2. What Cinema does
• Cinema not only entertains us, it teaches us.
• ‘Film corresponds to profound changes in the perceptive
• -Walter Benjamin
• The cinema was the typical survival-form of the Age of Machines.
Together with its subset of still photographs, it performed prize
worthy functions: it taught and reminded us (after what then
seemed a bearable delay) how things looked, how things worked,
how to do things...and of course (by example), how to feel and
think’ – Hollis Frampton (Christie 1994: pg7).
4. “The label thriller is widely used but
highly problematic. To the foolhardy
writer setting out to define the subject, it
might seem impossibly broad and vague.”
7. “Whereas one Hollywood genre may be borrowed with
little change from another medium, a second genre
may develop slowly, change constantly and surge
recognizably before settling in to a familiar patter, while
a third may go through an extended series of
paradigms, none of which may be claimed as
Screenwriting 101, Neill D. Hicks. 1999
• Dramatic Emphasis is on the main character’s willingness
to stay alive
(And this differentiates it from action adventure which is about the
main character’s willingness to die)
• The physical world is isolated from help
• Time is extremely short
• Character: an innocent drawn into an intrigue.
• A desperate situation reveals a malevolent evil which,
without the intrusion of the main character, will assault
the larger community.
Alternative Scriptwriting, Dancyger and Rush, 2007
• The dominant quality of the thriller is the existence of the
character in the outside world. Primarily plot driven
• The goal of the protagonist is to survive
• Ordinary people… extraordinary circumstances… forced to
fashion an escape… the main character out in the world
• Time can become the antagonist
• Protagonist no match for the antagonist… protagonist
amateur, antagonist professional, represents an unstoppable
force (CIA, Foreign Power)… little odds for survival and
• Antagonist has a clear goal that is the key to the plot.
14. What is Modernity?
• 19th – 20th Centuries: Full
arrival of the Modern Age
• Rapid migration and
emigration from rural areas
• Urbanisation and population
• Industrialisation and the
arrival of new technologies.
15. Cinema: a product of Modernity
• Film becomes the new Theatre
• First patented camera
invented by Louis Le Prince in
• The Kinetoscope: early motion
picture viewing device
• Developed in between 1888-
1891 by William Kennedy
Dickson while working for
To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that
promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of
ourselves and the world—and, at the same time, that
threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we
know, everything we are. […] To be modern is to be part of a
universe in which, as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into
Marshall Berman (Berman: pg15)
Marshall Berman (1982): All That is Solid Melts Into Air: New York: Verso
17. Manhatta, selling the Modern
• Manhatta (1921) Short
documentary film by Paul Strand
and Charles Sheeler.
• Depicts the wonders of the
modern age via 1920s Manhattan,
New York City.
• A beacon of the modern age.
• ‘the value of science, the power
of reason, the irresistible
progress or advance of humanity,
and the prospect of freedom from
oppression’ Barry Smart.
• Manhatta (1921)
‘City of all the world (for all races are here).
City of tall facades of marble and iron. Proud
and passionate city.’
From City of Ships by American poet Walt Whitman
the value of science, the power of reason, the
irresistible progress or advance of humanity,
and the prospect of freedom from oppression
Barry Smart (Smart: pg8)
Smart, B (1992) Modern Condition, Postmodern Controversies: London and New
Their sense of identity and place in the world with respect to
status, rank, position, purpose, mode of life... was no longer
predetermined by birth into a particular status, religion, or
community, or by feudal obligations and ties to a particular
parcel of land, by vocational ties to a family trade passed
from generation to generation , by kinship customs or similar
bonds seemingly preordained by divine will and immutable
– Ben Singer (Singer: pg20).
Singer, B (2001) Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and its
Contents: New York: Columbia University Press.
23. New Technology and Warfare
Weapons of Mass
Atomic Bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
24. Modernity and the human experience
• Cultural discontinuity
• More knowledge, more doubt.
• 'Fear, revulsion, and horror were the emotions which the big-city
crowd aroused in those who first observed it' (Benjamin 1968:
25. What the thriller delivers
• Suspense, tension, a constant thrill
• Keep the audience on it’s toes
• Get that adrenaline flowing!
26. Basis of the Genre
Parker, P (1998) The Art and Science of Screenwriting: Exeter: Intellect Press.
• The central active question focuses on a mystery which must be solved.
• The central protagonist/s face death- their own or someone else’s.
• The force/s of antagonism must initially be more clever and /or stronger than
• A notion of innocence must be at risk (character/institution/way of life)
• All action and characters must be credibly realist/ natural in their
representation on screen.
• Thematically centre around injustice or the morality of individuals.
