Olga Anissimova
Maria Mäkelä
Katre Pärn
Tytti Rantanen
Maarja Saldre
Maria Seppänen
Katre Väli

Maarja Saldre
Department of Semiotics
University of Tartu


The following article discusses a case of transmediality in Estonian culture: the intersemiotic translation of Mati Unt´s novel „Tühirand. Love Story“ („Emptybeach. Love Story“) into a film, and a theatrical production of the same name. Transmedial narratology is a relatively new branch of narrative theory studying the degree of medium dependency of narratives (Herman 2004). The approach is not simply comparative, underlining the differences between two or more versions (modes of presentation) of a story, but brings us closer to understanding of both the specificity of a given storytelling medium and the universal traits of the story itself.

All of the three „Tühirand“ texts are portraying a love triangle of young people: a married couple and the wife´s lover, spending some days of their summer holidays at a beach. Therefore, the emptybeach is first the locus of the events taking place, but at the same time it embodies the psychological state of mind of the protagonist, the feeling of existential emptiness. My interest in this paper is how the three media mediate the space, and to some extent the time, of the emptybeach and how they differ from each other in doing this. I am going to bring up the most important features of each medium for portraying the physical space of the emptybeach, and then compare their ways of signifying the psychological emptybeach. The aim of this paper is not drawing conclusions on media specificity in general, nor contributing to the theory of transmediality, but to understand better certain media specific devices relevant to the given empirical material of the three texts and to bring out what is universal in the concept of emptybeach, relevant to any medium that would potentially portray it.

Before starting to speak about the different materials of the languages of different media, we can not, of course, neglect the varying artistic intentions of the individual authors, and therefore I will first give short overviews of the texts.

The short novel „Tühirand. Love Story“, written in the winter between 1971 and 1972 by Mati Unt, belongs among the classics of Estonian modernist prose. The text is given as an inner monologue, at times resembling a stream of consciousness of a young man whose name we do not know. Spending a week-long holiday on the so called western islands, he first loses his wife Helina to her lover Eduard, which is evidently painful, even though he is not quite sure if he loves his wife anymore or not. To ease the pain, the protagonist spends a night with his ex-lover Marina. When his wife gets to know about that, she wants to return to their marriage, but nevertheless, the protagonist lets go of her, and himself secretly escapes on their way back home from the holidays.

On the other, somewhat more hidden levels, the protagonist´s negative inner emptiness not only pertains to the relation of man and woman but shades his relation with the world in many other respects. He also questions his intellectual and his national identity. The text is explicitly interwoven with a thick intertextual network. The protagonist tries to fill his life by diving in the words of the other, by explaining the most everyday matters using mythological symbols, Christian allusions, quotations from authors both his contemporaries and those from the past etc. Unt uses an artistic device of giving some words with capital letters to accentuate the influence of WORDS of the other on our experience of the world.

The protagonist is constantly fighting with a kind of border that closes in, and does not let him run away. Just as he can not just walk away from his personal life, he is also stuck to the country, the Soviet Union, where he lives but which is not a real homeland. His painful awareness of the constricting influence of the sociopolitical reality of his homeland is therefore another motive for revolving around the question „how to be in this world?“ But the final emancipation, reaching the state of positive emptiness is gained only through acceptance, only through the answer „let it be!“.

The film „Tühirand“ by Veiko Õunpuu comes in an unusual format (43 minutes), and was released in 2006. The gist of the screen version is the love story, and the question that the director asks, is wether it is possible to truly believe in love. The protagonist is named Mati, but the other names are the same as in Unt´s literary text. In the film Mati has himself chosen to spend the weekend together with his wife and the violonist Eduard, lying to the lovers as well as to the people who are waiting for him elsewhere. Mati hangs on to his wife even more hopelessly than the protagonist of the book, almost childishly protesting against the „changing circumstances“. Nature around the people plays a part in itself in the film, as a static, calm, somehow dignified force, standing in contrast with the helpless human struggling. The climax arrives on the beach with Mati´s words: „I love you but you´re no different from the world. You inhere in the world.“ He wins back his wife´s love, but nevertheless escapes secretly from the airport on their return to the mainland.

In his screen version, Õunpuu „peels off“ the other layers of Unt´s text and concentrates on the love triangle. The intertextual network, the influence of the alien word is much lighter on Mati. Only the comical character of a general-rules-oriented (knowing exactly where one is allowed to sleep, where to park a car etc.) neighbour incorporates it with a twist. The Christian allusions have been brought into the text by musical choices and a quote from The Book of Revelation, but do not bear a dominant function.

