“Genre”, the word sounds mellifluous, doesn’t it?
I mean, for a person completely unknown to this term, it might come up as an exquisite delicacy like most other French words. But the word Genre has a meaning quite simple. Genre, a French word, simply means category or rather a particular style of an art form.
Now, here I’ll be talking about film genres, but as the meaning suggests, the genre is not just used to define a particular style of the film. Rather it can be used to define any art form, such as literature or even music.
Music can be of many types; you might listen to rock, pop, folk, and many more. Similarly, genres of literature may vary from science fiction novels, leading you to the center of the earth, to the classic horrors, making you crawl up to the corner of your bed.
For example, you must have heard about Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is a classic horror piece of literature. Similarly, The Time Machine by H. G. Wells is an example of a classic piece of literature of the science fiction genre.
Now coming to film genres, since we know that films are mostly the adaptations of literature or songs or even paintings and other arts, hence film genres similarly can be like romance, fantasy, mystery, adventure, or comedy.
And since a film is an audio-visual form of art, we can also have stories in a much more expressive manner, hence, we also have genres like action, western, drama, or thriller, which can be expressed more beautifully using the audio and visual elements, together.
Importance of genres in films
We already know how to understand the plot or the story of a film. There’s nothing back-breaking to perceive the audio-visual cues from a film and interpret a story out of it. But we are here to study films and look through a more academic lens, rather than being an average enjoyer.
Genres play an important role as it gives pre-information about the main theme of the film. Since 1910, Hollywood film production started outpacing men, and thus genre filmmaking became very important to differentiate films. This urge for differentiation also marked the rise of cinema.
Though genre filmmaking started all over the world, Hollywood was the one to exploit it the most. Let’s have an industrial insight into genre filmmaking.
Genres primarily influence three facets of industrialized films –
- Production: For production, genres provide a framework for production decisions; screenwriters can develop characters that follow a certain stereotype easily.
- Distribution: Studio financing heavily relies on the audience’s predictability in accepting these genre films. Hence, the distributors could easily lump audiences based upon what movies they liked or the movies they’ve seen in the past.
- Consumption: From the receiver’s point of view, audiences are more likely to go watch a movie that is a part of the genre they’re familiar with hence, genre helps them select which movie they’re going to watch in the theatre.
Now that movies are made available to be streamed digitally and marketed globally, the audiences are exposed to a wide variety of genres and are not limited within the boundaries of their watchlist. So, how is genre filmmaking still widely relevant other than the industrial and business reasons within the film industry?
Genres provide a set of conventions to the films and thus, it is widely important in film theory as well. This set of rules or conventions provides a language for the film.
Since cinema is a reflection of our own lives, the repeated imagery forms an emotion and provides a solution to the contradictions that everyone faces in real life.
If you think about it, cinema is our life, but in a better way. The way that we want to look at it or interpret it thoroughly to have a proper insight about the society as well as our unconscious self.
Over the years, cinema has become a very important tool for expressing ideology. Hence, the audience can be easily lured into accepting the agenda of a vested interest group.
When we are actually studying a film, it’s very necessary to learn about the genre. Just like genre provides a structural stereotype for the filmmakers to follow, similarly, it also helps to create a framework to analyze a film.
If we already have a basic idea about the nature of the film, that is, what the filmmakers are trying to put forward to you in a typical manner, it will be easier for you to analyze the particular characteristics and aspects of the film, as you have an idea of what to expect, beforehand.
Hence, putting a movie into a particular genre or category does not diminish the quality of the movie by assuming “if it can be put into a genre, the movie is ordinary, and lacks originality and creativity.”
Now let’s learn about some of the mainstream genres and structures of genre filmmaking popular in Hollywood.
What strikes your head first when you hear about action films? Silvester Stallone standing in his bare glossy jacked body, firing a huge gun and blowing up some bad guys? Or maybe Keanu Reeves performing a smooth gun-fu as he avenges the death of his beloved dog?
Most of the films might have some or little action sequences, but they might not fall under the category of action films. Action in films dates way back and it’s one of the earliest styles of film-making.
