From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Thrillers are characterized by fast pacing, frequent action, and resourceful heroes who must thwart the plans of more-powerful and better-equipped villains. Literary devices such as suspense, red herrings, and cliffhangers are used extensively.
Thrillers often take place wholly or partly in exotic settings such as foreign cities, deserts, polar regions, or high seas. The heroes in most thrillers are frequently "hard men" accustomed to danger: law enforcement officers, spies, soldiers, seamen, or pilots. However, they may also be ordinary citizens drawn into danger by accident. While such heroes have traditionally been men, women have become increasingly common.
Thrillers often overlap with mystery stories, but are distinguished by the structure of their plots. In a thriller, the hero must thwart the plans of an enemy, rather than uncover a crime that has already happened. Thrillers also occur on a much grander scale: the crimes that must be prevented are serial or mass murder, terrorism, assassination, or the overthrow of governments. Jeopardy and violent confrontations are standard plot elements. While a mystery climaxes when the mystery is solved; a thriller climaxes when the hero finally defeats the villain, saving his own life and often the lives of others. In thrillers influenced by film noir and tragedy, the compromised hero is often killed in the process.
In recent years, when thrillers have been increasingly influenced by horror or psychological-horror exposure in pop culture, an ominous or monstrous element has become common to heighten tension. The monster could be anything, even an inferior physical force made superior only by their intellect ( as in the Saw movies), a supernatural entity (Dracula, Christine books, The Amityville Horror, Ringu films), aliens (H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos books), serial killers (Halloween film series, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre films and Psycho), or even microbes or chemical agents (Cabin Fever, Richard Matheson's The Last Man On Earth, 28 days later). Some authors have made their mark by incorporating all of these elements (Richard Laymon, F. Paul Wilson) throughout their bibliographies.
Similar distinctions separate the thriller from other overlapping genres: adventure, spy, legal, war, maritime fiction, and so on. Thrillers are defined not by their subject matter but by their approach to it. Many thrillers involve spies and espionage, but not all spy stories are thrillers. The spy novels of John LeCarre, for example, explicitly and intentionally reject the conventions of the thriller. Conversely, many thrillers cross over to genres that traditionally have had few or no thriller elements. Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes, and Brian Callison are best known for their thrillers, but are also accomplished writers of man-against-nature sea stories.
Thrillers may be defined by the primary mood that they exhibit: excitement. In short, if it thrills, it is a thriller.
The thriller genre can include the following sub-genres, which may include elements of other genres:
- Spy thrillers (also a subgenre of spy fiction), in which the hero is generally a government agent who must take violent action against agents of a rival government or (in recent years) terrorists. Examples include From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming, The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum, and television series such as Mission: Impossible and 24 (the second demonstrating a break from the norm by Robert Ludlum, as it is as much a psychological thriller as a spy thriller.)
- Political thrillers, in which the hero must ensure the stability of the government that employs him. The success of Seven Days in May (1962) by Fletcher Knebel and The Day of the Jackal (1971) by Frederick Forsyth established this subgenre.
- Military Thrillers, in which the hero is typically a uniformed military officer operating behind enemy lines alone or as part of a small team of specialists. The Guns of Navarone by Alistair MacLean is a well-known example of the type, as are films such as Solo Voyage, The Dirty Dozen and Rambo.
- Conspiracy thrillers, in which the hero confronts a large, powerful group of enemies whose true extent only he recognizes. The work of Robert Ludlum, for example The Chancellor Manuscript and The Aquitane Progression, falls into this category, as do films such as Three Days of the Condor and JFK.
- Technothrillers, in which technology is prominently described and made essential to the reader's understanding of the plot. Michael Crichton and Tom Clancy are both considered to be the "Fathers of the Technothriller."
- Eco-thrillers, an emerging sub-genreTemplate:Fact in which the protagonist must avert or rectify an environmental or biological calamity - often in addition to dealing with the usual types of enemies or obstacles present in other thriller genres. This environmental component often forms a central message or theme of the story. Examples include Nicholas Evans' The Loop, C. George Muller's Echoes in the Blue, and Wilbur Smith's Elephant Song, all of which highlight real-life environmental issues.
- Erotic Thrillers, Film sub-genre which consists of erotica and thriller and had become popular since the 1980s and the rise of VCR market penetration. The genre includes such films as Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and In the Cut.