Ingomar Vihmar´s stage version „Tühirand. Love Story without intermission“ came out in theater „Vanemuine“ later the same year as the film. On its paradigmatic level the play asks about the border between life and art. The protagonist here is named Mattias. This name refers to Mati Unt, but more importantly it unites the protagonist with a character from a later literary text by Unt „Mattias and Kristiina“, which portrays another passionate lover and escaper. In the play the young man constantly hides behind different masks, explicitly quoting and parafrasing writers, the Gospel, Estonian proverbs etc., and speaking of everyday events in a very dramatical manner and tone, which marks his difference from the other, in a way more naturally self-expressing characters Helina, Eduard, and Marina. Vihmar has also used other devices beside classical stage behaviour – dance, performing live music, and video. In the course of the play Mattias becomes more and more „life-like“ and natural, one by one abandoning his masks and roles. In the end, his marriage with Helina is over but Mattias himself has gained the ability to love sincerely a woman of flesh and blood, not only „the holy woman“ or Madonna or the ideal of everlasting beauty.

Space of the literary emptybeach

Looking at the emptybeach as a spatial category, we notice that the narrator has not described it in detail. Therefore, its most marked characteristic appears to be its status as a border zone. The beach forms a semiospherical line both uniting and separating the sea and the land, and by that, forming a crossroad of opposite semantic fields. The protagonist once names the sea as his initial home from where he (the mankind) crawled to the beach millions of years ago. As such, the sea is a comforting and peaceful zone, where one can get together with oneself again. On the other hand the water is a frightening chaos possessing destructive powers. When he is in the sea at night and suddenly loses the sight of the bonfire on the land, he loses his orientation as well, and the sea immediately evokes fear of drowning. The land is equally ambivalent. The protagonist originates from there as well („from the Cro-Magnon caves“, „from the bars of the capital“ etc.). Therefore, it is also a secure and familiar zone, but at the same time the land incorporates some kind of oppression, negative quiescence, from which man wants to escape. This complementarity of meanings is very well reflected in the scene, where the protagonist digs a hole in low water and hides himself away into it. There he finds a safe and protected place, as if in a motherly womb, but nevertheless its connotations with a grave appear almost equally strongly. We could see sea, then, as equivalent with perpetuity, while the land with temporality, and the two together as unseparable from each other.

The protagonist describes his first impressions of the beach: „[...] it was an empty beach,  e m p t y b e a c h,  I had not seen one like this for a long time: glassy water, green, not a single living soul, only an empty cottage of a cosmonaut up on the hilloc.[1]“ (Unt 1985: 383) In the film the beach is shown, not verbally described, and in the stage version the respective description is given by Mattias´ monologue. From all the three texts only with the written one we feel the weirdness of naming the beach empty, when it is not – there is even a cottage there. The discrete sign of a written word „empty” very clearly stands out, while in the speech it somehow does not differentiate, but melts together with the rest of the words. The word „empty“ in the literary text evokes most actively the other side of the figure of the emptybeach, its mental aspect. The semantic field of the notion „empty“ here appears equivalent to the „undefinable“ and „confusing“, the emptiness is semantically close to motionlessness and silence. In additition, one can not actually portray emptybeach without the support of a verbal component. In the movie the spectators are shown images of a beach, just a beach, and it could be identified as emptybeach only because of the conscious connection with the literary source text as spelling mistakes and wordplays are impossible with visual images.

We find a spatial signal on the textual level of Unt's „Tühirand“ as well, and it serves as another background for understanding the figure of emptybeach. Unt unites the opening and closing of the text by a repetition. The novel starts as follows: „food had no smell nor taste for us anymore, but the evening was empty and we decided to go to a restaurant with my wife, even more so as the next day we were having a trip to the western islands, the final and decisive part of our summer holidays.[2]“ (Unt: 378) By that he defines the state of emptiness as something to escape from, something that needs to be filled. Through several tries and failures he reaches another state of emptiness in the final: „The train station fell asleep. The train station was silent. I was silent. I slept. I had no smell nor taste.[3]“ (Unt: 413) By now the protagonist has stopped his subjective struggle for fighting and filling and the border between him and the world slowly melts, as he is falling asleep. We also find several palindromic structural parts in the text. Most notably, the protagonist once says that he would like his name to be Peep.

