The Film Photonovel: A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations

The Film Photonovel: A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations
by Jan Baetens

University of Texas Press, Austin, TX, 2019
200 pp., illus. 33 b/w. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-1477318225.

Reviewed by
Will Luers
November 2019

Jan Baetens’ new book The Film Photonovel: A Cultural History of Forgotten Adaptations examines a little-known genre in great historical depth and uncovers fascinating new practices of text and image arrangements that came out of certain economic, material and cultural constraints. Dismissed as both aesthetically and historically insignificant by many scholars, the “film photonovel” emerged during the 1950s, mostly in Europe and Latin America, when magazines sought to capitalize on the glamour of movie stars by including in their issues text and photo adaptations of popular movies. Baetens frames the film photonovel as an interim genre between the comics-like photonovels that appeared in women’s magazines in the 50’s and later film novelizations that came on the market in the 60’s and 70’s. However, Baetens’ primary focus is on aesthetics and the many ways text-image arrangements escape from conventions to become something “other” under historical and material constraints.

Film photonovels were typically up to 50-page adaptations of the full plot of popular movies using multi-panel layouts of film stills, narrating captions and speech/thought balloons. One of the surprising features of the genre, emphasized by its detractors, is how much the images are subordinate to the text. The reasons for this are complex, according to Baetens. The economics of post-war magazine-publishing, the specific readerships (mostly women) and the desired outcomes of selling products and stories around body-care and beauty determined much of the aesthetic choices of the genre. The photo layouts often used the more glamorous stills and set photos from a movie’s promotional material and not actual (and more costly) frames from the theatrical reels. This limitation of source material meant that the same images were sometimes repeated across panels and spreads, further disrupting the mimetic effect of following sequential shots and downgrading representations of action and movement. Because a true sequential logic of cinematic narration (continuity editing) would require many more images and pages to cover feature-length plots, there is an economy in emphasizing a textual narrator voice that tells what the images merely suggest. The visual result is a dynamic simultaneity in page layouts that breaks from the linear format and acts as both backdrop and scaffolding to the reading experience. The “static” and “banal” quality of the visual design, often presented in conventional three-by-three panel grids, means that the substantial amount text flowing around the images has to do much of the work of conveying aspects of character development, emotional contexts, and plot events. The layouts also have to support a steady “reading rhythm” and not distract with unusual or more visually interesting grid arrangements. The genre “rejects both Baroque and stripped-down compositions while trying to control variation.” Paradoxically, these “visual” narratives are intended to be read for the story, while the images are arranged to emphasize the glamour of the stars, “almost like. . . fetish object[s]”  to be possessed outside the narrative.

In the broader historical innovations of multi-panel visual storytelling, the lackluster visual design of the film photonovel seems to be a negative quality. However, Baetens’ keen eye and deep scholarly understanding of word and image narrative brings out the gems in this forgotten genre. While the “visual logic of the photonovel is less syntagmatic than paradigmatic (less narrative than illustrative),” the focus on faces and bodies of movie idols creates a unique tension with the linear trajectory of the text. Baetens suggests that the magazine’s remediation acts as an evocation of movies already seen by the reader. It is as if the visual design is mimetic of the lingering memory of a movie rather than a translation of the movie narrative itself. Meanwhile, the narrating text, stripped of action, movement and suspense, is there to trigger the memories of other images seen or not. Image arrangements that neither emphasize a “pregnant moment” nor follow a linear development (“sequential simultaneity or simultaneous sequentiality”) shares something with Scott McCloud’s aspect-to-aspect relationship between comics panels (Understanding Comics). But Baetens’ analysis goes deeper. His discussion of  specific techniques–the “divergent corner” to indicate the page is part of a larger whole, the broken continuity of layouts to suggest “off-page” events–are valuable to both scholars of visual narrative and contemporary practitioners of word and image arts.

This richly illustrated book, with clear and engaging prose, is both an important contribution to the widening field of adaptation studies and a model of medium-specific analysis that considers a form’s unique historical materiality to be in complex relationship with its remediation of past genres.