Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 45, November 2003



John S. Vassar


A Universal Narrative?:

Ari Hiltunen's _Aristotle in Hollywood_



Ari Hiltunen

_Aristotle in Hollywood: The Anatomy of Successful Story-Telling_

Bristol, England: Intellect Books, 2002

ISBN 1-84150-060-7

143 pp.


Ari Hiltunen's _Aristotle in Hollywood_ is an effort to integrate a classical understanding of narrative structure with successful storytelling in the media of film, literature, and television. The book is the third title in a series by Intellect called 'Studies in Scriptwriting', the goal of which is to combine 'the academic with the vocational' (vii). Hiltunen's background is as an Acquisition Executive for the Finnish Broadcasting Company. His vocation is significant because it depends in part upon his ability to discern and identify stories capable of capturing the attention and imagination of the viewer. From this position, he has likely seen numerous examples of both good and bad storytelling. In this helpful text, Hiltunen explores the essential elements of successful storytelling, and seeks to find a program of good storytelling by examining ancient and contemporary writers who have studied narrative in various contexts. Hiltunen's goal is to describe (as the subtitle reads) 'the anatomy of successful story-telling'.


Hiltunen explores several different tracks of the development of story, and focuses primarily upon three different students of narrative. First, he examines the conception of narrative and 'proper pleasure' as expressed by Aristotle. Second, he utilizes the study of common narrative themes in fairy tales by Russian folklorist Vladimer Propp. And third, he uses the studies of the American Joseph Campbell to trace the hero's journey throughout myth and time. That is not to suggest that Hiltunen explores these three narratologists equally. As the title indicates, he spends the lion's share of his book working though Aristotle's view of successful narrative. For his conception of Aristotelian narrative structure, Hiltunen uses Aristotle's _Poetics_, and identifies three terms within it that are integral to Aristotle's understanding of proper pleasure in a narrative. These terms are fear ('phobo'), pity ('eleos'), and 'catharsis'.


By fear, Hiltunen understands Aristotle to refer to the 'anticipation of evil, anxiety and unrest' caused by impending danger (8). The viewer experiences this fear whenever the hero of the story is threatened. It is important for proper pleasure that the viewer of the story identifies with the threatened character. If we identify with the character, Hiltunen argues, we empathize with them, even as we experience their danger from the relative safety of our couch of theater chair. The second element of Aristotle's aesthetic is pity. Pity is the emotion created in the viewer that accompanies the injustice or undeserved suffering which afflicts the characters in a story. Thus pity occurs when the character in a narrative actually experiences chaos or dangerous events. Fear and pity are therefore closely related. Fear anticipates danger and threats to the hero while pity occurs afterwards. The final element of Aristotle's conception of narrative is catharsis. For Aristotle, catharsis is the feeling produced in the viewer upon the release of pity and fear. Because of its sequential nature, catharsis must always follow pity and fear. If the audience has identified with the character through the experiences of pity and fear, then a sense of relief and catharsis will accompany the resolution of the threat against them. It is at this stage of the narrative that the viewer receives pleasure from the viewing experience. For Hiltunen, pity, fear, and catharsis form the basic building blocks of good narrative. The goal of the author of a text or film should therefore be to create a situation where these three items are apprehended and experienced by the audience. Each of these elements are essential to crafting a successful narrative.


In Chapter 3, after his completion of these basic building blocks, Hiltunen then turns to the question of how writers shape and form these blocks into the essence of a 'good, complex plot' (15). Just as Aristotle had three elements to the proper pleasure, so Hiltunen also conceives of a tripartite division of good plot. In this chapter he explores these three essential elements: recognition ('anagnorisis'), reversal ('peripeteia'), and suffering ('pathos').


By recognition, Aristotle means the superior point of view available to the viewer, but inaccessible to the character in the plot. By recognizing the impending crisis, the perspective of the audience enhances the natural feelings of pity and fear. According to Hiltunen, recognition is the means by which suspense is created. Suspense depends upon the audience's superior vantage point. The second element, reversal, is the key moment in the movement of the plot in which a 'sudden turn of action or change of fortune' occurs (15). Even in contemporary discussions of plot, we refer to a 'plot twist' that moves the story along a new trajectory. Ideally, says Hiltunen, recognition and reversal occur at precisely the same moment. Such a double realization will have a striking effect upon the viewer. The final element of a good plot is suffering. Suffering develops due to the recognition of the approaching calamity that will beset the character of a story. Suffering is linked inextricably to hope. While the viewer recognizes the suffering of the character, the viewer holds out hope that somehow the impending calamity will be avoidable.