Space of the cinematic emptybeach

Although we create mental images while reading written texts, those individual associative images are not adequately comparable with the concrete and framed visuality of a cinematic text. And this brings us to a specific difficulty with „reading“ cinematic texts. While in the context of Unt´s novel, the word „beach“, explicitly carries along a heavy load of semantic signification and associative meanings (myths, symbols, stories about our nation etc.) for the reader in our culture, the situation is quite different when looking at a photographic image. It takes skill to skip seeing iconic signs on photographs and films depicting something seemingly familiar as just portraying that very same familiar object, and start seeing them as standing for something very different at the same time. I would agree with Lotman (2004: 46) on that the semantic relations between the sign and the signified are much more accentuated in the visual artistic texts, as compared to the written artistic texts. Theatre in most cases stands somewhere in between, because usually the stage design is more conventional and the borders of the stage made more conscious than those of the film frame. Our example of an empty beach on the screen versus on the stage is especially illustrative in this case.

While in the written text the emptybeach is not described in detail, but is first and foremost given as the meeting point of water and land, in the visual space of the film the whole beach is given in its concreteness, with a specific colour of the sand, with plants, sky and clouds above etc. We are not anymore given selected subjective reflections through inner speech, but the camera eye is mediating the beach seamingly as it is, in its naturality. And here we meet the infamous paradox of reality, or the life-likeness of film, which in fact is mediated by camera, cut into pieces by editing, and then displayed on a two-dimensional screen. Lotman (2004: 135-136) has pointed out that film is the visual form of art, where the figures inside the bordered semioticized space are most actively trying to break out from the frame, to destroy the borders of textual space. Õunpuu´s film is a very good example. There are no close ups in his „Tühirand“, only long shots which are remarkably seldom anthropocentric in their composition. If we assume that variation in shot scales is a constituting element of film poetics (Lotman 1991: 33), it means that lack of variation is a strongly demarcated device. Õunpuu accentuates by that the statics, everlastingness, dignified peacefulness of the surrounding nature. The long shots are at the same time very meticulously composed, at times even resembling paintings that portray the values that introverted Mati is longing for. Contrastingly to these values, the real communicative situations between men are dominated by their clumsy bid for making life a playful tragedy.

One of the main devices diffrentiating the novels and films from drama is the constantly changing point of view. Õunpuu uses it very vividly in the scene where Mati tries to escape from the problematic relationship and rushes into the sea. Once there, he looks back on the land – and sees the bonfire they have lit, from which he fled; then he looks forward to the sea – and sees only emptiness. There is not a single object to cling to, that would give answers, a reason to act. Mati turns around and goes back toward the land – “exiting” the frame to the right. Then the point of view of the camera is changed 180 degrees, making him move not to the right but to the left side, assuming that he is not going back but forward, to a different place. This is the point, when, in the cinematic narrative, the psychological aspect of emptybeach is most strongly evoked. By this device it is proposed that the emptybeach is not a simple arena where one could pick a side and fight for defeating the other one, but one unified whole without an exit.

Space of the theatrical emptybeach

As previously noted, Vihmar´s stage play´s emptybeach is brought to us both by the descriptive monologues of the protagonist Mattias and by the stage design. The verbal part is mainly direct quoting from Unt´s novel performed in a very dramatic manner and by that, it strongly contrasts the film version in which we meet only minimal speech. The attention of the theatre audience is in this case much more actively drawn to the performance, and the way the actor acts, than to what is actually spoken and done. Lotman (1991: 15-16) explains one aspect of it by looking at the verbal text of a play as the language of the system for the performed variant (the speech). It means that during the performance, in live contact between actor(s) and audience, almost every word from the written play or dramatization becomes a crossroads of mutual impact with other sign systems on the stage and of the constant feedback from the audience. This way, to complement the purely verbal meaning, the word picks up new meanings, both intended (by director, designer) and occasional (the reactions from the audience, „mistakes“ by the actor or others concerned with the given performance).

