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FEBRUARY 17, 2012
Epistolary Movies

In the early days of the novel, back in the 18th century, the standard narrative technique was called epistolary because the story took the form of characters writing letters back and forth to each other, sometimes never physically meeting. The style still pops up now and then. A recent example is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  The format may even be poised to make a big comeback. There have been novels presented entirely in the form of email exchanges. And how hard would it be to update the epistolary style to the form of text messages, Facebook posts and tweets? If it hasn’t been done yet, there’s bound to be a YA author out there working on it.

I don’t find the format too compelling as far as books go, but it’s interesting to see filmmakers try to adapt the style to the screen. One attempt is 84 Charing Cross Road, the true story of a poor New York bibliophile who begins a correspondence with a British antiquarian bookstore and is soon exchanging letters with all the employees and even their families.

Francis Ford Coppola’s version of Dracula is, as far as I can tell, the only adaptation that maintains the novel’s epistolary style. Most scenes are introduced with a voiceover indicating someone is writing a letter, telegram or journal entry and that we’re “seeing” what they’re writing.

I would count World War 2: When Lions Roared as an attempt to do an epistolary movie. This great teleplay uses a split-screen to show characters talking to each other while seldom being in the same room. Visually, I think it’s the closest film has come to reproducing an epistolary reading experience.

My favorite use of an epistolary conceit in film has to be 1776.  George Washington is never shown in this movie, but his presence—ranging from the humorous to the poignant—is felt increasingly by the brilliant use of his read dispatches to Congress. Abigail Adams is also only able to be on-screen through the symbolic letters she and John exchange.

Got any other examples? Write and let us know about them!

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