Following his outline of the essential elements of 'proper pleasure' and of a good plot, Hiltunen explores how these elements are constructed in many diverse narratives. He begins his examination of the essential elements of plot by considering Shakespeare. He briefly summarizes _Othello_ and _Macbeth_ according to the schema he developed earlier. He then examines in greater detail the tragedy of _Romeo and Juliet_, attempting to discern Aristotle's schematic in Shakespeare's work. Hiltunen's conclusion is that in these texts, Shakespeare's approach confirms Aristotle's conception of proper pleasure.


Following his brief explication of Shakespeare, Hiltunen turns to the folklorist Vladimir Propp for assistance in moving beyond Aristotle to an exploration of universal elements in various forms of storytelling. In this section, Hiltunen uses the familiar tale of _Cinderella_ as evidence that there are certain themes and stories that are universal. Propp finds thirty-one elements common to a world-wide assortment of stories and fairy-tales. To illustrate the common pattern discerned by Propp, Hiltunen explores how _Cinderella_ encompasses several of these essential plot points.


Hiltunen then turns from literature to entertainment in general, and examines the physiological responses generated by good stories upon the brain. He examines why sports are so entertaining in a wide variety of settings. He uses various psychological studies that illustrate the fact that sports are more entertaining when there are storylines behind the simple action on the pitch or court. Just as proper pleasure can be induced by a good storyline, so it can also come about by the background between two competitors. Thus Hiltunen uses sports to reinforce his construction of suffering, recognition, and reversal.


In his last chapter on methodology, Hiltunen examines Joseph Campbell's discussion of the essential elements of the hero's journey. The mythical journey of the hero encompasses ten stages that move the narrative along. Hiltunen describes how this approach guides the stories of three successful Hollywood movies: _Star Wars_, _The Fugitive_, and _Ghost_. Hiltunen then leaves film and focuses upon how proper pleasure can be discerned in a variety of media. First he discusses the novel _The Firm_ as an example of contemporary literature. He then examines television, citing an episode of the American show _ER_ as an example. He also explores the detective and situation comedy genres. Lastly, Hiltunen examines the portability of Aristotelian conventions to the reaches of cyberspace. He examines the success of the video gaming industry and cites games as diverse as _Doom_, _Final Fantasy VII_ and _Myst_. Hiltunen avers that each of these games again reinforce his initial explication of Aristotle's bare elements of a narrative. At the end of his work, Hiltunen makes some effort to focus upon the future of storytelling. In this final section, he argues that future stories will be experienced rather than simply portrayed. Interaction will become more and more a necessary element for stories. Imagination will surpass information as a quantifiable (and therefore commercial) resource.


In _Aristotle in Hollywood_ I think that Hiltunen has constructed a highly readable and much needed introduction into basic storytelling. His work intentionally bestrides both the practical and the theoretical. The result is an accessible, though still challenging work on the construction of successful stories. Hiltunen has also performed an impressive feat in incorporating storytelling in its many different media. His text explores a multiplicity of issues surrounding the construction of effective stories. He provides an accurate introduction to some of the major thinkers in the area of narratology and storytelling. Additionally, his utilization of popular forms of storytelling is helpful. His examples are widely recognized, and these common examples allow more readers to appreciate his larger points.


The book raises several important issues, and most of my concerns center on the fact that he attempts to address a multitide of films and novels in a rather slender volume of only 134 pages. It is perhaps inevitable that a book with such an impressive agenda might fall short in a few important areas. The text has three different foci, each of which are utilized in different contexts. The three areas of interest are Aristotle's approach to proper pleasure in stories, Propp's observations on common folklore elements, and Joseph Campbell's conception of the hero's mythic journey. Hiltunen could have strengthened his work by focusing upon one of these three at the expense of the others. Such an approach would have led him to studying (for instance) the specific elements of Aristotle's approach. Related to this weakness is how Hiltunen uses Propp, Campbell, and Aristotle with no effort at integrating their various approaches. I wonder how would these three converse with one another? To what extent do they overlap or contradict one another? For instance, would Campbell's ten steps of the hero's journey correspond in any way to Aristotle's emphasis upon the importance of recognition for the reader?