The land of the beach on the stage is embodied by a concrete stripe of black material whose texture resembles sand. Through the performance the actors scatter and dissipate it, until at the end of the performance the concrete stripe becomes an amorphous field. Like very many other elements of the production as a whole, the stripe is inter alia an allusion to a stage production by Mati Unt – his version of Juhan Kivirähk´s short story „Romeo ja Julia“. The latter was a tragicomic story of Romeo, a blockhead from an Estonian village, which is on the verge of becoming extinct. He falls in love with a roe deer named Julia. The stage play is a fantastic mixture of beautiful and ugly, desirable and disgusting, high and low values, morality and immorality, existing side by side. In the centre of the stage, there are pages torn out from books, and in the course of the performance, the leafs are scattered around the stage, just like the black material in „Tühirand“.

The dialectics between sea and land are played out in the scene where Mattias is letting Helina know that he spent a night with his lover Marina, and the latter event becomes a motive for Helina to return to her husband. In the middle of the scene Mattias „goes swimming“ imitating the movements of swimming with his hands and moving around the „area of sand“, circling it in. This motion demarcates the transition from one state, meaning from one emptiness to the other, the more positive one.

The rest of the stage space is resolved playfully as well. Every space of action is represented by just one or some objects (a table, a sofa), and borders between places which are far away from each other on the level of fabula, are very ambiguous or even non-existing. Moving around on the stage never happens in some definite and concrete dramatic space, but looks like floating around anywhere. This is especially so in the scene, where Mattias and Marina are making love, which is given as a contact improvisational dance without any clues to the room, where it is taking place. Adding to the playfulness of the space is the usage of video. Scenes filmed in the rambling style of home video, are depicting the young actors seemingly on a real holiday trip, where everybody is behaving naturally, as they supposedly would, beyond their roles. These audiovisual pieces start appearing as something more real compared to the artificiality of theatre space and actors in it, although on the stage we see living human beings performing live acts. By this device the director is again playing with the border between life and art, but also between life and play, or Spiel – a way of seeing and relating to life, that was very important for Mati Unt and his company throughout his life and career as an artistic creator.

On the mental emptybeach

Now that I have brought out the most characteristic features of the physical spaces of emptybeach in the three media, I would shortly dwell on the question of how are they affecting the mental side of the figure of emptybeach in each case.

In the literary „Tühirand“, the dominant point of view belongs to the protagonist himself, the text is mostly given as his inner speech. His way of seeing the world, and perceiving the conflict between him, his wife and her lover, is at first determined solely by his intelligence, his memory of verbalized culture. And that is the main reason why the border between sea and land seems to bear only separating function at first. The protagonist feels the need to choose a side, to find the right way for being and differentiate it from the wrong way, to pick things, emotions, memories and describe them for himself through the prism of cultural texts, so that by a verbal chain they would become a discrete entity, closed in from the unverbalized, and therefore nonexisting rest. Only when he finally understands, that borders bear another, uniting function in the nature, that sea and land on the beach are inseparable, just as mind and heart are in a living human being, he can peacefully fall asleep, becoming one with what was previously the other, the „not me“. And by that the notion „empty“ brings on more positive semantics.

Õunpuu, instead, mediates mainly a distant point of view, that gives the surrounding nature a part of its own from the beginning. Although in the center of the film, there is the love story, the director, by not using close ups, does not let the viewer be dominated by human emotions, which would be the usual device in psychological dramas narrating a love story. Here the central conflict on the psychological emptybeach lies between the temporal struggling of an impatient human and timeless and peaceful circulation of the nature.

On the stage of Vihmar´s theatrical production, there is a collage of spaces, or rather time-spaces of multiple origin. Next to the places in dramatic space, stand or float the time-spaces created by music, by dancing movement, by quotes from the very different works of Mati Unt, of which some were productions performed on the same stage as „Tühirand“, by quotes from other authors, by usage of video, by the monolgues of Mattias. The borders between those spaces are extremely hazy, and Mattias has lost his orientation, searching for the most „real“ one of them, until he discovers that the answer is most probably lying under the masks he is constantly putting on.

Flow of time on the emptybeach

As all the three texts are stories of mental transmission from one state of emptiness to another, the category of time plays an important part in the experience of emptybeach. Inquiring about the time in the narratives, the major aspects appear to be the cyclical relation between beginning and ending, continuity and speed.

I already mentioned the parallelism in the opening and closing of Unt´s text, where the protagonist first fights with the emptiness and then melts in with it. The story both starts and ends on a Sunday, describing the events of one week, during which a new way of seeing the world is created. The midnight hour, the start of a new day, is always demarcated by a split sentence of which the first half is in the chapter of the previous day and the second half in that of the next day. This way the author stresses continuity, while on the other hand, the text is full of memories and quotations which „violate“ the linearity of narrative.

