On Screen Subtitling by Stealth

by Knockhundred Admin

Americans aren’t big on subtitles. Just ask Helen Mirren. The Oscar winner was so excited to use her French skills for the first time on screen when she signed on to star as a haughty restaurateur in last year’s “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” only to find out that her French character would be speaking in accented English.

“The reality is that it’s a Disney movie,” Mirren told Hollywood Reporter at the time. “The other reality is that the vast American public will not accept films with subtitles. People in Ohio have to go and see the movie.”

She has a point. The scary thing is how that thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Americans get stereotyped as a nation that refuses to read dialogue, so distributors shy away from bringing foreign-language films to the states and pretty soon Americans are left with little more than superhero movies and Oscar bait — safe stuff that doesn’t challenge us too much.

But Netflix is proving that subtitles can be both painless and valuable. Its latest binge-worthy prestige drama, “Narcos,” follows cops and kingpins during the rise of the big cocaine cartels in 1980s Colombia. You won’t see Pablo Escobar ordering around his minions in accented English; that would be ridiculous. He and all the other Hispanic characters speak Spanish.

The show is clever about it, though. The subtitles are stealthily delivered, kind of like a parent furtively adding butternut squash to the mac and cheese.

The first scene is the equivalent of mom and dad saying, “just try it, you’ll like it.” See how easy a little reading is? The first time we see a character speak in Spanish, it’s a one-sided conversation on the phone, and what he says isn’t all that important. What really matters is that American lawmen have tapped the guy’s (fantastically massive) cell phone, and they’re relaying the intelligence.

By the time we’re introduced to characters that are having entire conversations in Spanish, there has already been a shootout and plenty of intrigue, so we’re hooked. And, this being a modern-day adult drama, it isn’t long before people start stripping down and coupling up, too.

So reading subtitles doesn’t have to a chore. As ‘Narcos’ illustrates, it might be more work for non-Spanish speakers, but that’s the necessary price we pay for authenticity. And it’s worth it.

Source: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/style-blog/wp/2015/09/01/how-netflix-is-tricking-american-audiences-into-embracing-subtitles/

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