- Legal Thrillers, in which the lawyer-heroes confront enemies outside, as well as inside, the courtroom and are in danger of losing not only their cases but their lives. The Pelican Brief by John Grisham is a well known example of the type.
- Forensic Thrillers , in which the heroes are forensic experts whose involvement with an unsolved crime puts their lives at risk. Balefire by Ken Goddard and Red Dragon by Thomas Harris are examples, as is Harris's later The Silence of the Lambs.
- Psychological thrillers, in which (until the often violent resolution) conflict between the main characters is mental and emotional rather than physical. The Alfred Hitchcock films Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, and Strangers on a Train and David Lynch's bizarre and influential Blue Velvet are notable examples of the type, as is The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote Strangers).
- Horror thriller, in which conflict between the main characters is mental, emotional, and physical. Two recent examples of this include the Saw series of films and the Danny Boyle film 28 Days Later. What sets the Horror Thriller apart is the main element of fear throughout the story. The main characters are not only up against a superior force in the form of a monster or monsters, but they are or will soon become the victims themselves and directly feel the fear that comes by attracting the monster's attention.
- Disaster thriller, in which the main conflict is due to some sort of natural or artificial disaster such as floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanoes etc., or nuclear disasters as an artificial disaster. Examples include Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen, Earthquake (1974 film), Tremor by Winston Graham.
- Serial killer thrillers
- Romantic thrillers
- Supernatural thrillers, in which the conflict is between main characters, usually one of which has supernatural powers. Carrie by Stephen King and Unbreakable by M. Night Shyamalan are notable examples of this genre. This type of thriller combines tension of the regular thriller with such basic horror oriented ingredients as ghosts, the occult and psychic phenomenon, the supernatural thriller combines these with a frightening but often restrained film. They also generally eschew the more graphic elements of the horror film in favor of sustaining a mood of menace and unpredictability, supernatural thrillers often find the protagonists either battling a malevolent paranormal force or trapped in a situation seemingly influenced or controlled by an otherworldly entity beyond their comprehension.
- Action thrillers, which often feature a race against the clock, lots of violence and an obvious antagonist. These films usually contain a large amount of guns, explosions, and large elaborate set pieces for the action to take place. These films often have elements of mystery films and crime films, but these elements take a backseat to action.
- Crime thrillers are a hybrid type of both crime films and thrillers that offer a suspenseful account of a successful or failed crime or crimes. These films often focus on the criminal(s) rather than a policeman. Crime thrillers usually emphasize action over psychological aspects. Central topics of these films include murders, robberies, chases, shootouts and double-crosses are central ingredients. Some examples include The Killing, Seven, Reservoir Dogs, and The Asphalt Jungle.
- Most thrillers are formed in some combination of the above, with horror, conspiracy and psychological tricks used most commonly to heighten tension. Combinations are highly diverse, including:
Fiction and literature
Homer's Odyssey is one of the oldest stories in the Western world and is regarded as an early prototype of the thriller.Template:Fact The hero Odysseus makes a perilous voyage home after the Trojan War, battling extraordinary hardships in order to be reunited with his wife Penelope. He has to contend with villains such as the Cyclops, a one-eyed giant, and the Sirens, whose sweet singing lures sailors to their doom. In most cases, Odysseus uses cunning instead of brute force to overcome his adversaries.
The Count of Monte Cristo is a swashbuckling revenge thriller about a man named Edmond Dantès who is betrayed by his friends and sent to languish in the notorious Château d'If. His only companion is an old man who teaches him everything from philosophy to mathematics to swordplay. Just before the old man dies, he reveals to Dantès the secret location of a great treasure. Shortly after, Dantès engineers a daring escape and uses the treasure to reinvent himself as the Count of Monte Cristo. Thirsting for vengeance, he sets out to punish those who destroyed his life.
Dracula is a gothic supernatural thriller told in the first person (diaries, letters, newspaper clippings). A young Englishman named Jonathan Harker travels to the Carpathian Mountains to meet a client named Count Dracula. But when the Count shows his horrifying true colours, Harker barely escapes with his life. The Count soon arrives in England, bringing with him death and menace. Harker and his terrified friends are forced to turn to Dr. Van Helsing, who uses modern science to battle ancient superstition.
