Hello Leo Listeners. Today I’m thrilled to welcome my second guest blogger to the Leo Listening blog, Trisha from Vagabond English. Trisha’s website is all about finding your voice in English through the books you read. Today she’s bringing her reading in English expertise to the subtitle freedom fight. I just know you’re going to love this post. Over to Trisha.

Can you think of any great films that are also books?

I’ll bet you can.  In fact, once you start thinking of them, you’ll probably realize you can name quite a few.

After all, films and series based on books have it all: complex characters, sharp dialogue, compelling plots.

And if you’re struggling to let go of subtitles as you watch your favorite films, then reading the book and watching the movie is something you ought to try.  Why?

Books can help you leave subtitles behind.

You’re fighting for freedom from subtitles, aren’t you?

I know what that’s like.

It took me 10 years of studying and then living my life in French before I could finally enjoy films and TV.

But you follow Cara’s blog because you want to move faster than that, right?  

I don’t blame you.

After all, every second that your eye spends chasing subtitles is a second you can’t enjoy the visual experience of the film.

So what’s the most effective way to use books to break free from subtitles?

Read on for three of my favorite ways to combine reading with watching films.  (And some book/film pairs you might enjoy!)


One: Start With A Play


By reading a play that’s been adapted to film, you’ll have an unusual chance to truly preview the dialogue.

With films that are adapted from plays, the dialogue you hear is very close to what you’ll read–but different enough to keep you on your toes while you’re watching!

Here are two plays I recommend.  Both are under 100 pages!

The Importance of Being Earnest 2002

Do you like classics? Romantic comedies? Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Judy Dench…

Adapted from the play by Oscar Wilde, this film is a light and often silly romantic comedy.

It’s also the kind of irreverent classic that will leave you smirking with its social commentary. (Although you’ll find more of this kind of commentary in the actual play than the film.)

The dialogue in the film remains very similar to the original play film but the film does take a few liberties in terms of the settings, getting the conversations out of the houses and into clubs, bars, streets…

Carnage 2011

Prefer something a bit more modern and a bit dark, wicked even?  Want to see Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly at the height of their acting games?

While Carnage was filmed in English, it was adapted from the French play God of Carnage by Yasmina Reza.  Don’t worry, the English translation of the play is easily available (and definitely worth your time).

The play and the film adaptation really are really close–in fact, the film takes place entirely in a Manhattan condo on a single afternoon.

Watch as the parents of two boys who’ve had a fight try to talk things over in a civilized manner…and fail!

Once you’ve read and understood the play, you can treat yourself to focusing on the best part of the film: the performances of the actors.  

Tips For Reading Plays And Watching Movies

  • Read through the whole play first and make note of your favorite lines and moments.
  • Stop to think about how you imagine an actor looking.  Consider taking notes so you won’t forget.  How do you imagine the actors will sound and look as they say their lines? Does the character have an accent?
  • Watch the play in short bursts.  Perhaps 15-30 minutes at a time.  You’ll know it’s time to stop when you start feeling too fatigued to concentrate properly and your comprehension starts to slip.
  • After each short segment of your film, compare what you saw with your notes–not just plot differences.  One of the best parts of reading a play and then watching it in action is the acting… So enjoy noticing the way a line is said, the intonation, the looks exchanged.


Two: Use Books To Provide Context


As Cara has pointed out, understanding 80% of the film is enough to be subtitle free.

Are you a bit…bookish like I am? Do you understand what you read better than what you hear?

If so, reading the book first will get you closer to understanding that critical 80% of the film because,

  • When you run up against a character who mumbles, or has an unfamiliar accent it won’t throw you as much.
  • When something surprising or shocking occurs, you’ve already had a chance to read it through–to wonder, “Did I read that correctly?” to ponder it, look up words.  You won’t have to wonder, “Did I hear that correctly?” as you are listening.

In fact, you’ll probably realize that reading the book gives you insights into the film you never would have had if you had simply watched.

