‘I Didn’t Come Here To Read’



Sociologist/writer Dominic Sandbrook makes a good point in his history of the UK in the 1960s, ‘White Heat’; while it seemed everyone was obsessed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the truth was very different. The most popular album of the decade was ‘The Sound of Music’.

In the same way, while critics get excited about world cinema (My God, the furore around the dreary ‘Neon Demon’!), it’s barely watched outside of its native countries (made worse by the fact that France refuses to subtitle its films). The public hates the idea of reading subtitles. So is there a way around the problem?

‘We discussed with Fox Searchlight how to make the movie more entertaining for English-speaking audiences,’ says director Timur Bekmambetov of ‘Night Watch’, which was meant to be the first in a three-part epic trilogy. Subtitles were treated like animated comic book captions, and worked brilliantly, but the process was too expensive and the film bombed in America. The director was seduced by Hollywood and ended up making the new mega-flop ‘Ben-Hur’.

The reason for the clever idea failing? If subtitles ‘aren’t invisible, you fail,’ says Henri Béhar, subtitled. ‘The titles should subtly give people the impression that they are understanding the characters speaking, not reading words on the screen.’

Polled audiences didn’t recall that ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ was subtitled, they just liked the film – which strands foreign movies increasingly without international audiences. Despite brilliant use of subtitles, Fox eventually hid them entirely in their campaign for ‘Night Watch’.

If you’re interested in world cinema there are many online services including Curzon and the BFI, both excellent, and this weird one, where you can see ‘Nightwatch’ and the sequel ‘Daywatch’ (but not ‘Twilight Watch’, which will probably never be made) for free –


9 comments on “‘I Didn’t Come Here To Read’”

  1. Ken Mann says:

    I once saw Andrei Rublev at the NFT without subtitles, but with a russian translator translating it to us all over headphones. He spoke in a dull emotionless monotone throughout, which wasn’t distracting except for a character fleeing from a mongol horde screaming “Mary mother of god save me” for which the gap between the actor’s performance and the translator was just too great.

  2. admin says:

    The worst example I saw was Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, in which ‘Posso aiutarti?’ (‘Can I help you?’) spoken in a languid, low sexual tone, was dubbed as ‘Ya wanna Lucky Strike?’ in a high-pitched shriek.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    How much is down to the assumption that people can’t be bothered to read these days? I remember (oh, the good old days!) when Beeb 2 or Channel 4 used to pack out their late nights with Euro movies – seasons of Truffaut, Fellini, anyone you could mention, movies like Alphaville with Eddie Constantine as agent Lemmy Caution, Roma, German cinema, most with captions, didn’t matter, you were viewing real cinema that had little to do with Hollywood – a different narrative style that didn’t rely on ‘stars’ – or stars that were famous on the continent, not Californian hunks and dolls.
    I view Amarcord as one of the best movies about youth in a small town ever made – cardboard liners and all – it speaks loudly of the headiness of of youth.

    Most people don’t give a stuff about subtitles – just look at the huge success of Studio Ghibli and the Manga phenomenon.

    I can’t believe that a major studio says that subtitling is too expensive – they are all after a world market and they have few ways in unless you go to voiceovers.

    Ben Hur – I recall the old quote in an early review; “Loved Ben, hated Hur” possibly attributed to Groucho Marx.

    Marx certainly pointed out in a sword ‘n’ sandal epic starring Victor Mature: “personally I prefer a movie where the leading lady has bigger breasts than the leading man”

  4. Charles (another one) says:

    In Nice, we were spoilt by being able to watch English language films in ‘VO’ ie in English; shout out for Nice’s Mercury and Rialto Cinemas. So may English languages films and TV series were (are?) dubbed in France, normally, that it was quite disconcerting hearing the original voices, after coming back to the UK. The problem is, being used to reading sub-titles back in the UK I found myself often reading the French sub-titles, and consequently roaring with laughter (or maybe guffaws) at the dodgy translations…

    I am sure the problems go both ways, and I do find reading subtitles takes over from listening to the dialogue, sometimes.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Reading seems to be in my blood. I can look at subtitles and not know that I haven’t just understood the foreign dialogue, it’s so seamless. Except I remember being a bit jolted by the translation of children into kids in The White Ribbon.

  6. snowy says:

    I will spare all the very long-winded version and cut to the last paragraph.

    There will be purists who will appalled by the very idea, but some films would be better served by being dubbed.

    You can subtitle a film but you are disrupting the construction of the story. Every time you look down and digest the subtitle you are not seeing the film as designed by the Director. You are seeing a sequence of snippets. It is not dissimilar to watching a silent film with inter-titles.

    For some films it doesn’t matter, there is only one person speaking at a time and there are such huge Pinter-esque pauses in the dialogue that it is possible to slide in the subtitles without breaking up the flow or missing out on too much.

    But if there are long blocks of dialogue to read while something visually important being shown. For example narration over an establishing scene which shows briefly a key visual element important to the action that follows.

    Multiple overlapping voices which make it hard to determine which character is saying what, “Now, hang on. Who exactly killed who’s goat?”

    Or dialogue that is supposed to trigger a slight visual reaction, very briefly glimpsed giving the viewer the clue that one character is really not what they seem.

    [Enough examples, I’m off to re-watch [REC]2 with words at the bottom,]

  7. admin says:

    I agree, good subtitling can make an action movie better.

  8. snowy says:

    In the looooong version there was a couple of sections talking about the puzzling success of Robot hitting Robot films. And then drawing a parallel between them and how Bond movies are constructed. And then a bit about international sales, and some more stuff, and more stuff etc.

    This was to be followed by a very long section on how to conduct a retropective study using data from IMDb. At this point; -I lost the will to live- and just posted the last para.

  9. Jon Masters says:

    The success of the Scandi-noir crime dramas, alongside other subtitled delights on BBC4 would suggest that there are plenty of people who can cope with subtitled drama.

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