The first text ever to appear on-screen wasn’t a series of words, but a string of question marks and exclamation points. They served to punctuate the aftermath of a car crash, the climactic moment in the minute-long film, How It Feels to Be Run Over, released in the year 1900.
After the appearance of these exclamations—“??” “!!!” “!”—four words flicker onto the screen, one frame at a time:
“Historically, it is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, moments in film that asks a viewer to read,” writes Gregory Robinson in a 2011 essay for Literature/Film Quarterly. The message also raised a deep question about the nature of words and reading, one that filmmakers continue to unravel to this day. As Robinson puts it: “What can text do once it is freed from the page?”
A century later, this question is relevant as ever but has evolved significantly. Ever since their first collision, film and text have been integrated in myriad styles and for a variety of storytelling and stylistic functions. Reading a book aloud, as a narrative framing, is an old trope in cinema. It’s everywhere from Disney films like Sleeping Beauty (1959) to more recent classics like The Princess Bride (1987).
“You’ve Got Mail in 1998 was the first to seriously tackle the way digital communication could impact lives,” Noah Gittell wrote for The Atlantic in 2014, “but being adapted from an earlier film—1940’s The Shop Around the Corner in which two characters fell in love using letters—it treated email merely as an old communication style reincarnated.”
Today, words aren’t just leaping from print pages and onto movie screens, but going from smaller, intimate screens to larger, cinematic ones. The contemporary filmmaker’s challenge is capturing the human relationship with text at a time when text-based communications are intricately woven into the social fabric of daily life but take place mostly on tiny, personal screens.
Plenty of filmmakers avoid this mess entirely—opting to write their way around the challenges associated with visual depictions of text messaging, emailing, and googling. Instead, they force characters to have face-to-face interactions or, in clunkier cases, deliver throwaway dialogue about bad cell service to explain the absence of modern technology.
“One of the reasons I like filmmaking is that sometimes you have to design a solution to a particular stumbling block,” said Tony Zhou in his narration of a widely shared 2014 video about depictions of text messaging and computer interfaces in film. “Texting is kind of visual so in theory this shouldn’t be hard.”
Yet many observers agree that it is hard—or at least, that filmmakers have struggled with what to do. Extended shots of text messages themselves are boring for the viewer, and require extra time and money to film. But having a voiceover reading a text message aloud—a device often used in film for letter reading—can seem hokey.
“I think you can portray texting in film,” a Reddit user posting under the name lordhadri wrote in a 2015 thread about Hollywood depictions of text. “The actual content of the messages, however, shouldn’t be the point.” More important, lordhadri suggested, is a character’s reaction to the text, or what the message itself might reveal about the person who sent (or received) it.
This is certainly the case in several television shows and movies where texting is an important plot driver. In Gossip Girl, for instance, the viewer often sees close-ups of the texts themselves—mass email blasts, almost like push notifications, sent by the teen drama’s mysterious titular blogger—but the camera lingers far longer on montages of people reacting to the message.
The beeping of several phones all at once, for example, is a signal—to the show’s characters and to the viewer—that something big is about to be revealed.
More recently, several television shows and movies have adopted a style of text portrayal that’s feels a bit more like augmented reality—an overlay of text on the screen, without breaking away from the actors as they react to the message. In The Mindy Project, text messages (including emoji) often appear in bubbles.
The television show also uses voiceovers for texts, a device that can add clarity and complexity. The message displayed below, for example, was read in Mindy’s character’s voice—the way it would be interpreted by the person receiving the text—even though, as part of the episode’s plot, her friends sent the text without her knowing.
This technique—like a mix between Pop-Up Video and a literary annotation—allows for uninterrupted views of the action as it unfolds, and saves the director “a ton of money by not shooting 60 close-ups of phones,” as Zhou puts it. It also has the potential to be more elegant than a cutaway view of the message itself, especially if the depiction of text is more broadly integrated in a show’s aesthetic. The stylistically simple execution by Sherlock, for instance, uses text overlays not just to depict text messages but also to illustrate the detective protagonist’s deep and peculiar way of picking up on details in the world around him.
Zhou points out that Sherlock’s style, as it pertains to text messages, is somewhat ambiguous: Often it’s not clear to the viewer who’s sending the text, which requires the viewer to infer what’s going on—and therefore increases audience involvement. (Incidentally, How It Feels to Be Run Over uses a similar device. The text that appears after the car crash is odd for a few reasons—one being that the identity of the speaker is unknown, though several critics have argued that the text is likely meant to convey the internal monologue of the victim.)
Part of the appeal of Sherlock may also have to do with the extent to which people are increasingly accustomed to the appearance of fleeting text in their own lives. “This hybrid reality,” the artist Ben Grosser told me, “a continued blend of being in physical space wherever we are, but constantly also engaged in digital connections—everything from text messaging to social networks.”
Along with Sherlock, there’s House of Cards, which features a similar augmented-reality-like portrayal of texting. Grosser recently compiled a five-minute mashup of scenes depicting House of Cards characters using smartphones and other computer interfaces.
Grosser, who teaches art and design at the University of Illinois is particularly interested in how software affects cultural, social, and political life. “There’s a tendency to think of software as a neutral component to facilitating communication,” he told me. “The truth is that software has an impact on what we say, and who we friend, and what we think of the world. Software is a designed object by humans which means that all software comes with some kind of intended effect.”
For filmmakers, there’s a huge challenge in capturing software as an intimate, non-neutral, ubiquitous force in people’s lives—precisely because of how crucial it has become. Computer interfaces are everywhere. Yet as technology becomes more immersive and individually oriented, it’s arguably harder to depict onscreen. And yet the larger difficulty in all this may be rooted in a tension between text and imagery that far predates the dawn of smartphones or even cinema.
The “very presence of words inside a filmic medium has frequently been considered a kind of trespass,” writes Robinson in his 2011 essay, the same way that critics looked with disdain upon the marriage of poetry and painting centuries before. Robinson quotes the philosopher and art critic G.E. Lessing, and his 1766 essay, Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Text and image, Lessing argued, should be like “two friendly neighbors, neither of whom indeed is allowed to take unseemly liberties in the heart of the other’s domain.”