Subtitles are in vogue. Let us all embrace the new lucidity

Donald Clarke: Four out of five young people say they regularly watch subtitled content

An ancient motion-picture technology is finally in the ascendant. For close to a hundred years, snooty cultural commissars have been urging the dreadful hoi polloi – particularly the dreadful young hoi polloi – to take a chance on subtitles. “Don’t go and see that cacophonous Star Wars,” they once wrote. “Go and see that elliptical Icelandic film about walrus herders.”

Limited victory can be declared. A recent study from Stagetext, provider of captions for live and online events, has confirmed what many of us have suspected. Four out of five people between the ages of 18 and 25 declared they regularly watch subtitled content. Less than a quarter of those aged between 56 and 75 said the same.

Lest you jump to the conclusion that the youth now prefer the fables of Apichatpong Weerasethakul to adventures on Star Wars Island, it should be clarified we are talking here about captions on streaming services and broadcast television. It has become the norm to keep the titles on when watching films or series in one’s own language.

The old bores who write to newspapers complaining about mumbling on Poldark will feel vindicated

Various explanations have been offered. The convention is common on social media sites whose video is often streamed in the company of others. You may not bother to plug in your headphones when catching a TikTok parody on the bus. If you are rude enough to watch it without headphones you may not be able to hear the dialogue over the cacophony of tinny audio emerging from competing phones. An added bonus is the ability to easily snatch key stills and make memes of them on Twitter.


There was much gnashing of teeth – and more serious complaints from those with hearing loss – when Channel 4’s subtitling system collapsed as The Great British Bake Off was getting into gear. How would we now get Prue Leith’s accidental double entendres to our followers?

The old bores who write to newspapers complaining about mumbling on Poldark will feel vindicated. But the shift does not seem to be a result of more intrusive music and more naturalistic acting styles. If that were the case then the increase in caption use would be greater among older people – those less able to hear clearly – than those from Generation Z.

Whatever the reason, a technology originally intended largely for viewers with aural impairment is now an acceptable option for anyone who finds Succession too frantic. Never mind the 21st century. A few years ago, I found myself putting on subtitles for a rewatch of Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday. The speed of delivery is such in the 1940 classic that only the super-powered will catch every word without textual assistance. Let us all embrace the new lucidity.

Perhaps our imagined cultural commissar really has been vindicated. Gen Z may indeed be open to the walrus herders (even if dubbed)

Yet the captioning of films and TV in the language being spoken is not without controversy. It is still not uncommon for broadcasters to subtitle people from certain ethnic groups or certain social classes while allowing received pronunciation, with all its weird vowels, to emerge free of textual clarification. Earlier this year, the good people of Ulster got on their nearest high horse when US reviews of Belfast claimed the relatively mild accents in Kenneth Branagh's Oscar favourite were hard to understand. "This is a movie that definitely would benefit from subtitles," Stephen Farber wrote in The Hollywood Reporter.

Farber would have had little difficulty if the film had premiered at the Venice Film Festival. On the Lido all competition movies in English played with titles in that language and in Italian – this for the particular benefit of non-Italian speakers who have English as a second tongue. No less a figure than Ken Loach, whom nobody is dubbing a stooge of the RP plutocracy, allowed the Geordie accents in I, Daniel Blake to be subtitled when that film premiered at Cannes. Yet Alfonso Cuarón called it "parochial, ignorant and offensive" when his Roma had its Mexican Spanish subtitled for audiences in Spain. It is a tricky balance.

So, is the solution for all films to play with subtitles in cinemas? Perhaps not. Something is lost as well as gained when words go on the screen. The image is not what it was. Comedy, in particular, suffers when the punchline arrives before it is spoken. We could more reasonably ask for a certain, sizable portion of prints to carry titles. This may even help exhibitors in the war against streaming Meanwhile, home viewers can, without enraging Mr Cuarón, quietly slip on captions in whatever language they choose.

They may even be able to avail of dubbing. We do not have space to tease out this parallel argument, but there was, a few months ago, angry chatter at the news that some Anglophone viewers, rather than reading words on screen, were watching Squid Game in that supposedly lesser incarnation. What is not in dispute, however, is that young audiences were watching Squid Game. They also turned out for Parasite. Many have grown up watching Asian animation.

Perhaps our imagined cultural commissar really has been vindicated. Gen Z may indeed be open to the walrus herders (even if dubbed).