Film 101: Unreliable Narrator

Yesterday in talking about the Rashomon effect I mentioned the term ‘unreliable narrator’ and I thought I would go into more detail about it today. This concept is one that has grown incredibly popular in recent years and is responsible for one of the biggest television hits of the 21st century.

The concept is simple enough at first glance: an unreliable narrator is any character who relays information about the story (either to the audience or another character (often serving as the audience surrogate)) that is untrue or a series of half-truths mixed together. In short, you cannot trust what this character says to be the truth. And as this character often serves as THE narrator (more or less) of the film/series/book, it makes the story that much more interesting because (assuming you are aware they are unreliable) the entire time you are wondering if you can believe anything being told to you.

To really understand this concept though, you have to keep in mind that the unreliable narrator is, in my opinion, a relatively recent development. For most of film history, the narrator (if there is one) is a figure above reproach, one that will consistently let us (the audience) know what is really going on and who is doing what. It seems that the studios discovered that having an unreliable narrator made for a good story. Of course they weren’t the first: the big television hit I referred to at the beginning was none other than HBO’s Game of Thrones, which of course is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (that may or may not ever see completion, I finished reading A Dance with Dragons almost FIVE years ago). The books are notorious for having no overarching narrator that you might find in other book series. Instead, each chapter is told from one character’s point of view, meaning everything we see is biased by the perceptions of that character. Since none of the characters know the full picture (except for maybe Varys and I’m not sure even he knows about what’s going on north of the Wall), you can’t fully trust (and in the case of some like Littlefinger, not at all) what these characters see/know/think they know. And this mostly carries over to the TV show.

Other good examples of an unreliable narrator in film include:

  • Fight Club (1999): It turns out that only one of the two main protagonists actually exists, the other is in the main character’s head.
  • A Beautiful Mind (2001): The main character is eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and it turns out several characters we’ve come to know are not real.
  • Atomic Blonde (2017): It could be said this film has several examples as the “true” story does not come out towards the end. Lorraine, being the main character, is probably the chief example as her search for “Satchel” is revealed to be based on a lie

And that’s pretty much what an unreliable narrator is 🙂 What are some examples of an unreliable narrator that you can think of? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and have a great day 🙂

See also:

Film 101

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