Saturday, November 8, 2014

Aristotle’s Definition of Tragedy as Applied in Film

According to Aristotle, there are many aspects to what makes up and constitutes a tragedy.[1]  These definitions, of course, were written anciently, when poetry and plays, art and architecture were the mediums that storytellers had available to convey their messages, be it historical, fantasy, or otherwise.  The medium of film was not even close to being conceived, much less developed, but does this mean that Aristotle’s view and definition of what a tragedy is cannot be applied successfully to film in the present day?  This essay will discuss what it is that Aristotle defines a tragedy as, the aspects concerning it, and how they are or are not applied meaningfully to film, using examples such as the Star Wars saga, the Fast and the Furious franchise, and other movies and television shows as is appropriate.

To begin, the definition of a tragedy as Aristotle saw it must needs be laid out for the purpose of a common knowledge-base background to start from.  Ultimately, Aristotle states that “tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and possessing magnitude; in embellished language, each kind of which is used separately in the different parts; in the mode of action and not narrated; and effecting through pity and fear [what we call] the catharsis of such emotions.”[2]  This is his base, or primary definition of a tragedy, but what does it mean in modern-day lay terms?  When broken down, Aristotle is saying that a tragedy is just replicating actions and events that are of a serious nature, but that also carry with them a scope of significance for the person or persons involved.  In other words, it is a major, life-altering type event with a large emotional component.  It is a device that is used in most genres of film, from drama to suspense, action to sci-fi, and even the romantic comedy to some extent.  Aristotle broke down his definition further into many parts and aspects in order to showcase what he thought the best and most desirable qualities were for a tragedy in his day, and these will now be used both to further define what Aristotle was saying, as well as to show how these aspects could or could not be applied to film.

The constituent parts of a tragedy are the spectacle, melody, language, character, thought, and plot.  Some of these apply to the actual story itself and others to the actors that are portraying the story, and some to the characters of the story.  According to Aristotle, all of these things must come together properly in order to make a ‘good’ tragedy.[3]  This is much the same when thinking of a good movie or television show in the current day; if these aspects are not all well done and correct, the film in question will be missing something, and the discerning public will notice.  They might not know what it is that is missing, wrong, or not just quite developed all the time, but they will notice that something is lacking. 

Plot is the primary and most important part of tragedy, according to Aristotle, and as such he devoted much of his writing concerning tragedy to the plot and how it should be constructed.[4]  The plot is one of the items that tragedy is imitating, or the events that happened.  The plot needs to be long enough that a change in circumstances for the main character can happen logically and naturally, but not so long that the audience forgets the story and can no longer follow what is happening or why.  Therefore, a good plotline will tend toward the longer end of the spectrum, but still be in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone of not too short and not too long.[5]   When adapting this to film, it appears that Hollywood’s rule-of-thumb that they follow is that a movie should be between one and a half to two and a half hours long, generally speaking.  However, there are exceptions to that practice.  Examples would be movies like Giant, Gone With the Wind, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy as done recently by Peter Jackson.  These movies do not adhere to the stereotypical hour and a half to two hour films that Hollywood usually produces, but go much longer.  However, in keeping with what Aristotle said about good plot, the writers and directors opted to go on the longer side in order to keep the storyline believable and not have events just spontaneously happen in order to keep the time down, which would have resulted in a disjointed plot line, and an unpleasant viewing experience for the audience. 

The disjointing of plotlines is also something that Aristotle talked about and warned against.  He stated that plot lines need to be unified, but that not every single thing that happens to a character needs to be in the plot or portrayed, just the things that are relevant to the plots main topic.[6]  He went on to cite Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad as good examples of not including everything that happened to Odysseus on his journey, but just the things that were relevant to the journey itself.  The rule that Aristotle laid out here is that if the inclusion or absence of something doesn’t make a difference in any way, then it is not part of the plot, and shouldn’t be there.  Prometheus by Ridley Scott is a prime example of a non-unified plot.  From the very opening scene until the rolling of the credits, the only thing that remains a constant is the confusion of wondering what is actually going on.  The confusion isn’t the good type that comes from suspense and mystery and trying to figure out the secret that is driving and motivating a character, it’s the confusion of having either too much or too little information provided to make the story coherent; it’s the confusion from major plot devices being absent from the story-telling process, and resulting in the storyline making no sense and being unenjoyable to watch.  This is what Aristotle was saying to avoid, because it makes for bad tragedy. 

