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Aristotle in Hollywood: Visual Stories That Work

Aristotle in Hollywood: Visual Stories That Work

by Ari Hiltunen

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Throughout the centuries Aristotle's Poetics remained something of a mystery. What was the great philosopher trying to say about the nature of drama and storytelling? What did he mean by pity, fear and catharsis? In this book, Ari Hiltunen explains the mystery of the 'proper pleasure', which, according to Aristotle, is the goal of drama and can be brought about by


Throughout the centuries Aristotle's Poetics remained something of a mystery. What was the great philosopher trying to say about the nature of drama and storytelling? What did he mean by pity, fear and catharsis? In this book, Ari Hiltunen explains the mystery of the 'proper pleasure', which, according to Aristotle, is the goal of drama and can be brought about by using certain storytelling strategies. Hiltunen develops Aristotle's thesis to demonstrate how the world's best-loved fairy tales, Shakespeare's success, and empirical studies on the enjoyment of drama and brain physiology, all give support to the idea of a universal 'proper pleasure' through storytelling. Examining the key concepts and logic of Poetics, Hiltunen offers a unique insight to anyone who wants to know the secret of successful storytelling, both in the past and in today's multi-billion dollar entertainment industry.

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Aristotle in Hollywood

The Anatomy of Successful Storytelling

By Ari Hiltunen

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2002 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-823-8


Primary Source of the Magical Experience

The first stories of mankind were probably born around ancient campfires. It is likely that they were stories of danger, threat and mastery – as anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski argues in Magic, Science and Religion. Maybe our ancestors' cave paintings of threatening creatures were linked to those stories. By looking at these drawings, early hunters could better cope with the fear they faced in real and dangerous situations. This is how the mathematician and philosopher, Jacob Bronowski, explains the Altamira caves' bison paintings in his book and TV series The Ascent of Man. In the darkness of the cave, hunters could experience the fear of hunting in safety in the same way as we today can experience fear in the safety of a cinema.

It is possible that cave drawings were linked to the hunting stories told around the campfire. It is presumed that drama originates from these stories – as Michael Straczynski writes in his book The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. These stories had all the basic elements of drama: a stage, flickering light, a story of life and death, an audience and a performer. Maybe these heroic stories were the origins of our myths. Perhaps an ancient hunting story followed a pattern such as this: a community of men, women and children was threatened by famine. Hunters prepared to begin the journey to track herds of bison. Such tracking was difficult and hard. It seemed as if the herds had disappeared, but responsibility for the women and children drove the hunters forward. They had become almost desperate, when on the top of a hill they beheld a breathtaking sight as they saw a huge herd of bison in the valley. Although this was a great relief to the hunters, worse was to come because hunting with spears was extremely dangerous and many men died or were wounded. Even after killing sufficient bison, further suffering had to be endured while carrying the heavy carcasses to the caves where hungry women and children waited. Not only did they have to carry and tend their wounded men, they were attacked by wolves. Finally, the exhausted men returned home and were welcomed as heroes.

Around campfires the events of the brave hunting trip were told and retold. After each telling the stories were polished into an increasingly exciting and impressive form. The first stories of mankind were accounts of courage, skill, sacrifice and duty. In the flames of night fires they created a magical experience for the audience.

As cultures developed, these heroic hunting stories developed in a way that somehow preserved and enhanced the enchanting patterns and emotional power of the old heroic tales. Heroic encounters became myths that united entire cultures. As the hunting societies evolved into cultivation societies, the hero changed from the hunter using his skill against nature into the hero dealing with human conflict over territory and possessions, between individuals, tribes and societies, and between mankind and its supernatural beliefs. Similarly, the basic elements and dramaturgy of the campfire stories were transferred and transformed for later stories.

American anthropologist Joseph Campbell begins his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument with Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will always be the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.

According to Campbell, this story, which repeats itself continuously from one culture to another, is the myth of the hero. Its manifestation can vary considerably but basically it is always the same story, the hero's journey, which Campbell calls 'monomyth'.

The mythological hero's adventure regularly follows a pattern of transitional rites, separation, initiation and return. This can be called the core of the monomyth: from the ordinary everyday world, the hero ventures into the world of the supernatural where he faces legendary forces and wins the decisive victory. From his mystical adventures the hero returns with a powerful elixir which brings salvation to the community.

This journey of the mythological hero resembles the story pattern used by the heroic caveman. The distant hunting grounds become lands of supernatural wonder, bison become legendary monsters, and the prey becomes a wonderful elixir or an object of magic that saves the community, in this case from famine. As the culture has developed so has the form of the hero's journey, but in essence it is the same story that creates the magical experience.

