A Multimodal Discourse Analysis of Unreliable Narration in Detective Films


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

View graph of relations



Awarding Institution
Award date20 May 2020


Since Booth (1961) first introduces unreliable narrator as a storytelling device, a number of studies have drawn attention to the issue from the perspective of definition or identification. As we know, one noticeable feature of detective films is that the narratives are not necessarily completely sincere and misleading information tends to be presented to viewers to make a judgement. As we enter into an age of digitization when meaning is not solely dependent on language, unreliable narration, likewise, requires re-examination of its multimodal construction. In this thesis, I seek to explore how unreliable narration is instantiated in filmic discourse by examining the deployment of language and other social semiotics. By examining the complex meaning making process of unreliable narration, the current study discloses the signals of unreliability and the way in which the spectators detect the textual signals with their frame of reference.

Data in the present study comes from the film adaption of the novel Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and the software Multimodal Analysis Video is utilized to annotate and visualize the systemic choices in the selected film fragments featuring two representative unreliable narrators. Drawing on the theoretical framework of Systemic Functional Theory (Halliday, 1978) and Visual Grammar (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996), the current study adopts a social semiotic approach to model the unreliable narration in terms of the metafunctional construction in verbal text and visual narrative. Meanwhile, the synthesis of the rhetorical approach and the cognitive approach expands the pathways for identifying unreliable narrators and accommodates finer indicators of unreliability.

The findings reveal that the unreliable narration in two case studies, though different in realization forms, is characteristic of contradiction, ambiguity, evasion, uncertainty and subjectivity in verbal and visual channels. In addition, the multimodal representation of the implied author, character narrator and cinematic narrator leads to the reassignment of the functions of misleading viewers, implying authorial intention and concealing information. Lastly, complexity and abstraction as a result of grammatical metaphor are characteristic of unreliable narration while Hasan’s (2007) conceptualization of foregrounding gives insight into a deeper meaning of the filmic text.

The theorization of unreliable narration shows the explanatory power of systemic functional theory in investigating the meaning potential of a variety of modes and the motivated choices under contextual parameters. By revisiting the semiotic resources that are crucial to the filmic unreliability, the present study will hopefully facilitate our understanding of unreliable narration in distinctive forms and is surely conducive to multimodal discourse analysis.