Yes, action was largely a style of film-making and later on, evolved into a genre of its own. With close ties to classic strife and struggle narratives, it can be found across all manner of classic cinema.
With some of the earliest examples dating back to everything from historical war epics to some basic portrayals of dastardly train robberies, action films have been popular with cinema audiences since the very beginning.
Because of its good reception by the audience and an enormous number of films being made in the same style or same ideological process, it evolved as a whole genre of its own. And modern-day action films have a whole new scenario from the classics with a distinct difference in the approach of the film-making process.
For example, If you compare the 1969 western classic, The Wild Bunch, with Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003) and then furthermore with a more recent installment from the Mission Impossible franchise, Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018), you’ll notice prominent differences in the whole narrative style.
With the advancement of time, the action became more prominent and played a major integral role in the whole narrative structure to stand out as a separate category.
You see, for a film to be appropriately grouped as an action film, the bulk of its content has to be action-oriented. This might include gruesome or bloody fight scenes or jaw-dropping stunts or car chases and many more, or all of them together.
For example, the Harry Potter films have a lot of action sequences like the quidditch scenes or face-off sequences when they cast deadly spells against each other in the friendly environment of Hogwarts, but can they be called action films?
Well, it’s a straight no. The Harry Potter films are largely fantasy films and its content is created with that intention only.
Subgenres of the action genres are:
War and Military Action
Many of the earliest examples of action in films came in the form of war and military fiction. Since the rise of cinema coincides closely with several wars, with the advancement in filmmaking and direction style, we got to see more profound action movies set in the backdrop of war.
Among the first war and military action movies is D.W. Griffith’s The Fugitive. Over the years with more and more drive to represent war through cinema, we got some brilliant military action films from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) to Clint Eastwood’s Bradley Cooper starrer American Sniper (2014).
Spy and Espionage Action
This subgenre is a complete offshoot of the military action genre as this is represented with advanced warfare emerging into the world of your daily life rather than the battlefield.
Notable films in this genre include Hitchcock’s classic Secret Agent (1936) and of course, the James Bond franchise, which over the years have served us some epic action spy films, and the different actors over the decades have gifted us different vibes. Starting from the Sean Connery classics including Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Diamonds are Forever, etc, turned us into the vintage setting, evolving to the absolute modern and more stylized Daniel Craig series, including Casino Royale, Skyfall, and the recent and the last Craig-Bond film No Time to Die.
Other more modern spy action films include the very popular Mission Impossible franchise starring Tom Cruise, with six movies till now and two more in production, and also the Bourne franchise starring Matt Damon.
Western or “shoot em up” Action
The early western films were hugely defined by their typical action sequences, gunfights, horse chases, etc.
Action is a necessary element in filming western films. Hence these two go hand in hand. Examples of classic action-western films would be Django Unchained, The Magnificent Seven, etc.
Martial Art Action
With Hollywood adapting more and more to the Chinese and Hong Kong style of action filmmaking, casting Chinese actors, and action directors, a whole new sub-genre was in the making.
Some of the specific key characteristics of this style include karate, kung-fu, and samurai films, focusing on hand-to-hand combat and stunt choreography. And, while traces of martial arts action appear as early as the 1950s, it rose to prominence globally in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, including films like Enter the Dragon (1973), Drunken Master (1978), Bloodsport (1988) and The Raid: Redemption (2011).
This sub-genre shares many, but not all, elements with the rise of Hong Kong action cinema, and it certainly owes its roots to the ancient martial arts practices of Asia and Europe.
The filmmaking styles of martial arts action are similar to the western, focusing on a solo hero and straightforward plots, pitting the protagonist against a clear adversary. However, more martial arts action film focuses on stunts and fight choreography.
Action Hybrid Genres
As mentioned earlier, before evolving out as a genre, action is more of a filming style, and thus, like all other genres, action can be paired with its fellow other genres to describe a film. These can be,
Action-Adventure – Featuring characters involved in exciting and usually dangerous activities and adventures and a distinctive storyline. Popular movies include the Indiana Jones franchise, Mad Max franchise, Avatar, etc.
