Narrative Film: Introduction & History

Instructor: David White
Narrative film is one of the most popular and common types of film styles. Through this lesson, you'll learn what defines narrative film, explore its origins and gain insight into some of its structural elements.

What Is Narrative Film?

Since their emergence in the late 19th century, films have played a significant role in the lives of people around the world. For example, movies have the power to share new ideas and teach lessons about the past or future. Sometimes, films only exist to entertain us. Just like there are many different styles of art, there are many different styles of film, but the style most commonly found in movie theaters is the narrative film.

In simple terms, narrative films are those that tell a story. Movies like The Wizard of Oz, The Goonies, or Rocky are all examples of narrative films because they are driven by a story that has a particular structure. If this seems like a huge category, it's probably because many films fit into this category. The size of the category, however, doesn't mean that narrative film doesn't have specific criteria.

According to narrative theory, these films follow a particular pattern that is best described through example. Consider the classic The Wizard of Oz, which begins by introducing characters like Dorothy, Auntie Em, and Miss Gulch. The characters then experience an upset to their equilibrium - the tornado - that presents them with a challenge to overcome. Finally, the story resolves itself when Dorothy finally makes it home and restores equilibrium to her fictional world.

The Wizard of Oz: A Classic Example of a Narrative Film

In general, each part of a narrative film serves the purpose of moving the story forward. This means that each character has a specific role in the story, and those that do not remain in the back ground as 'extras'. Similarly, everything that the characters do or say throughout a film also serves a purpose or contributes to the story. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the story centers upon Dorothy's trip to the Emerald City in order to meet the Wizard who may help her get back home.

Given that The Wizard of Oz is a narrative film, every scene and song relates to the central plot and doesn't diverge by introducing sub-plots or characters with their own storylines. Keep this is mind as we take a look at some early narrative films.

Early Narrative Film

The moving picture debuted at the 1893 World's Fair with the introduction of Thomas Edison's kinetoscope, a stationary viewing machine that showed short films, about 30 seconds in length, on a variety of subjects. These films were little more than vignettes that depicted events like boxing matches or native dances and were rarely accompanied by sound. The kinetoscope was something of a novelty for viewers, but in the decade that followed, investors and filmmakers had a hard time finding a profitable use for this new technology.

Early Film Enthusiast Using a Kinetoscope

The first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, was released in 1903, and the new medium found almost instant success. As an example of an early silent film, The Great Train Robbery tells a fairly simple story about the numerous train robberies committed by men like Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid throughout the Midwest and West during the mid-to-late-19th century.

The success of The Great Train Robbery led to a long string of westerns depicting fictional versions of 19th century American Indian Wars, more commonly referred to as cowboy and Indian movies. Films like The Vanishing American (1925) told simple, familiar stories in less than an hour and half, often in ways that validated or celebrated the victories of white lawmen and pioneers. Many of these early movies were based on existing literature, but they usually reduced the complex narratives so they'd be more easily digestible in a short time-span. Filmmakers found a way around some of the novels' intricate plots and themes by taking a pro-filmic approach, which means that the only events worth considering were those taking place in front of the camera.

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