September 03, 2002
Failure of the Suspension of Disbelief

"I am sorry," says Ann Marie. "I can't find this movie credible."

We are watching The Shawshank Redemption.

"These people are in prison in Maine, right? Maine. M-A-I-N-E. Does a single one of them talk like anyone from Maine? No. They all talk like they're from LA, or New York, or Alabama. If you want me to believe a movie is set in Maine, have people talk like people do in Maine."

She has a point. Why does nobody ever do a true down-east accent in this movie? Do they just not care? Is it too hard?

"I haven't seen anything like this since they cast Julia Roberts as a second-generation Portuguese-American from an immigrant family in Mystic Pizza."

Posted by DeLong at September 03, 2002 06:27 PM | Trackback

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Didn't Kathy Bates do a pretty good one in Dolores Claiborne (sp?)? I bet that fellow who ran over Stephen King with his van (he took his eyes off the road while trying to keep his dogs from snatching the meat from his cooler, or something like that) does a pretty good down-east!

Posted by: David on September 3, 2002 06:57 PM

In the Shawshank Redemption we had prisoners in the 1930s (I think that was when it was set) referring to themselves as 'institutionalized'. Somehow I don't think so.

Posted by: Nigel Hawthorne on September 4, 2002 03:41 AM

How about the Best-Picture nominee, "In the Bedroom"? After they cleverly tip the entire story in the first two minutes, you can spend the rest of the flick checking the authenticity of the accents and studying the sets for wallpaper and other home decorating ideas. In fact, they could show this movie at Shawshank to start a prison riot. Double feature idea? Hmmmm.


Posted by: Tom on September 4, 2002 05:45 AM

I was able to suspend my disbelief. The only reason why it was set in Maine is because Stephen King (author of the short story the movie was based on) has a Maine obsession.

Also, note to earlier poster: The movie begins shortly after WWII and goes up through the 60s. And as for the use of the phrase "institutionalized": Merriam-Webster online ( says the phrase dates back to 1865.

Posted by: David on September 4, 2002 08:30 AM

I expect Stephen King's obsession with Maine is related to the fact that he lives and works in Maine.

Posted by: on September 4, 2002 09:31 AM

Reminds me of a stupid action movie where the heroe claimed he was able to speak Wallonian (a dead regional language even few Wallonians are able to speak anymore), while actually uttering words in Flemish.

To anybody remotely aware of the Belgian cultural issues, this is both funny and tragic. Is it too much to ask than to expect accuracy of language? (we're not even being picky on the exact wording or grammatical correctness of the line...) You may find it futile, I find it a matter of cross-cultural respect. (of what???)

Maybe it's like for supposedly historical Holliwood movies, where producers distort reality constantly to make it more marketable. My point is that maybe they should add the value of education and accuracy to their bottom line. In the long-run, it may even be to the benefit to the movie-making industry as a whole.

Is everything going to be sold out? I cannot help but worry about this continuous dumping of quality and integrity for the sake of immediate profit.

Remember when people used to argue that the real-time feedback effect of quaterly results onto American stocks was what gives the American economy its financial hedge over Japan...? Is the (local or global?) optimum in between these two models. Or should we move along other dimentions?

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 4, 2002 01:59 PM

Although it's certainly of less significance than Jean-Philippe's comment, but I've often wondered why Hollywood moviemakers let actors concoct Southern accents for regional roles, when they usually end up sounding as bad as Kevin Costner did in Robin Hood (Costner used such a bad English accent, or, more accurately, Costner used such a variety of bad English accents, that it became one of the jokes of Mel Brooks remake with Cary Elwes (Q: Why do you get to be Robin Hood? Cary Elwes (in character as RH): Because _I_ can speak with an English accent!").

I've heard many actors give a virtual tour of the linguistic south while they try to stick to a single accent throughout a single movie>

Posted by: David on September 4, 2002 02:16 PM

From a born-and-bred Mainer: I have yet to hear a real Maine accent in any movie. But actors should not bother imitating it- they should just use their LA or NY accents and focus on acting. Same goes for Yankee actors imitating Southerners, or Americans imitating English/Germans/Russians...