• Narrative dominated by the protagonist’s point of view.
• Main story either a quest or the character cannot be put down.
28. Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
• A woman’s death brings
private investigator Mike
Hammer face to face with a
• Though often classed as a film
noir (not a genre), it contains
elements of action and science
29. Mike Hammer- The man, the hero
• The American ideal.
• Strong, cool, good with his
fists and the ladies.
• Investigates petty divorce and
• Reinforces and perpetuates
the Classical Hollywood
masculine hero archetype.
30. The Women of Kiss Me Deadly
Velda: The ‘Good’ Woman
• Mike Hammer’s
• The ‘Ideal’ Woman.
Lily Carver/ Gabrielle:
The ‘Evil’ Woman
• Dealt a painful death.
• Another Ideal?
31. The hero vs the end of the world
• The film ends with Mike in awe
of the horror before his eyes,
cowering in Velda’s arms.
• He has been enlightened by
the truth of ‘the great whatsit’
and is terrified.
33. Conclusion: Facing a new reality
• Confronts the audiences
paranoia and concerns over
the Cold War and possible
• The hero meets a new threat
he cannot comprehend nor
overcome, the dawn of
• The Thriller Genre articulates
society’s fears and concerns, it
reveals to us to see what lies
beneath the surface of our
lives, our reality and forces us
to face those demons.
• Benjamin, W (1968) Illuminations: Essays and Reflections: New
• Parker, P (1998) The Art and Science of Screenwriting: Exeter:
• Singer, B (2001) Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational
Cinema and its Contents: New York: Columbia University Press.
• Smart, B (1992) Modern Condition, Postmodern Controversies:
London and New York: Routledge.
43. “Making your protagonist/s work to foil the
antagonist’s ‘plan’ (or similar) is the
foundation of your story; all other elements
are then piled on top of it, including
subgenre, characters and even how the plot
When I began, I thought this was going to be easy! ‘Thriller’? Piece of cake. I’ve done media studies, I know what genre is.
But, while I’d written essays on horror, sci-fi and westerns, I’d actually never stopped to think – or write about, thrillers.
And it turns out, I had NO IDEA what made a ‘pure’ thriller. And the more I looked, the more unravelled my assumptions about the genre became.
I could find a clear, concise definitions of nearly every other genre EXCEPT thriller. As soon as I’d found one definition that said thrillers are about espionage, I’d found another to undo that. As soon as I found a definition that said thrillers are about crime, I found another to undo that.
I was tearing my hair out until finally I stumbled across a book by Martin Rubin who seemed to think the same way I did.
“The label thriller is widely used but highly problematic. To the foolhardy writer setting out to define the subject, it might seem impossibly broad and vague.”
Martin Rubin explains that, much like the ‘romance’ ‘thriller’ is often an add on to another genre. An element of the plot of another genre piece, rather than a genre itself.
This comes from the amount of films that have been classified as a thriller.
So what is thriller and what has happened to it?
In the 80s, Rick Altman decided that genre needed more thinking and more theory. He believed that until then, genres had almost been ahistorical – existing since the beginning of time… or ‘straight out of the head of Zeus’ as he explained.
Film noir is widely cited as the beginning of the ‘thriller’ genre. It came out of hardboilded detective literature and transferred to screen with little change in terms of genre.
But film noir all but disappeared in the late 50s. So did thriller too? I don’t think so. I think the third bit of what Rick Altman says is what has happened to thriller.
“It went through an extended series of paradigms, none of which may be claimed as dominant.” If we just look at the bonds of the 60s, the horror thrillers of the 70s, the action thrillers of the 80s, the psychological thrillers of the 90s to the disaster thrillers of the 00s we can see just how much thriller changes.
It can almost be unrecognisable from one decade to the next.
This is why thriller has developed so many sub-genres that are all better and more clearly defined than ‘pure’ thriller.
So I like to think of Thriller as like the blob. Eating up bits of other genres as it oozes along decade to decade.
So is there anyway to tell if we’re watching a thriller?
Thriller as a genre boils down to the most basic primal of all genres except maybe horror. It’s a physical genre.
So what is a pure thriller? It seems the clue is in the name. A thriller is simply a film that is designed to thrill.
So, although thriller is a vague and sprawling genre, Lucy Hay does an excellent job of coming up with some key characteristics from a screenwriting perspective.
I’m going to look at two film – Warriors and The Running man - using the key characteristics that Lucy Hay puts forward in her book.
Warriors…and the Running Man
Why am I looking at these two films?
Well when I was doing my research I was amazed at how similar these two films actually were.
