Do closed captions belong in movie theaters? Every deaf dude would unequivocally say “yes.”

I’m a deaf dude and I’m unequivocally saying, “Well, maybe, but-“

Oh, crud. Stipulations and equivocations! Time to write an essay!

This’ll be fun! 😀

So, I’m Deaf

I was born moderately deaf in both ears. When I got my cohlear implant (CI) surgery in 2001, it wiped my residual hearing out completely.

I can’t hear without my CI, at all. Even when it’s on, my hearing is far from perfect. I can’t pick up sounds or voices behind me, though I could (maybe) hear them with a different modified program on the CI (think of it as switching between mono and stereo).

What I should point out is all the transitions between my processor’s programs are not what you call “seamless.”

It actually goes silent for a few seconds before switching to another program.

Yeah, it’s a nuisance.

A close up of a cochlear implant, a device used by deaf people.

Closed Captions

Anyway, I turn on the closed captions when watching TV or movies at home.

Without the captions, I can maybe pick up half of what is said if I concetrate hard enough.

But it really takes effort, and sometimes it’s exhausting.

Missing Dialogue

A lot of the times, the actors just mumble or whisper their lines for dramatic effect (I’m looking at you, Marlon Brando).

Hey, I don’t blame them. You do what you got to do. Art is art, and you can’t express it in a monotonous or robotic way sometimes. It ceases to be art if you go down that road.

A screenshot of a YouTube video showing how closed captions work.

Missing the Plot

Without captions, I sometimes miss crucial plot points. If you’ve ever seen Book of Eli, you’ll know of the “blind main character” twist at the end.

Movie poster for Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington.
The Book of Eli. Warner Bros.

Well, when I saw it in the theater all those years ago, that plot twist completely flew over my head. 😶

I only learned about it because I read an online synopsis after getting back home. The whole climax of the story was that the bad ass main character, who beat up marauders, was basically a post-apocalyptic Daredevil.

And I missed it due to the lack of captions at the theater.

An African-American man face-palming.
Photo by Mati Mango on Pexels.com

Captions Becoming a Norm?

For those who don’t know, there’s a movement going around to get captions insitituted in movie theaters. The argument is that this won’t just benefit the Deaf, but benefit every movie-goer.

Captions have been proven to increase literacy, even among non-Deaf folks.

Some devices have been tried over the years to accommodate deaf film-goers, albeit with limited success.

Caption Alternatives

One of these includes a pair of glasses that shows the captions inside the lenses. Users have unfortunately complained of optical discomfort.

Another method is a miniature-screen held by a flexible pole inserted into the customer’s cup-holder. The screen reflects the captions being projected from the back of the theater.

An image of a movie theater seat equipped with a captioning device. There's a tube in the cupholder that stretches out to the viewer's eyeline.

Users, however, have complained of awkwardness since the device sticks out like a sore thumb inside crowded theaters. They’ve also complained of the screen weighing down the pole, needing constant readjustment.

So, where does that leave us? What’s the one alternative that does not inconvenience the Deaf movie-goers themselves?

You guessed it, captions on the screen.

Progress for Captions

In this day and age, there are sometimes special screenings of theaterical releases containing dialogue visually showing up on screen in real time. However, at this time, it isn’t a norm. Theaters everywhere actually seem wishy-washy in this regard.

My (Dashingly-Nuanced) Position

My position is this: Make captions available, but don’t make them mandatory.

The reason I say this is that text on screen has its way of detracting from the moviegoing experience.

Sorry if I’m saying this to my own detriment, but it’s something I learned when rewatching Sonic the Hedgehog on DVD.

Sonic the Hedgehog – Two Distinct Experiences

When I saw Sonic in the theater a couple months ago, I got the idea that it was a schmaltzy kid’s movie. A cute flick with themes of friendship and so on.

In the theater, I didn’t catch all the dialogue but I still got the gist of what they were saying.

Plus, I was too distracted by the CGI of Sonic himself and Dr. Eggman’s robots. Who was I to care about the dialogue?

Movie poster for Sonic the Hedgehog, 2020.
Sonic the Hedgehog. Paramount. 2020.

But when I watched it on DVD with the captions on, something was…different. I was focusing on the text.

I was paying more attention to the corny dialogue and mentally nitpicking the subpar writing. This wasn’t the dialogue of cool guys or suave Scorsese-gangsters.

For some reason, I was bothered that this wasn’t Tarantino-level scriptwriting. Why should that even matter?

Sonic is supposed to be a kid’s movie, and it succeeded at that. It’s based on a friggin’ video game!

Two Asian girls enjoying and playing video games.
Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com

And it was actually nice to see old-school Jim Carrey on the big screen again.

What I’m trying to say here is that closed captions have a way of turning cinematic experiences to reading experiences.

Two Different Experiences

There’s a noticeable difference when you’re visually showing what the characters are saying.

When the captions are off, you’re experiencing the movie through a singular stream.

An empty stage with a red curtain.
Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

With the captions on, though, you’re experiencing it in two different streams. In that situation, it’s impossible to be 100% invested in any particular stream.

The experience overall gets diluted and you can’t enjoy the movie for what it is.

Deaf people need captions because it’s all they have. At the same time, the average paying customer deserves to get their money’s worth for the cinematic experience.

That’s why I’m saying this: Make captions available, but don’t make them mandatory.

It’s a reasonable compromise, no?

What do you think? Should captions be mandatory or optional for theaters? Comment below and follow ToomStone through Email for updates!

Corey Toomey with copies of his book, Heather's Mannequin.

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