By comparing well-known stories and myths of ancient cultures, Campbell discovered a common pattern in the different stages of the hero's journey. These are: The World of Common Day, Call to Adventure, Supernatural Aid, Crossing the First Threshold, Road of Trials, The Magic Flight, Rescue from Within, Recrossing the Threshold, Return, Master of the Two Worlds and Freedom to Live. In other words, the hero's journey follows a coherent pattern, one that has been extremely popular and dominant in all the known ancient cultures of the world.

According to Campbell, the relevant features of the hero's journey do not vary much from culture to culture and there is remarkably little variation in the morphology of the adventure. If a basic element of the archetypal pattern is missing from a fairytale, story, rite or myth, according to Campbell it has to be there indirectly one way or another.

Joseph Campbell's analysis of mythology implies that there exists a universal pattern of successful stories common to all ancient cultures. The hero's journey was not invented by any single storyteller. Stories of heroes have been born 'spontaneously' in the tradition of storytelling all around the world and they have been shaped into aform that seems to be universally coherent. We can perhaps assume that the hero's journey represents mankind's idea of a good story and the popularity of this standardised story may be a consequence of the attractiveness of the emotional experience provided. All this indicates that there may be a connection between the story pattern and the emotional experience of the audience. One book written in ancient Greece deals with this question in a fascinating way.

Chapter Two will examine the relevance of Aristotle's Poetics to Campbell's views and to the idea of good stories being emotionally satisfying.


Aristotle and the Mystery of Dramatic Pleasure

Although the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote the Poetics over 2300 years ago, it is considered by many authorities to be one of the most enduring works of western literary study. In the book, still the first known scientific study of storytelling, Aristotle considers the epic and narrative poetry, but of even more importance, he examines tragedy.

The Poetics is generally considered to be very difficult to interpret, partly due to the fact that large sections of this book are presumed to be missing. The form of the text is also problematic. The book may not have been intended for the general reader but could have been notes for lectures Aristotle gave at the school of Lyceum, where he would have expanded on the text to his students.

There are two definitions at the beginning of the Poetics that are of key importance if we wish to understand Aristotle's insights. Firstly, he gives the definition of his task:

Our topic is poetry itself and its kinds, and what potential each has; how plots should be constructed if the composition is to turn out well; also, from how many parts it is [constituted], and of what sort they are; and likewise all other aspects of the same inquiry.

Secondly, he gives the definition of tragedy that is the main object of the study:

Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play]; [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and fear the catharsis of such emotions.

These definitions reveal two critically important things. Firstly, they tell us the aim of Aristotle's analysis: he is searching for the answer to the question: What kind of the pleasure is the function of tragedy?' To answer this, Aristotle says that first we have to discover the nature of the 'proper pleasure' in tragedy. When this is unravelled we can evaluate the quality of any single tragedy and compare it to other tragedies by assessing how much of this 'proper pleasure' it produces. In other words, the function of tragedy is to produce the 'proper pleasure' as efficiently as possible. Being aware of its pleasurable nature the writer has the ability to maximise this 'proper pleasure' and make the play more enjoyable. Secondly, these definitions reveal that Aristotle gave plot structure a key role in the production of this 'proper pleasure'.

As I will show later, this definition of tragedy, which has not always met with the agreement of scholars throughout the centuries, does in fact contain the secret of success for today's entertainment industries. Instead of the word 'tragedy', it might be better to use the term 'serious drama' because unlike today, in ancient Greece a tragedy could have a happy ending.

The 'proper pleasure', which according to Aristotle consists of pity and fear followed by catharsis, was difficult to interpret because catharsis, a critical element in the definition, is neither explained in the Poetics nor anywhere else in Aristotle's works. Pity and fear are only indirectly considered when Aristotle describes the types of plot that are best at bringing them about. The explanation of catharsis might have been in the missing sections of the book. A more likely explanation might rest in the logic of the Poetics. It is possible that Aristotle assumed that when audiences understood how plots were constructed, they would also perceive the nature of the emotional experience those plots were intended to produce.

If we understand the Poetics in this way, we can also see that the significance of the Poetics to aesthetics is not as a theory of catharsis but rather as a detailed analysis of plot structure. It could be that Aristotle realised the kind of storytelling strategies that are typical of highly popular dramas. If from Aristotle's hints and clues we are able to solve the riddle of the 'proper pleasure', we can perhaps use this insight for the creation of new and successful dramas and stories.

The key to understanding plot structure, especially that of tragedy, lies in discovering exactly how it is able to produce the necessary pity, fear and catharsis. Knowing this, we will be able to produce the 'proper pleasure' at will and enhance the emotional response in the audience by using particular kinds of plot structure.

