We did it! We watched The Silence at 3 AM, so you wouldn’t have to.
And between the gimmicky use of deafness, the truly strange pacing, and gaping plot holes, it’s a mess.
“A Quiet Place” Redux?
While the most basic plot points are exactly the same, this movie is very different from A Quiet Place. In both, a deaf girl’s hearing family knows ASL and that helps them evade monsters who hunt by sound. However, from there, things diverge a lot. The Silence monsters (“vesps”) are little batty things that can be killed fairly easily; A Quiet Place monsters are large, armored, and nearly impossible to kill. The events of A Quiet Place happen well after the initial invasion; The Silence starts with the arrival of the vesps. Regan (Millicent Simmonds) in A Quiet Place was born deaf and is actually fluent in ASL; Ally (Kiernan Shipka) in The Silence lost her hearing three years before the action starts, and while she’s fluent in ASL in the book, her signing is extremely rudimentary in the movie.
Generally speaking, the book was far better than the movie. The universe was more consistent, (dropping a small plastic object would not be enough to trigger the vesps in the book), and it had some really interesting observations about how thin the veneer of civilization really is, an element that was blown past in the movie.
Ally was also a stronger character in the book. While the basic element of her dad being overprotective and worried about her because she lost her hearing in the same accident that killed his parents remains the same, book-Ally hits a better balance of heroism and realism.
So which came first? The Silence, the book by Tim Lebbon, came out in 2015, and A Quiet Place came out in 2018. Yet, the screenwriters for A Quiet Place insist that they had the idea long ago, when they were students at the University of Iowa in the late 90’s.
How’s the Deaf representation?
This movie’s director, John Leonetti, infamously declared of star Kiernan Shipka:
“She learned to sign for the film, and now she’s flawless, like she’s been signing her entire life. She seems to have an almost innate sense of what it’s like being a deaf person.”
We can report that this is… false.
She signs like someone who started to learn ASL maybe four months ago. Or as one of us put it as we live-tweeted:
The signing is solid ASL 2, or late-in-the-semester ASL 1. #TheSilence #DeafInMedia
— Tyrone Giordano (@TyGiordano) April 10, 2019
We don’t know why John Leonetti decided that this was “flawless” signing, or why people who are not actually fluent in ASL feel like they can make such judgments.
(One glaring flaw that kept coming up was a continuing misuse of the sign for “think” to mean “know.” This occurred across characters.)
There is nothing about Ally that reads as particularly deaf. She does look intently at things a lot, but that’s about it. This is baked in; the author created an escape hatch by writing her as having just recently lost her hearing, which gave him the opportunity to bring in sign language without having to worry about other elements of being deaf, especially being culturally deaf.
This issue was particularly egregious in the movie. The ASL seems entirely incidental. Ally is a Magical Lipreader – she never once misses something so long as she’s looking at the person speaking, whether or not they’re signing, and including situations where someone is looking over his shoulder at her in the dark.
And everyone WHISPERS LIKE CRAZY. They are constantly whispering! There are signs kind of thrown into the mix here and there, but there is not one moment in the whole movie where ASL is the only way they could have effectively communicated. A pivotal (and quite silly) scene in a drug store could have easily been handled using gestures, and the vast majority of the rest of the communication happens via whispering.
A major issue there too is how Ally manages to modulate her volume. Those with experience of becoming deaf say that while speech often remains about the same for a while, choosing the right volume can be very tricky. And whispers need to be pretty finely modulated – loud enough for those nearby to hear, not so loud as to call down a swarm of vesps.
Does it make sense that deaf people are quieter?
A central conceit of both this movie and A Quiet Place is that being deaf = being quiet. We asked about that on Twitter:
Given the preponderance of book and movie titles about Deaf people with some variation of the words "quiet" or "silence" in them, we thought we'd ask: Are Deaf people particularly quiet?
— DeafInMedia (@DeafInMedia) December 10, 2018
It could be easily argued that the last person you’d want along when you’re trying to be quiet is a deaf person. Speech is not the only way to make noise! Clattering dishes, slamming doors, crunching things underfoot – there are all kinds of non-speaking ways to be loud. But also, there are a lot of ways to use your voice to make noise even if you don’t speak per se. One doesn’t have to articulate each phoneme completely accurately to be able to scream, laugh, cry, grunt, or moan. This last bit especially is ignored in both the book and the movie in a way that is distractingly irrational. (See “spoilery observations” below for more.)
This could have been worse, but it could have been so much better. We were relieved to learn that Kiernan Shipka didn’t affect a deaf accent, for example. And there were things to like about her character; she’s thoughtful and brave.
The most obvious wasted opportunity is casting a hearing actress in a deaf role. But so much more could have been done with the writing of that deaf role, as well. And hearing people who may not have much experience with deaf people will again come away with a false impression of how easy and accurate it is to lipread, and what that means for communication.
Spoilery observations: read at your own peril
- The woodchipper was great but why break it out just once? Grind ‘em up by the metric ton.
- CUTTING OUT YOUR TONGUE DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN’T MAKE NOISE C’MON.
- The whole “fertile” thing from the Creepy Reverend was a major departure from the book, wherein he wanted their sign language skills so that the Hushed (with their cut-out tongues) could communicate. It makes sense to go a different direction with that, though, because ASL is so very incidental to communication in the movie.
- Wow they got to The Refuge quick. On foot. With a few little bags’ worth of supplies.
- The Refuge has… internet? Where does that originate, exactly?
- If the vesps don’t like the cold, why does everyone still have to be quiet?
- The Katnissness of the ending felt really tacked-on.
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