Think of yourself as the director of the film, with a kind of deep background knowledge into the characters’ motivations, the historical context…

So how do you find the right books and films for you? I’ve got a few tips and suggestions. But first, here’s a great film to get you started…

Never Let Me Go 2010

Can I put an *asterix* by this and say that you should watch this film someday?

First of all, this is the case of a movie I actually liked even more than the book.  I think that’s the first time that’s happened to me.

You know those films where you realize you need to watch them more than once to appreciate the way it all adds up–from the camera angles, the light, the colors, the music (or lack thereof), the acting? This is that kind of film.

As you watch it, you feel that nothing is left to chance.

I’m not going to sugar coat it, this film adapted from the book by Kazuo Ishiguro will haunt you.

It is a thoughtful, meditative film that tells the story of 3 kids growing up in a dystopian society.

Also, it is probably one of the rare films where the narration and speaking is on the very slow and distinct side of natural.

The clear and slow voices of the actors creates an effect that is calm yet terrifying–and it’s the perfect place for you to start watching films without subtitles.

The book will keep you turning the pages and give you insight into the characters that will make the film come alive. And the conversational tone it’s written in makes it really easy to read.

In short: Easy to read, hard to put down…impossible to forget! Check out Cara’s blog series on understanding Never Let Me Go without subtitles.

Tips For Choosing And Enjoying Your Own Book And Movie Pairs


  • Find a book that is similar to the film. Before you dive in, do a quick internet search including the title of the book/film in question plus the phrase “book vs. film.” This will make sure you’re getting the context you need to understand when you watch.
  • Consider the length of the book and the level of difficulty.  If you are working on being subtitle free as you watch films you may already have a book habit well under way.  If not, that doesn’t mean you can’t start one.  If you’re not in the habit of reading books already, see if you can ‘test’ the book by reading a few pages either in a library, book shop or from an online version of the book.
  • Read the book and prepare yourself for the film: What are the best parts of the book?  What do you love about it?  What should be in the film, in your opinion?
  • Watch the movie in sections. (20-30 minutes at a time)
  • Watch more than once.  If you pick a great film there will be scenes that deserve to be viewed more than once.  And you will notice something new each time you replay a part of the film.


Three: Books + Films For Accents


Are there any specific accents that you find difficult to understand?

Don’t worry, it happens to native speakers too.

In fact, I can recall some embarrassing moments where I couldn’t understand my native language.  Bowling with a man from Glasgow…an evening in a pub in Northern Ireland.

A book and film pair can be a fun way to explore those accents that elude you.  For example…

The Color Purple (1985)

Alice Walker, writes in the voice of Celie, the main character in a way you can hear.

And the great thing about reading the book is that you get a chance to see the accent too.

Here’s a taste:

“Ain’t nothing wrong with Shug Avery.  She just sick.  Sicker than anybody I ever seen. She sicker than my mama was when she die. But she more evil than my mama and that keep her alive…”

The book is both sadder, more whimsical, more detailed and ultimately more hopeful than the film.  But both the film and the book are well worth your time.

(Full disclosure: I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film.  It’s one of my personal book-film favorites, right up there with Pride and Prejudice and the Princess Bride).

Tips For Books And Films With Accents


  • Take it easy on yourself.  Native speakers struggle with unfamiliar accents too.
  • Consider watching the film first with subtitles (or at least a part of the film) so that you can really hear what the accent is like.
  • Read aloud: If you’re reading a book with à heavy dialect or accent–it will help you understand.
  • Watch difficult scenes more than once–there’s no shame in that.  And maybe you’ll even find there are a few lines from the film that you’ll never forget.


What Do You Think?


Do you have a favorite book/film pair?  Or one that you can’t wait to discover?

Would you like the chance to discuss a book/film pair with some fellow book-lovers and cinephiles?

Can you think of any films that are better than the book?

Or books that are better than the film?

Leave your comments or questions below.  I can’t wait to hear from you.


Trisha runs Vagabond English where she helps book-lovers and readers capture their own experiences, tell their stories and connect with others.

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