Posted by: Ben on September 4, 2002 02:59 PM

To J. P. Stijns -- there is an excellent British actor here in Portland who gets all the aristocratic British parts in plays here. He is a Cockney. This is like playing John Adams or George Washington with a strong Bronx accent.

As far as the main point of the piece: obviously, there are no criminals in Maine. It's all outsiders. As Chief Gunderson says in the Coen brothers' immortal "Fargo", "Something tells me the perps aren't from Brainerd".

And yes, people really do talk like that there. I grew up not far from Brainerd.

Posted by: zizka on September 4, 2002 08:42 PM

Why are humans so absurdly good at recognizing accents? A professional dialectologist, in an area of old and stable settlement like rural Yorkshire, can pin natives down to within a few miles; and any Brit can without effort recognize up to a dozen regional accents (Highland Scots, Glaswegian, other Scots, Geordie (Tyneside),Scouse (Liverpool), Lancashire, Yorkshire, Midlands, Welsh, West Country, Estuary (London and Essex),undifferentiated Southern, West Country) and three social classes (upper, middle, working). What use is this skill?

Compare faces. We can tell people apart easily on the basis of very small objective differences; it's actually very difficult to get computers to recognize faces reliably, and cognitive scientists think we must have a hard-wired face recognition module. The adaptive value of this is obvious in a social primate - we have to be able to distinguish between individuals in our little troop, even if they are our close relatives and genetically very similar to us.

I suggest we have an accent recognition module, but it must have a different purpose: to differentiate between members of our own troop,for whose interests we must have some regard, and strangers, to whose fate we can be indifferent. The problem of civilisation is being reasonably nice not to relatives, for which we are programmed, but to strangers.

Posted by: James Wimberley on September 5, 2002 04:58 AM

interesting idea from James Wimberley -- could one add an "accent acquisition" module, or at least an ability to learn to speak a language that works at a very high level of mimicry or precision? If there were much variability in how a spoken language passed from generation to generation, it would be more difficult to maintain the accent lines between groups who are otherwise closely related or situated. This also is consistent with a "cling to one's own; identify the other" rule of thumb.

Posted by: David on September 5, 2002 06:04 AM

An extra thought: people also cultivate their accent and other cultural habits because it gives them a sense of identity. We all come from some place, and there is nothing wrong with that per se. Sometimes, your worse enemy comes from within, sometimes from outside. And sometimes we are our own foes... Time to go to bed ;-)

Posted by: Jean-Philippe Stijns on September 5, 2002 11:56 PM

Most "acting" is memorizing lines and showing up. Too many in the biz seems to have been influenced by the song, "They say they're going to put me in the movies. They say they're gonna make me a big star... I'll play a man who's sad and lonely, and all I have to do is act naturally..."

From this website comes an oft repeated story:

Olivier became known for his amazing prowess at exposing characters' inner selves with his meticulous exploitation of external details: accents, physical impairments, and makeup. (Upon learning that his Marathon Man costar Dustin Hoffman had stayed awake for two days to look properly exhausted in one scene, he told the younger actor, "You should try acting, my boy. It's much easier.")

Posted by: Dave Romm on September 6, 2002 07:54 AM

At least you get an occasional attempt at a Maine accent in Hollywood. When's the last time you've heard a Delaware Valley-Philadelphia (which crops up in PA, Southern NJ, DE, MD, and parts of VA) accent in the movies or on TV? And it isn't Rocky Balboa going "Yo, Adrian!", or a quasi-New Yawk thing, but a bizarre twang that I've never heard outside of the area itself. That new lawyer drama "Philadelphia" didn't have ONE person even trying to mimic the native accent...

ps. I suspect Hardball's Chris Matthews of having this accent, especially when he's talking fast, but I'm not sure where he's from originally. Anyone know?

Posted by: oodja on September 6, 2002 08:52 AM

Southern accents are pretty awful in movies as well. The best movie I've seen for portraying Southern accents genuinely was Sling Blade.

And what's the deal with movies set in foreign, non-English countries (France, say, like the Three Musketeers) in which actors speak English, but with a vaguely English accent?

Posted by: Stuart Buck on September 9, 2002 08:20 AM
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