Why Do We All Need Subtitles Now?
Monday, 20 February 2023
An answer to the question everyone's asking, looking into the various reasons why subtitles are becoming more and more common.
In my first article with Lingo, I brought up the growing ease of subtitles as one of the reasons that foreign films are becoming more popular but even those who don’t watch media in other languages are using subtitles more and more. It’s now my default on everything from YouTube to Netflix and honestly, I do miss them at the cinema. And I’m not alone. Nearly everyone I know clicks on the subtitles. So why do we do this? There’s a been several articles on this over the years, mostly critical, and recently an excellent video by Vox - that I recommend for anyone looking for more detail.
One of the theories is that many popular films are made for a cinematic experience, complete with wall-to-wall sound, explosions and a dynamic sound range. You can’t make a sound louder after a certain point or the quality becomes distorted so you make everything else quieter instead, including dialogue. So, home listeners resort to turning up the volume in order to hear everything.
Christopher Nolan does this on purpose. He’s renowned for inaudible dialogue and has admitted in an interview that he is aware of the ‘problem’, even of other filmmakers' complaints, but claims he doesn’t “mix sound for sub-standard theatres”. As viewers at home, we take those substandard theatres and downgrade the sound even further to our TVs, phones and computers. This is then made worse as microphones get better and more detailed sounds are included, as when you compress it all to function on a laptop or TV instead of the big screen, that detail is lost and takes some of the dialogue with it.
One thing to think about as well, although it is much less established than the ideas above, is the theory of cinematic realism. We no longer live in the age of silent movies with stuttery black-and-white images of painted sets and melodramatic acting. The further we get from that age the more we see method actors and directors obsessing over presenting audiences with a new reality. This, in combination with advances in microphone technology, brings about the age of the mumble, where actors can hardly be heard and, might not even want you to hear them. Like the third-to-the-left chorus member on stage, some lines are not there to be understood, just to add to the ambience of the scene. It’s realistic for us not to hear every word out of a character's mouth, except in real life we can stop people and ask them what they just said. It’s interesting to see which films we can’t hear, a lot of the ones I see people writing articles about, at least, are serious dramas, like Banshees of Inisherin, White Lotus or even Game of Thrones.
A pet theory of mine is that subtitles force concentration. I bounce from task to task these days, with phone in hand or if not then a crochet project or notebook. Everyone seems to do everything at once or nothing at all, so maybe if we add reading subtitles to the experience of watching a show that’s enough to force you to pay attention – after all, if you look away they change and you lose the plot.
Finally, subtitles have so many extra benefits: you can appreciate the entire script complete with humorous attempts at explaining background noises, you can watch in a more chaotic, busy environment, and you can watch with friends or family who have auditory problems or processing issues.