There are examples of films that have done this well, though.  The television show, Game of Thrones, masterfully conveys just the right amount of information at the right time.  It runs the storyline in a manner that it is easy to follow, yet shows a depth of complexity and intrigue that keeps the audience actively captivated and wanting more.  One of the ways that Game of Thrones does this is by using reversal and recognition; two of the key elements of the tragic plot.[7]  One of the best deliverances of this method was when, in the ninth episode of season one, the petulant, newly crowned boy king, Joffrey, beheads Ned Stark for treason.  This in and of itself doesn’t sound like that much of a tragedy, but the manner in which the story got to that point was through a system of constant, but logical catharsis.  Ned’s learning of one secret lead to him asking a different question, that lead to another question, and another secret, and so on until he found that his good friend King Robert was not the father Joffrey as all believes him to be, but that Robert’s wife, the queen, has had an affair with her own brother and that he is the father.  Before Ned is able to tell Robert, however, the queen has him drugged and he is killed in a ‘hunting accident’, thus making Joffrey the new king.  Ned however, being of good honourable character, tried to do the right thing and give the queen a chance to take her children and leave the castle before he exposes them.  However, the queen instead convinces her son that Ned is trying to take the throne from him, and this results in Ned being killed and a civil war breaking out. 

It is not only the reversal and the recognition that the preceding sequence of events from Game of Thrones exemplifies, but also the opinion that Aristotle held that the best tragedies were complex, and show a man (or woman) falling due to a mistake rather than through misfortune, vice, or depravity.[8]  This is exactly what happened with Ned Stark; he made the mistake of accepting King Robert’s offer of becoming his right hand, and from there began to learn the pieces of information that ultimately lead to his own death and the start of a civil war.  Another example of this type of tragedy can be seen in the Star Wars saga with the story of Anakin Skywalker.  Anakin grows up as a slave, but is found to have a great talent and ability in the Force, and as such is taken to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the dark lord Palpatine, in his guise as a public servant, begins to convince Anakin that he can use his powers differently than he is being taught, and to grey the lines between right and wrong.  This ultimately leads to Anakin turning on and murdering his friends, and leads to him becoming Darth Vader, all because of a mistake and a bad choice. 

There is an aspect of tragedy that Aristotle derided that both Game of Thrones and Star Wars proves incorrect, and that concerns episodic plots.  Aristotle said that episodic plots were the worst sort as they generally followed one another in no particular or inevitable sequence.[9]  With films such as the Star Wars saga, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and television shows like Game of Thrones and Dexter, this viewpoint is not applicable, as these stories rely upon continuity to continually tell the ever emerging story over a protracted time.  Unfortunately, there are also filmmakers who clearly exemplify the bad plot lines that Aristotle was talking about.  One such example of the bad episodic plotlines that follows no congruency would be the Fast and the Furious movie franchise.  When viewed in succession, these movies have very little, if any, involvement with each other’s storylines and plots to make them fit together.  There are the same characters through most of the movies, and there is a similar plot line, but that is it for congruency.  Even the same characters being in the movies presents a problem when going from the third to the fourth movie in the series.  In The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift[10], there is a main character introduced named Han, who towards the end of the movie is killed in an explosion.  When the next movie, Fast and Furious begins, Han is somehow alive and well with the rest of his friend in South America.  This is a gaping plot hole, and showcases what Aristotle was talking about.  Further, it is also evidence of what Aristotle meant when he said that bad poets stretch the plot beyond what it can bear and are often compelled to dislocate the natural order.[11]  The Fast and the Furious franchise, while being light, fun, and mildly entertaining, clearly only applies what Aristotle said not to do to their filmmaking. 

Moving on from plot, Aristotle also talks about character.  This is not to mean the characters of the actual film, but more of the type of person, or quality of person that is portrayed.  As Aristotle said, “it is not for the purpose of presenting their characters that the agents engage in action, but rather it is for the sake of their actions that they take on the characters they have.  Thus what happens is the end for which a tragedy exists.”[12]  Aristotle believed also that the characters (or at least the main ones) must meet four criteria.  First, they must be good rather than evil, regardless of if they were a slave, a king, a priest, or a commoner.  Second, they must be appropriate.  Aristotle here is meaning that a woman should not be more ‘manly’ than a male warrior, and that a male warrior should not be more emotional or week than a woman.  Third, they must be lifelike.  This means that they need to be believable so that people can associate with them and become invested in the character so that when the tragedy happens, they can feel it.  Fourth, characters need to be consistent.  They need to be true to who they are, not change partway through the story for no reason and do something completely ‘out of character’.[13] 