Even though they were a decade apart, and on the surface look like two completely different films, they actually provided a very clear argument that, although Thriller is a hard genre to pin down, there are actually some basic key tropes that come back time and time again.
“In thrillers the hero is reactive: a firefighter. The villain is the fire. The villain’s plan is in some ways the soul of your story”
Both the antagonists are in the driving seat. There is no way they’re going to make it easy for them.
For those of you who haven’t seen the films, I’ll introduce you to our two antagonists.
First up from Warriors is…Luther, the leader of the Rogues. He’s trying to pin his assassination on the Warriors…mainly because he’s an ass.
1: 31 – 2 minutes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMLjP2ajXvs
And from the Running Man we have Damon who’s constantly referred to by his last name. KILLIAN.
The most literally named antagonist of all time. (From 42 seconds)
So what does this mean in terms of story?
It means the antagonists are going to try and stop the protagonists from succeeding at all costs.
Every obstacle that will be thrown in the protagonists way will come directly from the antagonist, who’s primary, self serving goal is to stop the protagonist at all costs.
In these two films, it means the ultimate stop. DEATH.
This rings true in Kiss Me Deadly and Bourne Identity.
In both these films the protagonist’s life is in danger because of the antagonist.
In Bourne, people are sent to kill him, in Kiss Me Deadly, the closer he gets to the truth the more in danger his life becomes.
So in summary, for a film to be a thriller, the antagonist has to be in the driving seat.
“Making your protagonist/s work to foil the antagonist’s ‘plan’ (or similar) is the foundation of your story; all other elements are then piled on top of it, including subgenre, characters and even how the plot is executed”.
In the end, the protagonist of a thriller must overcome all obstacles.
They have to succeed in the end. They must survive or find out the truth. But it is certainly not an easy journey for them.
“Flight versus Fight”
Up until the midpoint, thriller protagonists will be running away from their problems.
They’ll do everything they can to run away and avoid engaging in the real fight.
Then, after a moment of realisation, usually the midpoint, the protagonist realises they have to engage in the fight.
They have to tackle the problem head on in order to survive.
In the Warriors, it’s when Swan realises they’re going to have to use their brains, not just their brawn if they’re going to survive and the characters that don’t will be lost. It is literally exemplified by this screenshot…
In the Running Man it’s about an hour into the film (1:06 – 1:08) where Ben / Arnie realises he has to find the satellites, that’s more important than just surviving.
Also an interesting thing about Thriller protagonists is sometimes they’re only good because of the side they’re on – our side.
In Warriors we’re rooting for a violent New York gang to survive!
But only because we know they’re the lesser of two evils when compared to the Rogues. In the Running Man, Ben is on the good side – he is moral.
We want him to succeed because the truth needs to come out. Good people must win.
Too much obvious backstory can make characters in thrillers feel flat.
Often, writers will add in the backstory to give the character justification – especially with female protagonists. More often than not they will be survivors of rape or abuse.
BUT, this isn’t necessary.
As the protagonist is signing to the antagonists tune, we will believe the reasons why the character is fighting and most often backstory is not needed.
Warriors is a good example of this – we hardly know anything about the characters, but we still want the to succeed.
But in Running Man, Ben is a caricature of an hero and on top of that, a caricature of Arnie himself. But sometimes it works!
“We MUST be entertained!”
A good thriller should be edge of your seat stuff.
We want to entertained. We want to be thrilled. Lucy Hay suggests that you should set the tone of your thriller in page one of the script – get a thrill in early.
Audiences used to be happy to wait for the action, but modern thrillers must hit the ground running
In the beginning of the Running Man we have everything. Guns, helicopters, technology, scandal, violence and stunts. YEAH. (1:33 – 3:21)
The beginning of the Warriors, while not strictly speaking ‘thrilling’ the cartoon sets up the tone of the film in the first 30 seconds. We now know exactly what to expect.
“Use silence to milk the drama. Thrillers stop being thrillers when characters talk too much”.
So you better make the dialogue count.
This is quite different to how thrillers started in film noirs - they’re very much talkies. But in The Running Man and Warriors dialogue is sparse. And it’s for the best.
A tough New York gang member is going to be careful about what he says and a strong, capable Arnie character is not a man of emotion so will talk more in actions rather than words…but when he does. AMAZEBALLS.
And so to finish, here are two of my most favourite lines from Warriors and Running Man.
Warriors: This is just the same line over and over in a 30 second clip – on paper you’d think that was awful, but on screen it really works. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NwwY9y6O3hw
Running man: In a whole minute of film, only one line – again, on paper you would think that was an awful decision. But boy does that one terrible, terrible line get a lot of love from me – a true Arnie character moment: