The Written Word and the Visual Image

 Estefanía Tocado

According to Noam Chomsky, the linguistic “performance” that articulates linguistic competence involves many factors, not only linguistic, but also other extralinguistic related to the beliefs concerning the speaker and the situation when the speech has been uttered (102).  Other extralinguistic factors, such as social and cultural background (studied in the field of sociolinguistics), can play an important role in the semantic and pragmatic aspects of the communicative act.  It is also relevant to point out that language is also used as an organized symbolic form of a cultural genre, and because of its properties as a semiotic code its combinatoriality is multiple and complex, especially when dealing with more than one genre (Irvine 11).  In the 20th century since the appearance of the photographic image and the creation of film, film studies theorist and scholars have long debated the intrinsic relationship between the written word and the visual image.  Due to the fact that Western society is deeply indebted to the concept of logocentrism, for many years the literary field has always been regarded as superior (high culture) and the visual world as dependent on it.  However, things have shifted dramatically in the last few decades.  The visual image and its endless combinations, as portrayed in production of a film, stand as the representation that the image is an independent sign that participates from a system (semiotic code) that has multiple layers of construction and meaning generating its own linguistic competence through the visual media.  André Bazin in his essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” argued for visual images as being signs, and he tried to categorize the different kind of images according to the means by which they are produced and the relation between the image and the object it wants to represent (Morgan 107).

The relationship between literature and film has been long established.  However, it is interesting to remark how often these two are mutually influenced sharing an intermedial channel especially in the case of the narrative and the film.  An excellent example of this intermediality is very often seen in novels and filmic adaptations.  In the case of Jane Eyre, a well known novel that has been adapted to the visual media several times, it is noteworthy to indicate that every reading has its own understanding of how to tell the story in the visual code.  In accordance to Debora Cartmell who studies theory of filmic adaption, the transposition from one genre to the other is a matter of relocating it in a major context:  “All screen versions of a novel are transpositions in the sense that they take a text from one genre and deliver it to new audiences by means of the aesthetic conventions of an entirely different generic process (here novel into film). But many adaptations of novels and other generic forms contain further layers of transposition, relocating their source not just generically, but in cultural, geographical, and temporal terms” (ctd en Sanders 20-21).  As stated by Chomsky, the extralinguistic factors are extremely important in order to adequately portray the semantics and the pragmatics of the act of communication established between the visual image (the film) and the audience.  Linda Hutcheon in her book Theory of Adaptation affirms that an adaptation is a derivation that is not derivative – a work that is second without being secondary.  It is its own palimpsestic thing” (9).  I would like to regard this intrinsic relationship between the literary word and the visual image as a palimpsestic process from both ends, and not only from the filmic, since the view of a specific novel can be heavily influenced by its filmic adaptation in the mind of the audience creating new layers of meaning to its original reading and understanding of the written story.


Works Cited

Chomsky, Noam. Language and Mind. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Irvine, Martin. “Linguistics: Key Concepts.” Media Theory and Cognitive Technologies. Georgetown U, Jan. 2014. Web. 28 January 2014.

Morgan, Daniel. “Rethinking Bazin: Ontology and Realist Aesthetics.” The Film Theory

Reader. Ed. Marc Furstenau. London-New York: Routldge, 2010.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropiation. London-New York: Routldge, 2006.