In the week of the new James Bond film ‘Spectre’ Phil Parker looks at the thriller genre and asks is James Bond really a thriller? This is one of a series of blogs I am writing on genre to help people understand how certain genre frameworks are essential to how audiences respond to narratives, especially screen narratives.
So what makes a thriller a thriller?
The following framework is based upon two sessions held with writers in London who wanted to workout what genre were in practice, not in theory, and how they might use them to create better narratives. It was a more difficult problem than any of us realised, but it was by focusing on what we thought were thrillers that we finally came up with something. The Bond films were amongst the films mentioned.
The Key elements which make a Thriller.
As with my other genre frameworks the thriller has primary and secondary elements.
The Primary Elements are as follows:-
- The central active question focuses on a mystery, which must be solved.
This active question is normally established very early on in the narrative often in the opening sequence or immediately after the prologue. In thrillers an attack on someone or the death of someone is often the opening of the narrative. For example in the TV serial ‘The Bridge’ a body is found on the bridge at the very beginning of the opening episode. While in film the deaths at the beginning of ‘Bourne Identity’ or ‘Illustrious Corpses’. illustrate this point.
- The central protagonist/s face death – their own or someone else’s.
The main character/s in a thriller inevitably confronts death always someone else’s, but often their own. Note in on-going series e,g, television detectives, or a film franchise, the central characters cannot die, so the death is normally focused on others. It is also the case that the thriller genre is one of the genre where though you may have a lead protagonist, they often operate as part of a team of two or more. Examples of this can be found in, ‘Seven’ and ‘Inspector Morse’.
3. The force/s of antagonism must initially be clever, and/or stronger, than the protagonist.
This is key to the notion of the narrative being thrilling. The protagonist must be confronted by an enemy who appears in the first instance to be clever, more skilled, and more powerful than the protagonist. It is this tension of how will the protagonist win, which keeps the audience engaged in the narrative. Think in terms of the murderer in ‘Jagged Edge’ or the drug dealers in ‘The Wire’.
- A notion of innocence must be at risk.
This is normally represented by a character, but it may be an institution or way of life. In many thrillers it is a child, or the victim of a crime, who is seen as the innocent but it can be the whole human race as in the Thor’ film.
- All action and characters must be credibly realist/natural in there representation on screen.
This is the essential boundary line between thriller, and horror. In horror the boundary of realism is crossed with spirits passing through solid walls etc. In thrillers we remain in the ‘real’ world no matter how fantastical or futuristic that may be e.g. ‘Blade Runner’ and ‘Outland’.
6. Thematically thrillers centre around injustice, and the morality of individuals.
These two emotional themes are core to thrillers working. Each can be used though it depends on the type of thriller as to which is the most effective. In investigative thrillers the focus on the morality of individuals appears to be the dominant emotional thread e.g. ‘Spiral’ and ‘ The Maltese Falcon’. While in action driven thrillers it is more often focused on notions of justice e.g. ‘The Italian Job’ and ‘Speed’.
7. The Narrative construction is dominated by protagonist’s point of view.
This varies slightly depending on type of genre. In psychological, and conspiracy, thriller restricting the audience to the main protagonist’s point of view is critical to building suspense and the sense that the protagonist is in real danger in what is a very uncertain world. This can be seen in ‘Le Boucher’, and being deliberately exploited in ‘The Usual Suspects’. While in action thrillers and murder mysteries the audience is often shown things the protagonist cannot see or know about e.g. ‘Red’ and ‘MIss Marple’ stories.
8. The main story is either a quest, or the character who cannot be put down.
When developing protagonist/s for thrillers two main story types work best, one of which contradicts the often cited theory that all protagonists must have a character arc! The first type is the age old quest storyline – the simple question of ‘Solve the mystery or catch/find the killer?’ This is found in all TV detective series right through to comic inventions such as Clouseau in ‘The Pink Panther’.
However, the character who cannot be put down is not only present in ongoing TV series from ‘Morse’ to ‘Inspector Montalbano’ but central to the success of most action thrillers and many conspiracy thrillers. Examples of the latter can be found in the main characters in ‘Enemy of the State’ and ‘Humger Games’.
9. The action is set in a corrupt/damaged world.
Central to thriller’s working is the backdrop to the main action, the context of the deaths. At the heart if not at the surface of all thrillers is a world which has been corrupted or damaged in some way.
In conspiracy thrillers this is often a corrupt political system e.g. ‘The Berlin File’ and ‘Girl with Dragoon Tattoo’ while in murder mysteries it s about corrupt individuals e.g. Murder on the Orient Express’ or ‘Notorious’. This setting ensures that the challenges for the protagonist to discover the truth and/or survive are increased, and thus the tension within the overall narrative.
So are James Bond films thrillers and thus thrilling?
In the first instance the first three criteria are easily met with Bond setting out to discover who is behind a certain killing, facing death – often in the opening sequence, and up against a mysterious and, at first, often unidentified antagonist.
The question of who is innocent in this world is often represented by a woman, someone who is a victim of the system, and who may or may not initially be on Bond’s side. Her innocence is not necessarily about her character but more about her position in relation to the antagonist, and the danger she is in.
Though the Bond films are noted for their over the top action sequences and some time fantastical action sequences they all remain within the boundaries of realism – no ghosts, spirits, or fantastical creatures suddenly appear in a Bond movie.
Equally the Bond films have focused on a notion of justice rather than morality, through the morality of certain individuals has often played a small part in the plotting.
Bond is clearly on a quest in terms of solving the mystery and defeating the antagonist but his second main storyline is very much about a character who cannot be put down. An interesting fact within the notion of protagonist having to have a character arc – if this were true then all the early Bond films would have been failures.
So in conclusion Bond clearly is a Thriller – the question of what type of thriller I will leave until another blog.