Second, notable for his omission is the contribution of C. J. Jung. Hiltunen's only mention of Jung appears in the penultimate chapter. Jung's conception of the archetypes of the collective unconscious seems especially applicable to Hiltunen's larger point that certain stories and mythologies transcend national and ethnic boundaries. In addition to Jung's omission, Hiltunen is especially uncritical of Aristotle's approach to narrative structure. This omission is particularly apparent when Hiltunen tries to incorporate Aristotle's (rather traditional) conception of narrative into an alien postmodern context. To take one example, if catharsis must follow pity and fear, then how would Aristotle approach contemporary films that do not follow this structure? What would be Aristotle's opinion on such non-linear popular films like _Memento_, _Pulp Fiction_ and _Run Lola, Run_?


The subtitle of the text is 'The Anatomy of Successful Story-telling'. In the _Poetics_, Aristotle argues for proper pleasure, but what of other goals for stories? Is the goal of a story to generate catharsis, to inculcate ideas, or to actuate the viewer to some other action? Is one approach more successful than another? According to Aristotle (and seconded by Hiltunen) a successful narrative derives proper pleasure. But is the mark of a good story only being able to guide the viewer through a sequence of pity, fear, and catharsis in succession? Indeed, Propp recognizes the essential power of stories to inculcate ideas from one generation to another, the pedagogical use of narrative.


By far the most innovative section of his text is Hiltunen's attempt to discern proper pleasure in cyberspace. Unfortunately, Hiltunen reads a cyber-narrative in the same way he reads other narratives. In fact, Hiltunen tends to read the progression of narrative in the same way irrespective of the medium under discussion. From his perspective, it makes no difference whether one is discussing a play (_Romeo and Juliet_), a movie (_Ghost_), a novel (_The Firm_), or a video game (_Final Fantasy VII_). The relation between author and reader is identical in each case. But such a view ignores the idiosyncrasies of each medium. For instance, the specificity of film is ignored as Hiltunen provides a flat reading of narrative. A play shares an intimacy with the audience that is alien to any type of film. In some ways, a computer game is capable of immersing the viewer into a world more completely than a television situation comedy. Hiltunen simply does not acknowledge the particularities of each of these media.


Computer gaming appears to be an area where Aristotle's approach does not quite fit. For instance, Hiltunen begins Chapter 11 by attributing the success of the video game _Doom_ to its use of narrative structure. This is an odd selection, for _Doom_ is a game noteworthy for its 'lack' of any coherent plot. The back-story provided with the game clearly exists only to get the player to the point of shooting as many monsters as possible. As Hiltunen rightly points out, the history of games successfully exported to the big screen is not very successful.


In some ways, the most important contribution of Hiltunen's work concerns the present and future of storytelling. Again it seems difficult to understand how Aristotle's views will resonate with some of the new media delivering stories. If part of the elements of proper pleasure involves the interaction with the reader, then how can the author continue to assert such things as form and structure to stories? When the narrative structure of video games and films (through focus group feedback) is shaped by the viewer instead of the author, then how does this affect Aristotle's conception of 'proper pleasure'? If the viewer decides the unfolding of the plot, then what of the Aristotelian sequence of pity and fear, followed by catharsis?


But these criticisms should be taken in the context of this work as a whole. Ari Hiltunen has performed a valuable service. Each of the above criticisms applies more to a lack of material rather than wrong material. _Aristotle in Hollywood_ makes a significant contribution to the integration of popular and theoretical approaches to storytelling. If Hiltunen's reach should exceed his grasp, at least it does so within the context of raising significant issues and looking ahead to the importance and the use of narrative in the new millennium.


Louisiana State University -- Shreveport

Louisiana, USA



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003



John S. Vassar, 'A Universal Narrative?: Ari Hiltunen's _Aristotle in Hollywood_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 45, November 2003 <>.


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