Action-Comedy – Loads of fighting with punches of sarcasm and humor. I just love this genre! This genre can also be characterized by its action scenes triggering or rather influencing humor or plot sarcasm. Popular movie examples can be the very recently released Free Guy, (a personal favorite), Hitman’s Bodyguard, Deadpool, etc.
Action-Romance – Action movies with a little love plot like Knight and Day, The Three Muskateers, The Mask of Zorro, etc.
Action-Thriller – popular movies of this category may be Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, Extraction, Mission Impossible series, etc.
Since the beginning of humanity, we have felt the urge of both physical and emotional intimacy between each other. That is the basic law for human beings on this earth. Hence, since we started creating art, romance was naturally always a part of the expression.
Like romance is expressed in paintings or music or literature, it is also an integral part of films. And why wouldn’t we want to watch our beloved characters having a good old love story?
Almost all films might have a romantic sub-plot, either to build character depth or maybe to add more elements into the main plot. But romance to stand out as an individual genre, the film must be mostly focused on the main characters exploring elements of love, such as relationship, sacrifice, marriage, hardships, obsession, or even destruction.
For example, the 2010 film Blue Valentine starring Ryan Gosling, a very favorite actor of mine, and Michelle Williams, is a beautiful movie exploring both the heartwarming start of a relationship and also the sweet moments that turn bitter over the years as their dysfunctional marriage fail and stand a test of time and they keep trying to rekindle their relationship while raising their daughter.
I have used this movie as an example because this movie revolves both around the good and the worse parts of a relationship between the two main characters and hence give us a clear insight about what elements represent the genre as a whole.
When we, in general, talk about drama, or maybe a dramatic situation, what do we exactly refer to? The distinct expression of emotions or maybe situations triggering such. Drama film is a genre that relies on the emotional and relational development of realistic characters.
For this genre, dramatic themes play a very important role, and often these themes are taken from intense, real-life issues. Whether heroes or heroines are facing a conflict from the outside or a conflict within themselves, Drama film aims to tell an honest story of human struggles.
Classic examples of drama films are Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime drama The Godfather, The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, which is a war drama, etc.
Drama is a vast genre and since it mainly focuses on representing real-life emotions and conflicts, this is often paired with other genres to give the fiction a whole new dimension. Thus, there are several sub-genres of drama including –
- Courtroom Drama – Courtroom drama film uses the justice system as a main component of the plot. The story usually unfolds inside a courtroom with the prosecutor, judge, jury, and the defense. The plot revolves around the coming onto the verdict of the court building up tension. Examples – 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.
- Comedy Drama – This sub-genre provides for a dramatic tone with important elements of comedy, both equally balanced that eventually, help the audience to have comic relief while addressing a serious issue. Examples – Little Miss Sunshine, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, etc.
- Historical or period drama – This type of sub-genre focuses on a specific era or a specific time in history and the era adds on the plot as well as the characters and is loosely based on the events or the people and their societies of that period. Example – 300, Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Rome, etc.
- Melodrama – This sub-genre majorly focuses on the character’s heightened emotions triggered by overly dramatic situations. Example – Ammonite (2020), Sophie’s Choice, etc.
- Political – Political drama film contains themes, characters, and a plot specifically about politics and the political scene. The main protagonist is often at odds with the harsh reality of corruption in politics. Many Political Dramas are based on fact but focus on exploring conspiracy theories. Example – Lincoln starring Sir Daniel Day-Lewis, Babel, etc.
4. Science Fiction
Science Fiction goes way back in films before genre filmmaking was even started. From Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) to Chris Marker’s La Jetee (1962), filmmakers always tried to experiment with science fiction. Soon enough, Hollywood started producing epic science fiction films which would set a mark in the history of cinema forever.
Science Fiction Films are usually scientific, visionary, and imaginative and usually visualized through fanciful, imaginative settings. The social transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution first led writers and intellectuals to extrapolate the future impact of technology.
