What are they saying? Bart:
I'm not sure. Milhouse:
I thought you said you could read lips. Bart:
I assumed that I could.
Characters being able to understand what others are saying by reading their lips. Usually an ability
of deaf people, though anybody with good eyesight at least can have it. However, this ability is greatly overstated in fiction where the deaf are concerned, since it's fairly difficult to master and not all deaf people can do it, and even those that can are never perfect. In English, less than half of spoken sounds can be seen on the lips; the rest rely on the throat and tongue movements. That's how we get the joke about how "olive juice" looks exactly like "I love you." This trope is arguably similar to how so many blind people in fiction have Super Senses
, in that it introduces a character with a disability while minimizing the issues such a person would realistically face.
Can be used when two characters want to communicate silently. Alice wants to give Bob a message, so she mouths it to him. If Played for Laughs
, then Bob will reveal that he can't read lips, making the whole thing pointless.
Anime and Manga
- In Avengers Academy #1, Finesse reads Speedball's lips and learns that the students are there because they are the most likely to become supervillains.
- Superman used a viewer that gathers "light rays" to see past. As it's all light, superman had to use lipreading to see what was spoken. There was some oddities like blank talk bubbles from some people facing away from viewpoint. How would he know those people were speaking in first place?
- Occasional Avenger Echo can read lips as part of the implication that she's a deaf counterpart to Daredevil. However, the realistic limitations of this skill are still explored, since she has trouble communicating with heroes whose costumes cover their mouths like Spider-Man or Iron Man, and she obviously can't respond to someone if her back is to them and she doesn't know they're talking.
- In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave and Frank lock themselves in a soundproof pod so they can safely talk about the project computer, HAL, who seems to be acting strange. It doesn't occur to them that HAL can read lips...
- Two movies in which Charles Bronson plays a hitman — The Mechanic (1972) and The Evil That Men Do (1984) — have the Villain Protagonist discovering information about the mark by watching them through a telescope and lipreading their discussion with another person. The latter movie foreshadows the skill by having a woman complain to her friend how Bronson's character never smiles. Bronson (who's across the room) picks that moment to smile at her, apparently disproving her point. She just says sourly that she knows he can read lips.
- McCall shows that he can use this in Metro when he relays the conversation between his would-be partner and the chief to them after they had it behind soundproof windows. He gets use it again during the climax when he has to cover Scott during a hostage exchange.
- Casino. The FBI are shown using lipreaders to put surveillance on mafiosi who hold their meetings in the open, paranoid as they are about bugs and wiretaps.
- Encyclopedia Brown realizes that the thief who "overheard" the owners of a barber shop could do so while sitting under a hair dryer because she could read lips.
- In the classic Sci-Fi novella E for Effort a couple of guys invent a machine that films historical events (like Napoleon at Waterloo); they hire expeert lipreaders to figure out what exactly the people they film are saying - it comes without audio.
- In Judge Dee, Tao Gan mentions that among his many skills of questionable legality, he can read lips (it's easier on children and women than on bearded men).
- In the book A Maiden's Grave, a girl only realizes she's going deaf and reading lips to compensate when she "mishears" "Amazing Grace" as "A Maiden's Grave".
- At one point in The Malleorean, the heroes have to come up with fairly elaborate ways to hide what they're saying in a city of spies; they've learned that some of the spies are deaf and read lips, so just masking their voices isn't going to work. They take to meeting at night.
- In one WW2 prisoner of war novel whose title escapes me, the protagonist is warned that some of the German guards have lipreading skills.
- During The New Rebellion both Luke and Leia prove to be able to do this.
- In Galaxy of Fear, Tash tries her best to make Zak understand that they're inside a biological weapons plant, but even when she mouths it slowly, he doesn't get it.
- The titular character of Harry Potter regularly does it. However, the lines he "read" are often the most obvious and logical in the given situation, so he may just predicting what the other person will say instead of actually reading the lips.
- One episode of Monk involved a murderer who could read lips, which is how he managed to "eavesdrop" on a trader in a building from afar.
- Epic Fail version in Mr. Monk Goes to the Firehouse: when Natalie talks to firefighter Joe Cochran about the death of Cochran's dog Sparky, Monk stays back because Cochran is feeding some cats and he has allergies. He says he can lip-read, but when he is asked if he got everything, what he claims to have heard is nothing like the conversation.
- The Seinfeld episode "The Lip Reader" centered around this. Jerry was dating a deaf woman who misread his saying "six" as "sex."
Jerry: So we'll swing by and pick you up. How about six? Six is good. You got a problem with six? ... What? What?
- Kensi from NCIS: Los Angeles
- In The Pretender episode "Flyer", the hero takes lip-reading lessons from a deaf woman in order to be able to figure out a conversation on a piece of surveillance footage.
- The Wire has a few scenes with a lip-reader — Herc manages to plant a camera overlooking Marlo's preferred meeting-spot but not a microphone, so he brings one in to tell him what Marlo is saying.
- Scrubs: JD zones out and tries to recreate the lip motions so that they can be read.
- In The Hardy Boys Nancy Drew Mysteries episode "Silent Scream", a deaf girl finds out about a Las Vegas bomb plot by reading the lips of a man in a phone booth. Of course, the woman, the Hardys, the villains, and the casino owners then spend the rest of the episode passing around the Idiot Ball, but no one's perfect.
- The deaf characters in Switched at Birth are proficient at this- namely, Daphne, Emmett and Melody.
- Sue in Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, who is Deaf, uses her lip-reading abilities to do surveillance work for the FBI. The show is loosely based on the real-life Sue Thomas, who was the first deaf undercover investigator for the FBI.
- Played for Laughs in Sonny With A Chance where Grady tries to read Chad's lips. His translation is probably as accurate as he could make it in real life.
Chad: I'm getting a limo to take us at eight o'clock to a nice dinner.
Grady: He's getting a pillow, two steaks plus, he ate a sock, and a rice dinner.
- Warehouse 13: Pete Lattimer can read lips because of his deaf sister. Proved useful when they used an artifact that could create soundless projections of past events.
- Starblazer Adventures, based on the 1970's-80's British science fiction comic book. The Lip Reading stunt allows you to do this.
- Dungeons & Dragons: the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook introduced the Reading Lips non-weapon proficiency.
- This is the general principle behind Bad Lip Reading - they read lips, badly, and then put the resulting "lyrics" to music (generally; some shorts based on footage of the 2012 presidential candidates was just read back verbatim, instead). Hilarity ensues.
- Julian Smith as the Bad Dad of "Reading Lips" claims he can do this, but it's incredibly clear he's just making up whatever the subject in question is saying.
- Batman does this in the Batman: The Animated Series episode Shadow of the Bat.
- Futurama parodies the 2001 scene described above with one where a spaceship's controlling computer, attempting to listen in on a conversation, bemoans the fact that it can't read lips.
- In practice, lipreading is fairly difficult skill, with around 25-50% success on identifying words; the rest is using logic to fill in the blanks. Not all deaf people can lipread, as some would assume, and to top it off, it also varies depending on the individual deaf person's hearing level. And to add to mess, it also depends on the person speaking, especially if the person mumbles, has a strong accent, or has facial hair that covers the lips. Generally, deaf people have a much easier time understanding someone they know personally—family and friends—than complete strangers.
- At least one deaf basketball team has won this way, as the rival team spoke their plan out loud since they weren't worried about being overheard, unaware that the deaf players could also read lips.