracted to text simply because it is text – identified as an efficient communication mode that facilitates speedy comprehension (see Lavaur, 2011: 457).

Figure 10

Figure 10: Single viewer gaze path for ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Sherlock (2012), Episode 1, Season 2.

Distraction/Attraction

What do these eye tracking results across screen and translation studies tell us about Sherlock’s innovative use of on-screen text and texting? Based on the notion that text on screen draws the eye in at least dual ways, due to both its dynamic/contrastive nature and its communicative expediency, we can surmise that for Sherlock viewers, on-screen text is highly visible and more than likely to be in that 3.8% of the screen on which they will focus at any one point in time (see Smith, 2013: 168). The marked eye bias caused by text on screen is further accentuated in Sherlock by the freshness of its textual flashes, especially for English-speaking audiences given the language hierarchies of global screen media (see Acland 2012, UNESCO 2013). The small percentage of foreign-language media imported into most English-speaking markets tends to result in a lack of familiarity with subtitling beyond niche audience segments. For those unfamiliar with subtitling or captioning, on-screen text appears particularly novel. Additionally, as explored, floating TELOPs in Sherlock attract attention due to the complex functions they fulfil, providing narrative and character clues as well as textual and stylistic cohesion. As Tepper (2011) points out, in the first episode of the series, viewers are introduced to Sherlock’s character via text, before seeing him on screen. “When he texts the word ‘Wrong!’ to DI Lestrade and all the reporters at Lestrade’s press conference,” notes Tepper, “the technological savvy and the imperiousness of tone tell you most of what you need to know about the character.”

There seems no doubt that on-screen text in Sherlock attracts eye movement, and that it therefore distracts from other parts of the image. One question then that immediately presents itself is why Sherlock’s textual distractions are tolerated – even celebrated – to a far greater extent than other, more conventional or routine forms of titling like subtitles and captions. While Sherlock’s on-screen text is praised as innovative and incisive, interlingual subtitling and SDH are criticised by detractors for the way in which they supposedly force viewers to read rather than watch, effectively transforming film into “a kind of high-class comic book with sound effects” (Canby, 1983).[2] Certainly, differences in scale affect such attitudes and the quantitative variance between post-subtitles (produced for distribution only) and authorial or diegetic titling (as seen in Sherlock) is pronounced.[3] However, eye tracking research on subtitle processing indicates that, on the whole, viewers easily accommodate the increased cognitive load it presents. Although attentional splitting occurs, leading to an increase in back-and-forth shifts between the subtitles and the rest of the image area (Skarkowska and Kruger, this issue), viewers acclimatise by making shorter fixations than in regular reading and by skipping high-frequency words and subtitles while still managing to register meaning (see d’Ydewalle and de Bruycker, 2007: 199). In this way, subtitle processing reveals many differences to reading of static text, and approximates techniques of visual scanning. Bearing these findings in mind, I propose it is more accurate to see subtitling as transforming reading into viewing and text into image, rather than vice versa.

Situating Sherlock in relation to a range of related TELOP practices across diverse TV genres (such as game shows, panel shows, news broadcasting and dramas) Ryoko Sasamoto (2014: 7) notes that the additional processing effort caused by on-screen text is offset by its editorial function.[4] TELOPs are often deployed by TV producers to guide interpretation and ensure comprehension by selecting and highlighting information deemed most relevant. This suggestion is backed up by research by Rei Matsukawa et al. (2009), which found that the information redundancy effect caused by TELOPs facilitates understanding of TV news. For Sasamoto (2014: 7), ‘impact captioning’ highlights salient information in much the same way as voice intonation or contrastive stress. It acts as a “written prop on screen” enabling “TV producers to achieve their communicative aims… in a highly economical manner” (8). Focusing on Sherlock specifically, Sasamoto suggests that its captioning provides “a route for viewers into complex narratives” (9). Moreover, as Szarkowska and Kruger (this issue) note, in static reading conditions, “longer fixations typically reflect higher cognitive load.” Consequently, the shorter fixations that characterise subtitle viewing supports the contention that on-screen text processing is eased by its expedient, editorial function and by redundancy effects resulting from its multimodality.

Switched On

Another way in which Sherlock’s text and titling innovations extend beyond mobile phone usage was exemplified in July 2013 by a promotional campaign that promised viewers a ‘sneak peak’ at a yet-to-be-released episode title, requiring them to find and piece together a series of clues. In true Sherlockian style, the clues were well hidden, only visible to viewers if they switched on closed-captioning or SDH available for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. With this device turned on, viewers encountered intralingual captioning along the bottom of their screen and additionally, individually boxed letters that appeared top left (see Figs. 11 and 12). Viewers needed to gather all these single letter clues in order to deduce the episode title: ‘His Last Vow’. According to the ‘I Heart Subtitles’ blog (July 16, 2013), in doing so, Sherlock once again displayed its ability to “think outside the box and consider all…options”. It also cemented its commitment to on-screen text in various guises, and effectively gave voice to an audience segment typically disregarded in screen commentary and analysis. Through this highly unusual, cryptic campaign, Sherlock alerted viewers to more overtly functional forms of titling, and intimated points of connection between language, textual intervention and access.