Trip to the unknown space world, encountering otherworldly beings, innovating unimaginable deadly technologies, everything is a part of science fiction. Even superheroes.
From Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where we see a group of explorers set out in space to unravel the mystery of a strange monolith, to Spider-Man, where a teenager gets superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, and uses his powers to save his city, the genre of science fiction is widely explored.
On one hand, we see several explorers set out in search of new worlds in outer space, or try to communicate with extraterrestrial beings, in movies like Interstellar, Arrival, Contact, etc.
While on the other hand, we see fantasy science fiction where already the characters are coinciding in intergalactic space and the world is already explored, and technology already advanced, in movies like Star Wars, Blade Runner, etc.
As this genre was explored more, with the advancement of time the modern films already have expert film production design, advanced technology gadgets to use as props (i.e., robots and spaceships), scientific developments, or fantastic special effects.
Science Fiction is a vast genre and films may be of different types. From exploring space to interacting and fighting with extraterrestrial beings, to a dystopian future like in Dune (2021), or species vs technology like in Avatar, or even about beings with superhuman powers like X-Men, to exploration of time, like Back to the Future series, Predestination, etc.
Since the beginning of experimental cinema, the influence of German Expressionism and Surrealism led to the production of many horror classics.
Soon Hollywood took over with great classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho or The Birds. Horror movies back then were defined as fear in general, maybe psychotic or paranoid or generally chilling. Like David Lynch’s Eraserhead, which doesn’t involve a supernatural plot, yet it is eerie enough to give you horrors and frights.
Later on, more supernatural elements started getting added, and classics like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and later on, now, the major portion of the plot of a horror film is influenced by supernaturalism. Thus, this led to the making of several modern-day horror franchises like the very popular The Conjuring Universe, or The Insidious franchise, etc.
Some of the distinguishable characteristics of the horror genre may be, expression of more action than dialogues, building suspense, more suspense build-up increases more chill. In horror movies, the suspense is built slow and gradually winds up as the plot progresses.
Then there are jump scares. What is a good horror movie without a bunch of jump-scares making you crawl up under your bedsheets? Sudden loud noises or unexpected visuals are key elements. Then comes gory. Most of the horror films express gory visuals, giving you chills in your bones.
Over the past few decades, the horror genre has been a largely experimented one. Filmmakers over the years have tried several forms of representation or expression of a film’s emotion, and hence giving birth to a few sub-genres, such as:-
- Slasher – Slasher films mostly focus on serial killers as they go about murdering a bunch of people generally with bladed tools in a very gruesome and gory manner. Classic slasher horror movies include Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Friday the13th, etc. giving us classic slasher characters like Michael Myers from Halloween or Freddy Krueger from The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.
- Gore – These kinds of films are also called “splatter” films as they represent the complete vulnerability of the human body and clear disturbing visuals. Examples are Saw, Evil Dead, etc.
- Body horror – This genre is closely related to the gore subgenre as this too visualizes mostly human body alterations. David Cronenberg is considered a pioneer of the body horror genre. His film The Fly is a classic example. Other classic body horrors include the very popular, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, John Carpenter’s The Thing, etc.
- Paranormal and monster horror – These two sub-genres are mostly similar. The prior one focuses more on supernatural entities like ghosts, spirits, and demons. Movies like The Amityville Horror, The Conjuring franchise, The Incidius series, Poltergeist, etc. While the latter one features science fiction or dark fantasy antagonistic characters like vampires, zombies, or even werewolves. Films like Dracula, Resident Evil, Dawn of the Dead, Frankenstein, etc fall under this.
- Horror Comedy – As I said, over the past decades, the horror genre was subject to a lot of experiments, filmmakers created this hybrid sub-genre for the better. Instead of a constant motive to force you to leave skin-crawling, this genre is a representation of the classic scares with a style of parody, humor, and satire. Films like Shaun of the Dead, The Scary Movie series, Scream, Jennifer’s Body, are all examples of this style of expression.
Cowboys, Native Americans, Gun Duels, Sherrif chasing a band of looters, bounty hunters, all these things start jumbling in your head when you hear about this genre, doesn’t it?