The play is composed with analoguous rhythmic aberrations, whereas the film is not. Õunpuu´s cinematic version depicts events succeeding one another in a logical linearity during a weekend, interrupted only once by a dreamlike collage of images from the past and the future. This is a visualization of Unt´s protagonist´s idea of moments in which the whole life is concentrated, and at the same time it also embraces the idea of life as a chain of repetitions. The opening scene in a way incorporates a summary of what we are going to see in the film as a whole. There is a pool, and Helina is sitting by its side, while Mati is swimming in it. First he swims away from the side where his wife is sitting, then back to her, stops there, and seems to be getting out of the pool, but then turns around and starts to back away again. The pace of the film is harmonious with the nature – it is slow, and often seems to wear on, whereas the play, by contrast, is much more impatient in its course. First, on the stage there are many more events played out from the literary version. Also the time lines are being creatively mixed with each other, just like the spaces, and there are no demarcated change of days as in the literary and cinematic texts. When the video starts, the flow of time on the stage is stopped. When Mattias starts with his monologues, all the other actors on the stage freeze, as the time of the monologue does not exist for them, or it happens in an elusively short moment, while the lights bring Mattias forth from the rest.

Another aspect concerning time, is the problem of the era when the fictional events are supposedly taking place. Unt´s novel is cohesive in this aspect, but the others are not, as they both involve signs from the past decades mixed with contemporary time signs. While on the stage, this seems to be a logical part of the universal playfulness, in the film it evokes an atmosphere of time lost, just as love can be lost. The interiors, costumes and cars, though stylized, seem to belong to the time when Unt´s story was written, while some objects, most notably perhaps the mobile parking sticker on the car´s windshield, step in contrast with them. In between the two, there are the characters of the neighbour and the village men, looking somewhat stupid, but at the same time recalling people, who probably look the same in some long forgotten small Estonian villages, in which time seems to stand still.

The transmedial world of emptybeach

In the current article I have treated the texts of „Tühirand“ as three separate versions, concentrating mainly on their differences that appear during the process of transmitting the narrative between different media. We found three symbolic emptybeaches, varying both in their meaningful content and in the material of the languages of media for expressing them. The diversity arises both due to different artistic intentions of the authors as well as to the varying devices that the artistic media possess. So, the three emptybeaches are not isomorphous with each other, but nevertheless, every single one of them could, according to Lotman (1999: 21-22), be seen as isomorphous with an experience of emptybeach, of existential emptiness on another level, on the level of so to say non-artistic reality. To conclude the paper, I integrate the three versions and explicate the universal traits of emptybeach (that all three have in common), through the model of transmedial worlds proposed by Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca (2004).

Transmedial worlds are defined as: „[…] abstract content systems from which a repertoire of fictional stories and characters can be actualized or derived across a variety of media forms.“ In practice it constitutes a certain mental image of „worldness“ that is shared by authors and audiences. The most important feature in the transmedial world of the emptybeach is the category of border, and its semiospherical nature – it separates and unites at the same time. The border is everlasting but ambiguous, and a human being can not just pick a side of it, but will have to make peace with both sides, and recognise that there is no one without the other one. This overwhelming ambiguity is told and depicted by words, sentences and literary devices in the book, and by photographic images on the screen, as well as by speech and setting on the stage. The conflict between sea and land, chaos and order, statics and dynamics is everlasting and a human being can not flee from it. The only solution for getting free of the anguish of that inextricable sphere of emptybeach, is reconciliation and identifying oneself as a part of the world not as standing in opposition to it.


Unt, Mati 1985 [1972]. Tühirand. - Valitud teosed 1. Tallinn, Eesti Raamat, 378-413

Herman, David 2004. Toward a Transmedial Narratology. Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling: 47-75. Edited by Marie-Laure Ryan. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London.

Klastrup, L., Tosca S. 2004. Transmedial Worlds – Rethinking Cyberworld Design.

Lotman, Juri 1991. Kultuurisemiootika. Tallinn: Olion.

          — 1999. Semiosfäärist. Tallinn: Vagabund.

          — 2004. Filmisemiootika. Tallinn: Varrak.

The current work has been carried out as part of the research project “Typology of cultural autocommunication” (ETF7594)