Friday, April 11, 2014

Does knowing the tropes used in stories lessen our appreciation of them?

If you watch a lot of movie, certain themes start to pop up again.  Certain actions the heroes (and even the villains) take seem be more and more familiar.  It’s a hazard of watching so many movies and TV shows; you begin to see patterns and tropes more easily.  And yet, we gobble them up again and again. 

For example, why is it that origin stories continue to be done, even though we know the beats it will make?  Here are some of the familiar tropes in origin stories.  First, there is the separation from/death of parents: This trope shows up in, for example, Batman, Batman Begins, Superman, Man of Steel, Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man.  Another example is physical separation from home; learning to be the hero: Batman Begins, Superman, Man of Steel all have that element attributed to it. 

In romantic movies, one common trope is a nice or okay guy dating the female lead, but because he is not the protagonist, he will not be the guy she ends up with in the end; what TV tropes calls a “Romantic False Lead.”  This shows up in Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, His Girl Friday, The Wedding Singer, The Notebook, Across the Universe, and Enchanted, just to name a few.  Another moment common in romantic movies is the moment where the previously frumpy female comes out decked out pretty clothes and her hair styled (and we see the leading man notices).  This shows up in My Fair Lady, Miss Congeniality, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That, among others. 

Horror movies are the most notorious for its repeated use of tropes, so much so that it is known and easily parodied.  Nevertheless, here a couple common tropes in horror movies: one is the use of woods as a place of fear.  The characters are stalked by something in the woods, and it rarely if ever ends well.  This shows up in Blair Witch Project, Cabin Fever, Deliverance, Sleepaway Camp, The Cabin in the Woods, Wrong Turn, for example.  Another common trope is the fact that an attractive young woman will have the final battle with the evil thing terrorizing the characters.  This shows up in Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Jeepers Creepers, and Scream.

One trope seen in comedy movies is the idea of the main character, in order to impress someone, telling a little lie.  However, when he or she is confronted on the lie, rather than confess, makes up bigger and even more outlandish lies until all the main character is doing is covering up the first lie.  This show up in The Birdcage, Easy A, Meet the Parents, Just Go with It, etc.  Another one is the put-upon straight man, the one that never cracks jokes and is the victim of the funny character’s humor at times.  Examples include: David Space’s characters in Tommy Boy and Black Sheep, Jack Lemmon’s characters in The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men, Jon Cho’s character in the Harold and Kumar movies.  

So you have that “oh yeah” moment, where you see the trope more and more often.  It becomes familiar. It can get annoying, but for the same reason we like heartwarming movies (which I wrote about here as well), we come expect and appreciate the rules which govern Superhero origin movies, romance plots, horror stories and comedy situations.  It’s not a bad thing or good thing, it’s just a thing.  We come back, knowing what to expect, and we enjoy it all the more.  

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