Figure 11

Figures 11: Boxed letter clues (top left of frame) that appeared when closed captioning was switched on, during a re-run of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Sherlock (2012), Episode 1, Season 2.

Figure 12

Figures 12: Boxed letter clues (top left of frame) that appeared when closed captioning was switched on, during a re-run of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, Sherlock (2012), Episode 1, Season 2.

Conclusion

On-screen text invites a rethinking of the visual, expanding its borders and blurring its definitional clarity. Eye tracking research demonstrates that moving text on screens is processed differently to static text, affected by a range of factors issuing from its multimodal complexity. Sherlock subtly signals such issues through its playful, irreverent deployment of text, which enables viewers to directly access Sherlock’s thoughts and understand his reasoning, while also distancing them, asking them to marvel at his ‘millennial’ technological prowess (Stein and Busse, 2012: 11) while remaining self-consciously aware of his complex narrative framing as it flips inside out, inviting audiences to watch themselves watching. Such diegetic transgression is yet to be mapped through eye tracking, intimating a profitable direction for future studies. To date, data on text and image processing demonstrates how on-screen text attracts eye movement and hence, it can be inferred that it distracts from other parts of the image area. Yet, despite rendering more of the image effectively ‘invisible’, text in the form of TELOPs are increasingly prevalent in news broadcasts, current affairs panel shows (when audience text messages are displayed) and, most notably, in Asian TV genres where they are now a “standard editorial prop” featured in many dramas and game shows (Sasamoto, 2014: 1). In order to take up the challenge presented by such emerging modes of screen address, research needs to move beyond surface assessments of the attraction/distraction nexus. It is the very attraction to TELOP distraction that Sherlock – via eye tracking – brings to the fore.

 

References

Acland, Charles. 2012. “From International Blockbusters to National Hits: Analysis of the 2010 UIS Survey on Feature Film Statistics.” UIS Information Bulletin 8: 1-24. UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Altman, Rick. 2004. Silent Film Sound. New York: Columbia University Press.

Banks, David. 2012. “Sherlock: A Perspective on Technology and Story Telling.” Cyborgology, January 25. Accessed October 9, 2014.

Batty, Craig, Adrian Dyer, Claire Perkins and Jodi Sita (forthcoming). “Seeing Animated Worlds: Eye Tracking and the Spectator’s Experience of Narrative.” In Making Sense of Cinema: Empirical Studies into Film Spectators and Spectatorship, edited by Carrie Lynn D. Reinhard and Christopher J. Olson. London and New York: Bloomsbury.

Bennet, Alannah. 2014. “From Sherlock to House of Cards: Who’s Figured Out How to Translate Texting to Film.” Bustle, August 18. Entertainment. Accessed October 9. http://www.bustle.com/articles/36115-from-sherlock-to-house-of-cards-whos-figured-out-how-to-translate-texting-to-film/image/36115.

Biedenharn, Isabella. 2014. “A Brief Visual History of On-Screen Text Messages in Movies and TV.Flavorwire, April 24. Accessed October 13.

Bisson, Marie-Jos´ee, Walter J. B. Van Heuven, Kathy Conklin And Richard J. Tunney. 2014. “Processing of native and foreign language subtitles in films: An eye tracking study.” Applied Psycholinguistics 35: 399–418. Accessed October 13, 2014. doi: 10.1017/S0142716412000434.

Calloway, Mariel. 2013. “The Game is On(line): BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ in the Age of Social MediaMariel Calloway, March 8. Accessed October 14, 2014.

Canby, Vincent. 1983. “A Rebel Lion Breaks Out.” New York Times, March 27, 21.

Dodes, Rachel. 2013. “From Talkies to Texties.” Wall Street Journal, April 4, Arts and Entertainment Section. Accessed October 13, 2014.

d’Ydewalle, Géry and Wim De Bruycker, 2007. “Eye movements of children and adults while reading television subtitles.” European Psychologist 12 (3): 196-205.

Kofoed, D. T. 2011. “Decotitles, the Animated Discourse of Fox’s Recent Anglophonic Internationalism.” Reconstruction 11 (1). Accessed October 5, 2012.

Lavaur, Jean-Marc and Dominic Bairstow. 2011. “Languages on the screen: Is film comprehension related to the viewers’ fluency level and to the language in the subtitles?” International Journal of Psychology 46 (6): 455-462. doi: 10.1080/00207594.2011.565343.

McMillan, Graeme. 2014. “Sherlock’s Text Messages Reveal Our TranshumanismWired UK, February 3. Accessed October 14.