This genre is primarily set in the American Old West between the late eighteenth century and late nineteenth century and tells the stories of cowboys, settlers, and outlaws exploring the western frontier and taming the Wild West.
Typical elements in westerns include hostile elements (often Native Americans), guns and gunfights (sometimes on horseback), violence and human massacres, horses, trains (and train robberies), bank robberies and holdups, runaway stagecoaches, shoot-outs and showdowns, outlaws, and sheriffs, cattle drives and cattle rustling, stampedes, posses in pursuit, barroom brawls, ‘search and destroy’ plots, breathtaking settings and open landscapes (the Tetons and Monument Valley, to name only a few), and distinctive western clothing (denim, jeans, boots, etc.).
Western films have been made since the very beginning of early cinema in the silent era as well, as we got to see silent western epics like The Covered Wagon, and also John Fords Three Bad Men, from the 1920s. Since the 60s, we got to see several epic Westerns like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
Westerns back then were very relevant to the audience and also widely accepted. When looking back at the impact of the western on cinema, it is important to understand the reasons why westerns became so popular in the first place.
The biggest reason was simple; convenience. Back in the 1900s, film was just starting to become a widespread form of entertainment. What dictated its format was based on the limitations of technology at the time as well as the logistics of distribution. In both regards, the western made a lot of sense.
The golden age of Hollywood was largely influenced by Western films such as the remake of Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven (1954).
Later on, as this genre kept evolving more and more, Clint Eastwood introduced his style and vision into the genre and came up with Spaghetti-Western and as John Wayne’s film career wrapped up, Eastwood took over as the face of the modern western.
Later on, we could see a gradual decline in the popularity and reception of westerns as in modern times, they became more and more irrelevant. Yet, there are still some good modern western films such as No Country for Old Men by the Coen Brothers, There Will be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc.
Unlike science fiction films which always base their content on some degree of scientific explanation, fantasy films take their audience to places that are largely unlikely to exist in the real world.
Magic, mythology, supernatural, folklore, escapism, wonder, everything serves as an element of this genre. They may appeal to both children and adults, depending upon the particular film.
Some of the very popular fantasy films include the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, most of Disney’s animated movies including Peter Pan, Frozen, Cinderella, etc.
If you closely notice there is a particular filming style of this genre and the plot has one specific narrative style, which is, they all follow the narrative style of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” to a certain extent. I would suggest you go have a detailed study of this narrative style to understand it better.
But generally, all the plot follow a specific narrative where the protagonist is set on an adventure, becomes victorious of his destiny in a decisive crisis, and returns to his homeland with a gift or boon, being completely transformed from how he started.
Many of the superhero flicks might also be a part of fantasy films like Shazam, or Wonder Woman, or Superman.
Since the fantasy genre has a large set of characteristics and elements to be described, it caters to a large pool of audiences of varying ages.
Primitively there were two types of narratives, a comedy, which is a plot with a happy ending, and a tragedy, a plot without a tragic ending. Later on, narratives started to focus on more individual comic elements and comedy largely evolved into a genre of its own.
The history of comedy in films goes long back. Earlier most of the filmmakers used comedy essentially as a vessel, rather than a whole plot setting, to deliver the submerged ideology more interestingly.
Comedies usually feature pratfalls, wordplay, uncomfortable situations, and sometimes lean the opposite way of realism. Their stakes are usually personal and violence is almost always done for laughs and not serious consequences.
Hollywood started developing comedy films in the silent era itself, with great pioneers like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. In the early days, the comedy was largely dependant upon the actors, or rather the performers, than the plot. It all came down to the actor’s performance in a specific situation to deliver the audience humor.
The silent era was the time of slapstick comedy, which is primarily a physical kind of comedy based around pratfalls and mild comic violence — smacks in the head, poke in the eyes, people falling, etc. Slapstick is more action than words. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are two great pioneers of slapstick comedy.
The specialty of Chaplin’s movies was that he used his comic style to promote another more serious plot idea. Some of his most famous works include The Great Dictator, Citylights (my personal favorite of Chaplin’s), Modern Times, Gold Rush, etc.
