There Is Nothing Wrong With Melodrama
Melodrama – noun /ˈmel·əˌdrɑ·mə, -ˌdræm·ə/
A play or style of acting in which the characters behave and show emotion in a more noticeable way than real people usually do. – Cambridge English Dictionary.
Teaching screenwriting, as I do, provides an ongoing wonderful lesson in subjectivity. Ask screenwriters where the inciting incident occurs in a screenplay, and a lively debate begins that includes five different theories. Ditto any discussion on where the midpoint is. Art is fluid and open to interpretation, and storytelling is no exception. So it is with melodrama; a word which cannot seem to outrun a pejorative meaning. If your script “descends” into “melodrama,” then you have missed out on capturing something authentic and crossed over into written histrionics.
When it comes to screen storytelling, it may be time to cultivate a new understanding: that motion pictures are actually a darn fine fit for melodrama. The reason we go to movies or binge watch TV is, indeed, to allow ourselves to feel; to experience an onrush of emotions depicted by people behaving, as the Cambridge English Dictionary says, “In a more noticeable way than real people usually do.”
How far back do you want to go? 1931. Is the entire premise behind the miraculous eyesight-restoring surgery in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (co-written with Harry Crocker) ridiculous? Yes. Is the moment when the newly–sighted heroine recognizes the Little Tramp as her benefactor still impossibly heart-wrenching today? Yes, again. 1920. Lilian Gish on an ice floe in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (screenplay by Lottie Blair Parker from the play by William A. Brady) is as bigger-than-life as they come—and never fails to elicit awe.
Let’s jump ahead a few years. If you wept into your 3-D glasses during the first ten minutes of Up (screenplay by Pete Docter, Tom McCarthy, and Bob Peterson), you allowed yourself to be carried along by melodrama. If you felt transported into a world of heightened experience as a sea creature embraced a woman in a watery fantasy world during The Shape of Water (screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) you happily succumbed to melodrama.
If you were swept up in the profound human feeling enhanced by a masterful use of musical score in either Moonlight (screenplay by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney) or If Beale Street Could Talk (screenplay by Barry Jenkins, based on the book by James Baldwin), you felt the pull of melodrama in the midst of powerful, beautifully crafted drama.
Be assured, none of these examples are meant to cast melodrama in a negative light. To the contrary. They serve to show us how rich a connotation the word can have when massaged by the right creative visionary. A heightened reality if you will. To expand upon the point, these writ-large notions are what movies were made to deliver. Anytime you want to refer to that Cambridge English Dictionary definition, just scroll up. It pretty much describes our relationship to screen entertainment.
The way into finding out why “melodrama” may be such a dismissive term might be found in the works of less imaginative storytellers and filmmakers who haven’t the vision to use anything but tropes to convey their characters’ emotions. As such, the overused outburst of “noooooooo!” has become a source of comedy precisely because it so unabashedly gives in to the melodramatic impulse and has no thematic or dramatic oomph behind it.
Have a character that feels vulnerable? Have them utter the line, “Please…just hold me,” and you have added to the reasons why critics can so easily write you off as a melodramatic hack. So, we find that, as with every other hotly contested aspect of artistic creation, a technique done poorly cannot hope to transcend any stigma attached to it, whereas a technique done well only enlivens our engagement with it.
The ancient Greeks knew what melodrama was and embraced it. As author Misha Donat points out in a 2005 edition of The Guardian, back in the day melodrama referred to “…its literal Greek meaning, as a combination of music and acting. Although it tended to be used for depicting heightened emotion – with highly wrought heroines abandoned by a husband or lover, such as Medea…” So there you go. What we now accept as the greatest works of drama in history featured such subjects as a woman who kills her own children rather than be snubbed by her man. Add to that Oedipus the King, the fellow who murdered his father and had relations with his mother. Euripides and Sophocles, respectively, worked with some of the most over-the-top emotions we are likely ever to find.