According to Aristotle, epic narrative poetry has the function of arousing pity and fear through its plot. A well-known epic in ancient Greece was Homer's Odyssey. The same principles of analysis can be applied to this epic as to a tragedy such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. This reveals that they share a common goal in producing the same kind of pleasure. As with the plots of tragedies, those of epics should also be dramatic and present a single, whole and complete action with a beginning, middle and end and thus be capable of bringing about the 'proper pleasure'. Plot structure was also probably of great importance in comedies. These, according to Aristotle, depict characters 'inferior' to the audience whereas tragedy depicts 'superior' characters.

Later in this book I will consider how plot structure and the 'proper pleasure' are the principal function of Hollywood blockbusters, bestselling novels and successful TV series.

The decisive importance of tragedy is revealed through what Aristotle said about Oedipus Rex, a work he greatly admired. Aristotle believed that Oedipus, which was a well-known myth in ancient Greece, could also produce the 'proper pleasure' in written form. In other words, it was capable of producing pity, fear and catharsis without having to be performed on stage, the script alone being sufficient. This principle can also be applied to films, which are dramas on the screen, or novels, which are dramas on the page.

Although Aristotle does not write much about the essence of the 'proper pleasure', when we understand the essence and nature of the plot structure in the Poetics, it becomes clear that Aristotle's theory identifies aspects of pity, fear and catharsis as integral parts of the process of producing the 'proper pleasure'.

2.1 Oedipus Rex, The Master Plot

Aristotle particularly admired Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis who studied the Oedipus complex in depth, had his own ideas about the motives that made this play so fascinating – but I believe that the excellence of the play is primarily due to its plot structure. Much of Aristotle's advice to writers in the Poetics is based on the analysis of this drama; therefore we can assume that Oedipus Rex contains many elements of the 'proper pleasure'.

The tragedy is based on the following myth. A son was born to Laius and Jocasta, the rulers of Thebes. There was a prophecy that this son would kill his father and marry his mother. In order to avoid the realisation of this prophecy, Laius pierced the baby's ankles with a wooden stick and ordered a herdsman to take the baby into the forest and kill him. But the herdsman pitied the baby and gave him to another herdsman who took him to his own land, Corinth. The King and the Queen of Corinth, Polybus and Merope, had no child of their own so they adopted the baby and because the wooden stick had damaged baby's feet, he was named Oedipus which means thick or swollen foot.

When Oedipus reached maturity he became aware of the possibility that he was not the son of Polybus and Merope. To confirm his doubts, he went to see a prophet who made the same prediction as that which was told to his parents: that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus was horrified and in order to avoid the fulfilment of the prophecy, decided to leave Corinth because the prophet had left him believing that Polybus and Merope were his real parents. At a crossroads, Oedipus was confronted by a group of men who ordered him to give way. Being the noble son of the king, Oedipus refused and the dispute resulted in a fight during which Oedipus killed all the attackers except for one who escaped. Unknown to Oedipus, the leader of the men who attacked him was Laius, King of Thebes. The man who escaped returned home and recounted how Laius had been killed by a band of robbers.

At this time, Thebes was under the tyranny of the Sphinx, a winged female monster that lured travellers and confronted them with riddles. The riddle she presented to Oedipus was: what is it that in the morning walks with four feet, during the day with two, and in the evening with three? Oedipus answered: it is a man who crawls as a baby and as an old man needs a walking stick. With the Sphinx defeated, Oedipus became the hero of Thebes. As a reward, he was made king and married the widow of the former king, Jocasta. For ten years Thebes bloomed and Oedipus' wife gave birth to two sons and two daughters. But then adversities began: there were crop failures, no children were born and a plague attacked the city. It is at this point that Sophocles' tragedy begins.

Creon, Oedipus' brother-in-law, returns from the prophet with a message of joy: their misfortunes can be ended by solving the mystery of who killed the former king. Oedipus, concerned about his people, begins the investigation in order to save the city. He summons the blind prophet Tiresias who reveals the truth: that Oedipus himself is the murderer and is also guilty of an even more horrible crime. Oedipus does not believe the prophet but he becomes suspicious and accuses his brother-in-law of intrigue.

Jocasta tries to reassure her husband by telling him that the predictions concerning her first husband did not come true since, instead of being killed by his son, he was killed by a band of robbers at the crossing of three roads. Oedipus recognises the place and becomes more distressed and suspicious. At this stage, however, Oedipus thinks of himself as the possible murderer but not as the son of Laius, so he summons the man who is the only witness to Laius' murder.

Unexpectedly, a messenger arrives from Corinth. He informs Oedipus of the death of Polybus and relates the request that Oedipus should become the new King of Corinth. Although Oedipus' fear begins to subside with the news of his father's death that disproves part of the prophecy, he does not want to return to Corinth because Merope is still alive.


Excerpted from Aristotle in Hollywood by Ari Hiltunen. Copyright © 2002 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Ari Hiltunen is an acquisition executive at the Finnish Broadcasting Company.

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