Matsukawa, Rei, Yosuke Miyata and Shuichi Ueda. 2009. “Information Redundancy Effect on Watching TV News: Analysis of Eye Tracking Data and Examination of the Contents.” Literary and Information Science 62: 193-205.

O’Sullivan, Carol. 2011. Translating Popular Film. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pérez González, Luis. 2013. “Co-Creational Subtitling in the Digital Media: Transformative and Authorial Practices.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 16 (1): 3-21. Accessed September 25, 2014. doi: 10.1177/1367877912459145.

Rayner, K. 1998. “Eye Movements in Reading and Information Processing: 20 Years of Research.” Psychological Bulletin 124: 372-422.

Redmond, Sean, Jodi Sita and Kim Vincs. 2015. “Our Sherlockian Eyes: The Surveillance of VisionRefractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Romero-Fresco, Pablo. 2013. “Accessible filmmaking: Joining the dots between audiovisual translation, accessibility and filmmaking.” JoSTrans: The Journal of Specialised Translation 20: 201-23. Accessed September 20, 2014.

Sasamoto, Ryoko. 2014. “Impact caption as a highlighting device: Attempts at viewer manipulation on TV.” Discourse, Context and Media 6: 1-10. Accessed September 18 (Article in Press). doi: 10.1016/j.dcm.2014.03.003.

Schrodt, Paul. 2013. “This is How to Shoot Text MessagingEsquire, February 4. The Culture Blog. Accessed October 13, 2014.

Smith, Tim J. 2013. “Watching You Watch Movies: Using Eye Tracking to Inform

Cognitive Film Theory” in Psychocinematics: Exploring Cognition at the Movies, edited by Arthur P. Shimamura, 165-91. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Accessed October 7, 2014. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199862139.001.0001.

Stein, Louise Ellen and Kristina Busse. 2012. “Introduction: The Literary, Televisual and Digital Adventures of the Beloved Detective.” In Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom: Essays on the BBC Series, edited by Louise Ellen Stein and Kristina Busse, 9-24. Jefferson: McFarland and Company.

Szarkowska, Agnieszka et. al. 2013. “Harnessing the Potential of Eye-Tracking for Media Accessibility.” in Translation Studies and Eye-Tracking Analysis, edited by Sambor Grucza, Monika Płużyczka and Justyna Zając, 153-83. Frankfurt am Mein: Peter Lang.

Szarkowska, Agnieszka and Jan Louis Kruger. 2015. “Subtitles on the Moving Image: An Overview of Eye Tracking Studies.” Refractory: a Journal of Entertainment Media, 25.

Tepper, Michele. 2011. “The Case of the Travelling Text Message.” Interactions Everywhere, June 14. Accessed October 14, 2014.

UNESCO. 2013. “Feature Film Diversity”, UIS Fact Sheet 24, May. Accessed October 3, 2014.

Zhang, Sarah. 2014. “How Hollywood Figured Out A Way To Make Texting In Movies Look Less Dumb.Gizmodo, August 18. Accessed August 19.

Zhou, Tony. 2014. “A Brief Look at Texting and the Internet in Film”. Video Essay, Every Frame a Painting, August 15. Accessed August 19.

 

List of Figures

 

 

Notes

[1] While some commentators point out that Sherlock was by no means the first to depict text messaging in this way – as floating text on screen – it is this series more than any other that has brought this phenomenon into the limelight. Other notable uses of on-screen text to depict mobile phone messaging occur in films All About Lily Chou-Chou (Iwai, 2001), Disconnect (Rubin, 2013), The Fault in Our Stars (Boone, 2014), LOL (Azuelos, 2012), Non-Stop (Collet-Serra, 2014), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Stone, 2010), and in TV series Glee (Fox, 2009–), House of Cards (Netflix, 2013–), Hollyoaks (Channel 4, 1995–), Married Single Other (ITV, 2010) and Slide (Fox8, 2011). For discussion of some ‘early adopters’, see Biendenharn 2014.

 

Notes

[2] Notably, in this New York Times piece, Canby (1983) actually defends subtitling against this charge, and advocates for subtitling over dubbing.

[3] On distinctions between post-subtitling and pre-subtitling (including diegetic subtitling), see O’Sullivan (2011).

[4] According to Sasamoto (2014: 1), “the use of OCT [Open Caption Telop] as an aid for enhanced viewing experience originated in Japan in 1990.”

 

Bio

Dr Tessa Dwyer teaches Screen Studies at the University of Melbourne, specialising in language politics and issues of screen translation. Her publications have appeared in journals such as The Velvet Light Trap, The Translator and The South Atlantic Quarterly and in a range of anthologies including B is for Bad Cinema (2014), Words, Images and Performances in Translation (2012) and the forthcoming Locating the Voice in Film (2016), Contemporary Publics (2016) and the Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation (2017). In 2008, she co-edited a special issue of Refractory on split screens. She is a member of the ETMI research group and is currently writing a book on error and screen translation.