A good example of these four traits being employed in a film can once again be seen in the Star Wars saga.  The main characters in the Star Wars movies are all good, including Darth Vader.  The main tragedy, as stated before, in the overall storyline for Star Wars is that Anakin Skywalker is misled and makes a mistake in judgement that takes him down the path of evil, but in the end his good wins out and he returns to the light side to save his children, and as such, he can be classed as inherently good.  The second trait of appropriateness holds true as well.  While there are very strong female characters in the movies, they never overstep or go beyond what is appropriate for the character or the setting of the film.  This also helps with the third and fourth traits alike.  The characters all ‘feel’ as though they could be real people, and they remain consistent to their ideals throughout the film.  This was helped by George Lucas in both the manner in which he wrote the films, as well as in the setting that he created.  Even though the movies consist of spaceships and aliens and lasers, it feels as though it is used and lived in and old, rather than new and shiny and perfect.  This helps with the characters and in turn, with the connection of the audience, so that when the spectacle of the inevitable tragedies happen, the fear and pity are felt.

Lastly, Aristotle believed that when a brother killed a brother, or a mother her son, or a father his daughter, this was a very powerful plotline and one of his favourites, especially if the killer did not know the relationship of the person that they killed, but found out later.  Further, he also believed that if someone is about to commit and act of this nature, but then finds out the truth and stops before it is done, that this was the worst of the plotlines, and that it did not convey any feelings with it.   While it is true that if someone commits a murder of their immediate family unknowingly it does invoke a response, it can also be shown that stopping in the middle of the act by finding out the truth can be very powerful as well, especially when the audience did not know the information either until it was revealed.  The perfect example of this is again in the Star Wars saga, but specifically in the movie The Empire Strikes Back.  Luke Skywalker is fighting Darth Vader, trying to kill him for all the crimes that he has committed.  Of these crimes, Luke believes that Darth Vader killed his father, Anakin.  As they fight, Vader lands a blow that takes the hand off of Luke, and Luke falls backwards, hanging onto a pylon so as not to fall over the edge.  Instead of finishing him, Vader tries to convince Luke to come with him and tells Luke that Obi Wan never told him what happened to his father.  Luke then says that Obi Wan told him enough and that Vader had killed his father.  Then, in one of the most famous events in cinema, Vader says “No.  I am your father.”  This moment shows that Aristotle was wrong, and that finding out a secret in the middle of a killing act can work extremely well.

In conclusion, Aristotles views on tragedy can be used and applied to film very well.  It appears that, whether knowingly or not, filmmakers are mostly doing what Aristotle recommended to do in order to both tell a good story and to convey tragedy appropriately.  However, it has also shown that there were some opinions that Aristotle had that don’t translate effectively to film in the modern day, such as his opinions on episodic plots, and on interrupting a tragedy before it happens with an unexpected secret.  For the most part, though, this definition of tragedy has been applied in a meaningful way.


Aristotle.  The Poetics.  Extracts in Aristotle’s Poetics trans. Hutton, J. (1982).  Cornell University.  Pp. 49-61. 

The Fast and the Furious.   Cohen, R.  (2001).  Universal.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  Lin, J.  (2006).  Universal.

Fast & Furious.  Lin, J.  (2009).  Universal.

Game of Thrones.  Patten, T.  (2011).  HBO.

Giant.  Stevens, G.  (1956).  Warner Brothers.

Gone with the Wind.  Fleming, V.  (1939).  Warner Brothers.

Prometheus.  Scott, R.  (2012).  20th Century Fox.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  Lucas, G.  (1999).  20th Century Fox.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.  Lucas, G.  (2002).  20th Century Fox.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.  Lucas, G.  (2005).  20th Century Fox.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope.  Lucas, G.  (1977).  20th Century Fox.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back.  Kershner, I.  (1980).  20th Century Fox.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.  Marquand, R.  (1983).  20th Century Fox.

[1] Aristotle, The Poetics, pp. 49-61
[2] Ibid, p. 50
[3] Ibid, pp. 50-51
[4] Ibid, p. 52
[5] Ibid, pp. 52-53
[6] Ibid, p. 53
[7] Ibid, p. 56
[8] Ibid, p. 57
[9] Ibid, p. 55
[10] The third movie in the series
[11] Aristotle, The Poetics, p. 55
[12] Ibid, p. 51
[13] Ibid, p. 59

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