Film & TV

Genre in Review: Drama

The most widely referenced and loved drama, Gone with the Wind (1939)

Here at Quench Film and TV we have decided to launch a new project, one that looks at the ins and outs of narrative film. ‘Genre in Review’, will be looking at genres that make up the film industry.To kick off we will be tackling the biggest and most used: Drama.

As film goers, most of the choices we make are based on the genre of the films on offer – if you’re in a good mood you want a comedy, an easy watcher a rom-com and so on. Drama films however, are the corner stone of narrative film and all other genres use drama within their stories. Chester V getting shredded up in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Optimus falling in Transformers and Andy leaving behind his childhood in Toy Story 3. All of these films wouldn’t be classed as dramas, but they use dramatic elements as the basis of their genre; animation, comedy and sci-fi.

Dramas are the sort of films that are typified with a search and found narrative, heart-wrenching and tears streaming – especially if they involve a dog (I deem you completely heartless if you didn’t shed at least a single tear at Marely & Me) – scenes of uncomfortable confrontation and revealing of secrets. What separates drama from genre’s who use drama simply as a narrative function is the realistic characters dealing with emotions we can all feel at some point, love, hate, happiness, sadness etc. We watch dramas when we want to feel a connection to others; the emotional links that make you think “damn, is this my Sophie’s Choice?” (Though, yours is probably grounded in what to order from Just-Eat than which child to sacrifice). It is this reflection of everyday life in film, and granted sensationalised to an extent, that makes drama such a complex genre.

Genres are the most fickle of categories we have in any creative industry; sure it has guns, but the two leads fall in love – a romance or a crime? The next has cowboys and aliens, a western or a sci-fi? To be conclusive, each genre can be considered a sub-genre of the drama umbrella. Drama permeates every genre; and it is that basic fact that makes it probably the most important of all genres – I’m no Ebert, but I think that’s a pretty fair conclusion.

Image still of the two leads within Casablanca
A vital film within this genre, the great Casablanca (1942)

Classic dramas are the foundation of every film we see today; actors are still trying to emulate the dramatic performances of Hepburn, Davis, Clift and Bogart. A discussion of the drama genre can’t go ahead without acknowledging the ultimate drama – Casablanca. The oft-quoted and universally loved film became the pinnacle of film making for a period longer than the golden years. In an era where drama was at the forefront of daily lives, this film helped those escape the dreary war torn backdrops of their lives and into those of Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund. “I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship” can be heard parodied and quoted in many a pictures since Bogart grumbled it out on screen. It also however is the perfect summing up of the relationship between genre and narrative film; it epitomises the emotional development dramas had at cinema’s inception and its subsequent universal love to audiences the globe over.

Drama’s are noted for the iconic scenes, and this is no exception. Andy Dufresne standing the rain after escaping. (1994)

I could no doubt sit here and list off many brilliant dramatic pieces: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which Jack Nicholson inhabits both the hero and the victim, The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne crawls through a sewage pipe to freedom screaming into the rain storm or even the simple act of divorcing, and what that can do to a family like in Kramer vs Kramer. This use of realistic themes gives this broad genre a great many roads it can explore. The human condition at best is complex, and no dramatic representation will be able to show every single strand. Dramas have the ability however to pin focal points on the issues that could affect the ordinary people, like you and I: Coming to terms with a death of a loved one, the tragedies evolving from child to adult and more personal themes of sexuality, intolerance and racism. It is films where a boy from a coal mining town who just wants to dance regardless of the oppressive place in which he lives, that make this genre spectacular in its simplicity. It’s good to feel emotions, regardless what the heteronormative social order dictates, and the drama genre evokes just that.

Dramas are often tragic; it’s in their structure to throw struggles to be overcome at their characters. You’ll find however that even in the most intense of dramas there is a silver lining, a happy ending, something that makes it all worthwhile. Take 12 Years a Slave, a drama that showed the racial prejudices and injustices that Solomon Northup and Patsey were afforded, due to rampant slavery. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen, but through the hardship of a free man becoming a slave, at the end he is once again a free man reunited with his family. It’s a genre where nostalgic narratives and ‘Based on a true story’ flourish, because regardless of the struggle it is always coming up roses. Not to say that that is afforded to every character in every dramatic piece because it isn’t, however the happy ending isn’t always grand, it can be as simple as boarding separate trains in the hope of seeing each other again – like in the excellently scripted Before Sunrise.

You could say dramas can be too dramatic, and you would be right. Though they are abundant with close up scenes that gives actors the chance to really inhabit a role (Think anything with Meryl Streep in the lead), there are those that look as if they’ve come straight from the EastEnders set and take soap opera dramatics really to a level no film should venture. This genre really does screen on a double edged sword; where the emotional ties between the characters and audiences can benefit a film, they can also verge on the sentimental and rely too much upon the stereotypes of certain groups – a significant liability when trying to attract an audience. Word of mouth plays much better when there is something negative to talk about.

Image of lead actor Brad Pitt
A still from the newly released war drama featuring Brad Pitt, Fury (2014)

It is a genre that some have called lacking and hopelessly derivative; sentiments that aren’t too far from the truth at times. As a medium there is only so much cinema can achieve that is original in the narrative sense: stories predate their screen counterparts and as such are made to be unrealistic and unattainable in their hopes of being seen as original. If anything it is a genre of reimagining. Granted they are not everyone’s cup of tea – straight up dramas are a thing usually reserved for the more sensitive of audiences, or those boyfriends being dragged in by their girlfriends and even less so in today’s climate the stars of the picture are losing less and less influence.

It’s not all doom and gloom for this genre however. With October come some brilliant new releases in this genre: the Ben Affleck turn as a husband who wife mysteriously vanishes in Gone Girl, Downey Jr ditching the iron man suit for a turn as a lawyer in The Judge and war drama Fury starring Brad Pit. Now these all fall under different ‘dramas’ but dramas they all are.

Drama will always have it’s time in the sunlight for as long as narrative film is used as a medium to entertain and inform. Dramatic pieces are the stuff cinema is made of; sure you can go watch things be blown up, find out who Luke Skywalkers father is or even blast off into space – but it is the pieces that show a version of yourself that becomes synonymous with the life you lead that affect you most. That is good drama. That is why it will always be in fashion.