Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Specific Genre Structure, Part 2: Thriller, Conspiracy and Action

These three genres can seem almost interchangeable, and they tended to share the same shelf space at video stores, back when those existed, but their underlying structures are surprisingly different.

The first surprise is that thrillers have almost the same underlying structure as comedies. As with Comedy, classical thrillers tend to focus on a hero who creates his own problem by transgressing society’s norms, creating this very similar quartet: Discontent / Transgression / Consequences / Victory or Defeat
  • Double Indemnity
  • Rear Window
  • Strangers on a Train (punished for a transgression he only considered)
  • Bonnie and Clyde (surprisingly)
  • Body Heat
  • Blood Simple
  • Blue Velvet
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Silence of the Lambs (Sort of: transgression = sharing with Lecter / consequences = Lecter’s escape. Actually, this movie proves to be surprisingly slippery, and could be squeezed into any of these three categories)
But that definition leaves out movies that are driven by conspiracies, so we have to give them their own category. These movies feature little or no transgression by the hero, and focus on exterior antagonism. The arc is: Injustice / Overconfident Investigative Crusade / Betrayals / Revelation
  • Maltese Falcon
  • Manchurian Candidate
  • Chinatown
  • All the President’s Men
  • L. A. Confidential
  • Crimson Tide (surprisingly, since it feels more like thriller or action)
What about action movies? Surprisingly, they’re closer to Mystery/Conspiracy movies than they are to thrillers, since both are focused on external problems rather than personal flaws. The arc is: Injustice / Kicking Ass Overconfidently / Getting Ass Kicked / Victory or Defeat
  • Goldfinger
  • The Great Escape
  • The French Connection
  • Star Wars
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Die Hard
  • Speed
  • Batman Begins
Once again, many movies end up in very different categories than I thought they would:
  • Thor feels like straight-up action and not at all like a thriller, but it’s structured like the latter than the former: It’s focused not on the external threat but on the hero’s folly and culpability in all that follows. The movie is more critical of Thor than Loki.
  • Donnie Brasco feels like a thriller, but doesn’t fit into any of these categories. Instead, it charts like a tragedy, which is a structure we’ll look at later in this series.
The final surprise: Certain movies (each of which were adapted from several years worth of stories in another medium), combined more than one of these arcs, but in each case, they didn’t overlap—One arc wraps up and then the other begins immediately thereafter:
  • The Fugitive (compressed from a four-year TV epic) crams an entire action arc into its first 40 minutes, then fits a mystery arc into the remaining 80 minutes.
  • Spider-Man (covering the first ten years of the comic) zips through a thriller arc, in which the power goes to Peter’s head and he suffers the consequences, then it wraps that up and devotes the rest of the movie to an action arc, as he deals with the external threat of the Green Goblin
  • Iron Man (covering 20 years of the comic) does the opposite: first we have an action arc, dealing with the external threat of the warlord, then a thriller arc, as Tony comes home and lets his powers get to his head, and deals with the consequences at the end.
Tomorrow, something similar and yet very different: Horror


Paul Clarke said...

Already so insightful. The script I'm working on now always seemed like a thriller to me. But when I tried to classify it, it just seemed to tick all the action movie boxes. I thought I was just bias. Maybe I didn't want to admit I was writing an action film.

But I never considered the conspiracy sub-genre. That's definitely what I've got on my hands. Like you say, similar in so many ways to an action movie. I feel more confident moving forward without this nagging ability to categorize the script.

Also, would you classify the Bourne movies as conspiracy? He doesn't really transgress.

j.s. said...

Ditto what Paul said. This series is proving amazingly useful already. Looking forward to the rest of it.

Matt Bird said...

Yes, I would say conspiracy, but I'll talk next week about four types of psychological journeys that can get superimposed on top of these genre journeys, and Bourne is definitely on his own Maslovian journey as well: Destitution/Shelter/Love/Justice

Bill Peschel said...

Reading this showed me the problem in my thriller novel. I have a discontented hero meeting a conspiracy, and the two aren't meshing. Maybe they can, but now I understand why I'm frustrated by the lack of progress.

j.s. said...

Bill, sounds like a potentially interesting intersection of character arcs: "In the course of his investigation into a conspiracy, a discontented hero discovers he is the cause and/or the target of the conspiracy."

Reminds me of NO WAY OUT and/or THE BIG CLOCK and also of THE WICKER MAN, KILL LIST and maybe even of the BOURNE films and, yes, OEDIPUS.

The neat trick about Bourne's transgressions is that they are all off-screen, before the movie starts, and because he's amnesiac and determined to change, we don't hold any of that against him they way we might in a more typical thriller where part of why we're watching is perhaps to see the protagonist punished, like Michael Douglas in FATAL ATTRACTION, for instance.

Matt Bird said...

You're right, J.S., I haven't seen them in a while, but those movies do focus a lot on Bourne's unseen transgressions, don't they? That makes them like "The Hangover", where the hero discovers what his mind-wiped-and-forgotten transgressions are as he suffers consequences.

The audience thrill in those movies is somewhat unique: he has all the skills of a super-assassin, but the personality of a young and innocent everyman, so we get to cheer his bad-assery without any compunctions about the associated immorality.

Sean said...

Star Trek: Into Darkness:
*action arc
*conspiracy arc
*action arc

-Are three arcs too many? The movie seemed both rushed and overlong.
-We haven't seen the Drama structure yet, but I suspect it will look more like Original Series and NG Trek than what Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof came up with.