How are Blockbusters Melodramatic?

Blockbusters Melodramatic

The Blockbuster. In order for a film to succeed at the box-office and be named with this great accolade it must meet a few criteria. It must have heroes facing danger; a stunning music score; the viewer must be moved emotionally; and more often than not there will be a showdown between good and evil that utilises special effects (fires, explosions, drownings, earthquakes, that sort of thing.)

In fact, when you watch modern blockbusters objectively, they can appear melodramatic. This is not an insult. Melodrama, aside from being an aspect of every teenage life, was actually a popular form of theatre in the 19th Century. It was distinct from other forms of stage drama because of its lack of dialogue. Instead, it used clear physical gestures to show characters. The hero, the heroine and the villain all struck a pose when they entered the stage, so the audience was immediately aware precisely who they were. Characters created a tableaux during dramatic scenes.

I can hear what you are thinking: There is no comparison because blockbusters use dialogue. Yet screenwriting guru, Syd Fields, suggests that a good film should not make sense with dialogue alone as the bulk of the story happens through the action you see, rather than the words. This shows that film is still a visual medium more than a linguistic one. The use of reaction shots could be compared to the use of gesture on stage – it is just that the gesture isn’t as large. And I would suggest that slow motion is often used to add drama and heighten the emotions of a scene, the same way that tableaux was in melodrama. This can be implemented in several ways: Sirrus’ death in the fifth Harry Potter film used a complete lack of dialogue and music with the slow motion; the 360degree shots in The Matrix use a complete stillframe to show as much of a moment as possible; and the fight scenes at end of Return of the King coupled slow motion with music in the forefront of the sound-scape to heighten the drama. However it is done, the slow motion draws your attention to the characters and the action when dialogue would not work.

To make up for the lack of dialogue, melodrama plays were accompanied with a constant score of music behind the action on stage – the word melodrama literally means “music-drama” – and signature music was used to point out characters. Similarly, no mainstream film is complete without a musical score. Indeed you could argue it would be easier to take away the dialogue than the music. It is often the score that signifies how the audience should feel. The majority of scores run in the background behind both dialogue and action. Every score still uses signature music and motifs to suggest and point out characters: think John Harrison’s Theme from Star Trek: Into Darkness or The History of the Ring Theme that was so suggestive in Lord of the Rings, it reappeared in The Hobbit. The main hero theme of a movie can become so recognisable and emotive, it can put you back in the cinema when you hear it. Think of the slowly rising crescendo of films such as Star Trek or The Avengers; the brass and percussion that signifies something going wrong; the gentle strings that suggest the calm, sensitive aspects. Scores are so popular, people seek them outside of the movie.

We can draw direct comparisons between 19th Melodrama on the stage and 21st century melodrama on the screen. The influence of melodrama in cinema is clear and essentially it stems from cinema’s need for a visual form of storytelling. When silent cinema was born, it required an expression outside of verbal language, so it used similar practices to melodrama. With the lack of dialogue, silent film naturally took on the musical aspect of melodrama, with music accompaniment live in the cinemas. And because silent films needed a way to show character clearly in a visual way, it took on the character gestures as well. The well-known silent film character of the scared woman with a hand to her mouth is picked straight from melodrama gestures. Throughout the history of film, this melodramatic starting point developed, and even when the ‘talkies’ came into being, and film moved into TV, some of the practices continued. (Indeed, the pose for a melodramatic villain is perfectly exemplified by Mr Burns from The Simpsons.)

But the development of editing and close-up changed the way actors performed. In blockbusters nowadays, a lot of the gestures have been toned down as melodrama disguises itself, taking on tones of realism and developing more fully realised characters. Yet the heritage of melodramatic ancestors can still be seen in the dichotomy of good verses evil. And despite the preference for more realism in our characters, the use of spectacle draws an audience today just as it did in the 19th Century. Melodrama placed great emphasis on the excitement of live action on stage. Plays were advertised to include ‘Real Explosions,’ ‘A Storm on Stage’ and ‘Daring Swordfights.’ Blockbusters are likewise defined by their emphasis on action. The stunning visual effects and use of 3D are major selling points in trailers. Yet whilst the spectacle was a major draw for melodramatic audiences, playmakers also prided themselves on the ‘realism’ and ‘historical accuracy’ of productions. (A production of Shakespeare’s King John in 1823 was the first to claim complete historical accuracy. By 1850, everyone was doing it.) Filmmakers today are no different, with much effort made to make armour authentic, costumes made of the right cloth and swords that look sharp. A blockbuster would not break the box office if it had glaring inaccuracies.

The popular blockbuster might seem to be a result of the times we live in. But they are a contemporary manifestation of 19th century Melodrama, which has evolved to achieve the same emotional response from a 21st century audience. And blockbusters, like melodramas, are not meant to be watched objectively: They are meant to elicit every possible emotion from the audience and leave them feeling satisfied.

Blockbusters are very melodramatic. And when you consider their origins, how could they be anything else?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Vicky Davis

    Interesting read for someone like me who knows very little about theater work.

  2. we_both_are_lost

    If anyone is reading, I recommend these melodramatic movies:
    * Chungking Express (1994)
    * Le Notti Bianche (1957)
    * La Strada (1954)
    * Sunrise (1927)
    All of which have very highly emotional themes

  3. Great post Francesca.

  4. Lachlan Vass

    For most people who consider themselves really into film ‘blockbuster’ is almost a dirty word, but there are plenty of great high-budget melodramatic films. Being formulaic isn’t necessarily a bad thing

  5. Linda Williams wrote a really interesting article on melodrama, horror and pornography in relation to the viewing experience. It’s pretty psychoanalytic, and a bit dated, but it’s still an interesting take on melodramatic affect:

  6. This does illustrate that much of the modern foundations of the broadly literary have their roots in the 19th Century.

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