More Than Words: A non-Czech Understanding of Czech Cinema

Not understanding a language at all can be quite frustrating. So to challenge myself even more, I have decided to watch a scene of the 2006 adaptation of Hrabal’s I Served the King of England. Without subtitles. I decided on a scene with dialogue and tried to understand the story. After this I read the opening chapter of the book to compare in how far I understood the story and how it diverged from the original source. This gave me some insight in how much the director and screenwriter relied on the use of dialogue to convey the story and in how far they used all the possibilities of cinema. To give you some insight in my train of thought, I put my interpretation of the first five minutes in italics.


The story starts with secure looking building. It is only after seeing an older man coming out of with, accompanied by a security guard, I realize it is a prison. He is contemplating something as he is taking in his first free breaths in a while. The scene shifts from colour to black- and – white, in my opinion a clear shift to the past and the past self of the man we saw coming out of the prison. We see the young man trying  (not very hard) to give back some money to another man which he is eventually unable to do. There is a continuous voice-over and the only two words I recognized so far are “millionaire” and “hotelier”. This in combination with the young man pocketing cash and throwing coins, leads me to belief that he has an obsession with making money. This entire scene is shot like a silent film and has the feeling of Charlie Chaplin film.


This initial analysis of the first five minutes leads me to believe that this film will be about a young man trying to make a fortune as a hotelier. As this initial scene is conveyed not only by image, but also by a voice-over, I have a feeling I probably missed some of the finer details, because there was a lot of monologue in comparison to what I understood from the visuals. In an ideal film situation a story should be conveyed through more than just the spoken word. It is one of those pitfalls that happen to film adaptations of classic novels where much of the dialogue in the book has been directly transported to the screen. To see if this is true for this particular adaptation I looked to the opening chapter of the book.


Chapter One “A Glass of Grenadine” starts very differently from the film. Instead of starting with the older version of the main character, the reader immediately follows the young, ambitious version of Hrabal’s hero. It is written in the past tense, which indicates that storyteller is looking back on his life. This, however, is much more visualized in the film. Corresponding to my own analysis is our hero’s fascination with money and how he tries to outsmart customers on the train platform in order to be able to work in a better workplace. When reading the opening chapter I was also drawn to a detail I missed in the film, but in retrospect seems important to his character: he has a complex about his height as he is quite small. In conclusion, my initial thoughts about the story seemed to be quite correct.


For me this showcases how the film adaptation of a book can succeed in conveying a story without a word-for-word adaptation. In how far can we understand a cinematic story without words? One would think that cinema is a platform where words are not that necessary. However, almost every film, at least the commercial ones, have a certain amount of dialogue in them. Even when sound was not yet available, the silent films used dialogue screens to convey their story. In this adaptation, I would say the voice-over enhances the visuals, but as a non-speaker of the Czech I could still properly understand the core message of I Served the King of England. In conclusion, the world of cinema can create a story with more than words.

Zoe Sierens

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