In his movies, he has fallen down, got beaten up, got his clothes dirty and torn, and gone through so much but not just to deliver us a comic relief, instead to put forward rather more serious propaganda in a more acceptable way.
Over the years as comedy evolved, the script and the plot became very essential tools to drive a comedy film and it was no more dependant only upon the actor’s actions and calibers to deliver sarcasm.
In modern times, comedy has become a broad tool and not just a narrative genre. Comedy is paired and hybridized with other genres like action-comedy, comedy dramas, and also the very popular, romantic comedies or what we call “rom-coms”.
Crime fiction is the genre that fictionalizes crimes, their detection and inspection, criminals, their psychology, and their motives.
Crime fiction goes long back in literature since great authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie took to detective fiction creating iconic characters like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Not much of a surprise that this genre was later adopted in films as well.
War has massively influenced our society. Especially the two great World Wars. Thus the invention of cinema being a new form of expression was also used to portray war.
Since the beginning of the first world war, several films were made either highlighting the glory or giving an insight into the horrors.
Soon enough, cinema had become an important tool of mass communication and in the Second World War, various war films were made with a purpose to educate the mass as well as run propaganda, for example, D. W. Griffith’s Heart of the World.
By the time the wars had ended, War films had already gained commercial fame, and soon enough more elements like a romantic plot or some more fictional spices were added to make it more commercially viable.
Some of the very early classic war films were All Quiet on the Western Front(1930), Thirty Seconds over Tokyo(1944), Wings(1927), etc.
War films can be of two types –
One, that is more patriotic and focuses more on the glorious values of American ideals, and nobility of the army, for example, Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers, in which, a young man travels to interview his father’s fellow soldiers who were responsible for raising the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II, and hence, he learns about their stories of glory.
Another form of expression of war movies may be the one which highlights more of the darker side, its imperialistic tendencies and wastefulness for example Francis Ford Coppola’s epic anti-war film Apocalypse Now, or Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, both giving us an insight about the horrors of the war (The Vietnam War) and the major psychological casualties and other after-effects.
Thus these different styles of representations evolved into subgenres like anti-war, propaganda, and similarly, it can also be a hybrid genre such as war-comedy; war and satire are often seen being used in many anti-war films.
A great example would be Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Another good example would be a very favorite film of mine, Taika Waititty’s Jojo Rabbit.
There are also many war movies with distinctive love plots. The classic 1942 film Casablanca is a great example with a romance plot set in the time of the second world war. Other examples are The Atonement, The English Patient.
Before the 1950s, most of the films had a backdrop of the war, as in, the plot majorly revolved around war and thus war has been seen as a hybrid counterpart with various other genres since the vintage film era.
War can be war drama too as the one which might be short of fights or bloodshed, but rather reflected more upon the emotional part. For example, Sam Mendes’ 1917, which is largely a drama but the plot revolves around the First World War.
Similarly, there are war-espionage films like Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and Ben Affleck’s Argo.
These are some of the mainstream genres of the Hollywood industry. Since genre filmmaking has become more vast now, certain film themes like a thriller or gangster or noir, have evolved into hybrid genres of their own, mixing with other genres.
Hence, genres can even be like spy-thrillers, for example, The November Man, or any James Bond film. which gives us a thrilling plot with an espionage story. But if you see, action is also an integral element of this film.
All espionage thrillers are mostly driven by action sequences, and hence, they can also be categorized or hybridized under action films.
Thus, it also depends upon you how you perceive the storytelling of a film. Genre filmmaking sure does provide a structural framework for the makers to categorize their films to work under certain stereotypes as well as for the proper distribution to the target audience.
But it is also important for you to study and understand genres to analyze the true nature and theme of the film.
About The Author
Arkaprava is currently completing his UGC as a student of Media Science and wants to explore the field of mass communication even further. He is a film enthusiast and practically lives in movies. He sees himself sharing his perspective with the world (maybe with the help of a pen or the camera).