No Reading in the Theater -- To Dub or Not to Dub?

Commentary by James Berardinelli
December 18, 1996

Ever have an experience like this one?

Several years ago, I invited someone to go to a movie with me. When I described the film in question -- a delightful comedy about the lives and loves of an aging master chef and his three daughters -- she seemed very interested. Then, as an afterthought, I mentioned that the movie was in Chinese. Her response: a rather unenthusiastic "Oh." I ended up seeing Eat Drink Man Woman alone.

Something similar happened recently with a special screening of Cinema Paradiso. A large group of us was scheduled to go, but, at the last moment, half the invitees backed out. Why? Because they discovered that this was not an English-language film and they would be required to read subtitles.

Put simply, American film audiences hate subtitles. They loathe them. They would rather not see a four-star motion picture than put up with having to read what people not speaking English are saying. The odd thing is, if you trick them into going to a subtitled movie, and they don't walk out at the outset, they might actually enjoy themselves (provided it's a good movie). I tried this with both Ciao Professore! and Il Postino and, in both cases, my guests, who professed to despise subtitles, couldn't stop babbling about how good the films were. Nevertheless, I could never get them to go to another subtitled movie.

Why is there such an irrational hatred of subtitled movies? Ask almost anyone, and they're likely to give you one of two answers (provided their response isn't the always-reliable, "I don't know").

  1. "I don't like reading at the movies." This one is very common. People will tell you that they go to the movies to enjoy themselves, not to be enriched or educated. Subtitles require reading, reading requires engaging the mind, and that's just not fun. There are lots and lots of these people out there -- look how much Independence Day made, if you doubt me ($306 million and still counting). To them, going to a movie means turning their minds off, and you can't read subtitles if you're not thinking.

  2. "I spend so much time reading that I never get a chance to look at the visual elements." This is the excuse of anyone who wants to pretend that they're willing to see a subtitled movie, but are concerned that they'll lose out on the "cinematic experience." Before I began reviewing movies, this is what I occasionally claimed when someone wanted me to see a foreign film. There's not much truth to it, however. Unless you're a hopelessly slow reader, all it takes is a quick glance at the subtitles to figure out what's being said. And, in fact, the more subtitled movies someone sees, the more adept they become at reading subtitles.

Ultimately, it all boils down to laziness. Reading subtitles requires effort and the average movie-goer is reluctant to expend any more effort than is necessary to drive to the theater, buy a ticket and some popcorn, find a seat, then drive home afterwards. Mind-numbing, big-budget entertainment rules; subtitled motion pictures are relegated to small, dingy arthouse theaters that often feature poor sound systems and old projectors.

The number of foreign imports into the United States has dropped over the past few years. In 1994, it was possible to find about three-dozen subtitled movies in a fairly major market. In 1995, the number fell by a half dozen. An even greater drop occurred this year. By the end of December, anyone having seen twenty subtitled imports in the last twelve months should consider themselves very lucky. There's no sign that this trend is about to reverse. It's conceivable that, in another few years, we may be down to about a dozen significant imports.

So what about dubbing? Many consider it to be the obvious solution. No more reading required. You can see foreign films without having to worry about subtitles.

Unfortunately, dubbing has its own set of problems. First and foremost is the annoying mismatch between spoken words and lip movement. Secondly, the audience doesn't get to hear the original actors' voices, and, as a result, subtle vocal nuances and accents are lost. Finally, dubbing is much more expensive than subtitling, and most importers aren't willing to put up the necessary money, especially when a large portion of the "serious" film going audience steadfastly refuses to see "bastardized," dubbed versions.

Personally, I have a bias against dubbing, but I've never seen a really good example of it. My familiarity with dubbing comes primarily from the Godzilla movies, where the effect of Japanese actors being dubbed into English is comical. There are ways to significantly improve the process, such as having the original performers do the English voiceovers (many actors are multi-lingual). Still, even the best dubbed movie is going to have the lip synch problem, and that can be more distracting than having to read subtitles.

There's the case of The Visitors. When it was released in France, this comedy became a huge hit, so Miramax immediately anted up enough money to claim the rights. They then decided to try to release a dubbed version, and they paid Mel Brooks to create it. He did, and the results were disastrous. It wasn't funny. Art film lovers said they wouldn't see it because it was dubbed. Mainstream movie goers said they wouldn't see it because it was foreign. And those that saw it at test screenings hated the final result. Eventually, Miramax threw up their hands and released the film with subtitles. It went over like a led balloon. So now The Visitors is going to be remade in English.

Then there's Little Indian, Big City, which was released dubbed. Its box-office take was abysmal (although, in fairness, this could be because it was an awful film). Once again, both art film goers and mainstream audiences stayed away. Jackie Chan's dubbed films have fared better, but the attraction there is action, not dialogue, and a little lip synching problem isn't much of a detriment. Plus, Chan does his own synching, so there's less of the feeling of being "cheated" of hearing the actor deliver his own lines.

So, if dubbing isn't the solution, what is? Unfortunately, the sad truth is that there may be none. American society is in a constant state of being "dumbed down" (to borrow a term from Siskel & Ebert). Television viewing has replaced book reading. Creativity is in a steady decline. The ambition to become an athelete greatly outstrips the desire to become a scholar. People's attention spans are short -- they want fast, instant gratification. None of this bodes well for distributors trying to market foreign films. Miramax released Il Postino about eight times, and, despite a slew of award nominations and critical accolades, it still only made about $25 million. Independence Day outgrossed that in its first weekend.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that many people who steadfastly refuse to see subtitled films are missing movies that they might actually enjoy. For people to accept foreign films in the United States, there has to be a cultural change, and I have no idea how to affect something that monumental. (Apparently, neither do the executives at Miramax, Fine Line, October Films, or Sony Pictures Classics, otherwise they'd be doing it.) There's also something of a vicious circle involved. More people would probably see foreign films if they were widely available. But multiplexes won't start showing subtitled movies until they are proven to be profitable. And that can't happen until they gain wider exposure.

Ultimately, it's not so much a question of dubbing or subtitling, but of what Americans really want from their movies. And that's not much of a mystery. Audiences have voted for Twister and Independence Day with box office receipts, and against anything that doesn't fill a craving for fast-paced action and lowbrow comedy. 1996 has not been a great year for foreign-language films. Sadly, 1997 looks like it could be worse.

So, while my vote is for subtitling over dubbing, I'd be willing to entertain any solution that dilates the motion picture pipeline. Sure, a lot of what they make in other countries is terrible, but it discourages me to think that I could be missing a great motion picture simply because it was made in another language.

Next: "Rewinding 1996 -- The Year in Film"

© 1996 James Berardinelli

-- James Berardinelli
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