Heart of Darkness is a first-person within a first-person account about a man named Marlowe who travels up the Congo River in search of an enigmatic Belgian trader named Kurtz. Layer by layer, the atrocities of the human soul and man's inhumanity to man are peeled away. Marlowe finds it increasingly difficult to tell where civilization ends and where barbarism begins.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre is set in the world of Cold War espionage and helped to usher in an era of more realistic thriller fiction, based around professional spies and the battle of wits between rival spymasters.
The Bourne Identity is one of the first thrillers to be written in the modern style that we know today. A man with gunshot wounds is found floating unconscious in the Mediterranean Sea. Brought ashore and nursed back to health, he wakes up with amnesia. Fiercely determined to uncover the secrets of his past, he embarks on a quest that sends him spiraling into a web of violence and deceit. He is astounded to learn that knowledge of hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and tradecraft seem to come naturally to him.
First Blood is widely considered to be the father of the modern action novel. A young Vietnam veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, encounters an older sheriff who is a Korean War veteran. When the sheriff tries to drive him out of town, a version of the Vietnam War erupts in the woods, hills, and caves of rural Kentucky. This becomes not only a clash of generations, but also a clash between conventional and guerrilla warfare.
Novelists closely associated with the genre include Robert Ludlum, Eric Ambler, David Morrell, Andy McNab, Frederick Forsyth, Dan Brown, James Phelan, Ted Bell, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child, Ian Fleming, Ken Follett, and Alistair MacLean.
The Bourne Identity was adapted to a movie starring Matt Damon which used many of the thriller conventions of the plot. Though its sequels, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, depart significantly from Ludlum's storyline, the conspiracy-thriller genre is still well-preserved.
The Manchurian Candidate is a classic of Cold War paranoia. A squad of American soldiers are kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists. False memories are implanted, along with a subconscious trigger that turns them into assassins at a moment's notice. They are soon reintegrated into American society as sleeper agents. One of them, Major Bennett Marco, senses that not all is right, setting him on a collision course with his former comrade, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, who is close to being activated as an assassin.
Phone Booth is a thriller about a selfish man trapped in a phone booth by a deranged sniper. Framed for the murder of a pimp, he finds himself surrounded by police who have no idea of the sniper's presence.
Ronin is a suspenseful tale of conflicting loyalties. A team of post-Cold War mercenaries gather in France to carry out an ambush and steal a mysterious suitcase. The mission goes awry when the group turn on each other. The contents of the suitcase are never revealed but it is something worth killing for.
Notable thrillers that have made an impact both as novels and as films include Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and successive Jack Ryan stories, Thomas Harris' The Silence of the Lambs and related novels, Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park and Congo, and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.
There have been at least two television series called simply Thriller, one made in the US in the 1960s and one made in the UK in the 1970s. Although in no way linked, both series consisted of one-off dramas, each utilising the familiar motifs of the genre.
24 is a fast-paced television series with a premise inspired by the War on Terror. Each season takes place over the course of twenty-four hours, with each episode happening in "real time". Featuring a split-screen technique and a ticking onscreen clock, 24 follows the exploits of Federal agent Jack Bauer as he races to foil terrorist threats.
Lost, which deals with the survivors of a plane crash, sees the castaways on the island forced to deal with a monstrous being that appears as a cloud of black smoke, a conspiracy of "Others" who have kidnapped or killed their fellow castaways at various points, a shadowy past of the island itself that they are trying to understand, polar bears, and the fight against the elements as they struggle simply to stay alive.
Prison Break follows Michael Scofield, an engineer who has himself incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in order to break out his brother, who is on death row for a crime he didn't commit. In the first season Michael must deal with the hazards of prison life, the other inmates and prison staff, and executing his elaborate escape plan, while outside the prison Michael's allies investigate the conspiracy that led to Lincoln being framed. In the second season, Michael, his brother and several other inmates escape the prison and must evade the nationwide manhunt for their re-capture, as well as those who want them dead.
Thrillers have also made the leap from television to film, including the Mission: Impossible franchise.
- Horror thriller
- List of thriller authors
- List of thriller films
- Conspiracy thriller
- Spy fiction
- International Thriller Writers