For many moviegoers, escapist fare like “Indiana Jones” come to mind as far as the adventure genre is concerned. However, when interviewed about the best in adventure flicks, CSU film studies professors Dr. Scott Diffrient and Dr. Hye Seung Chung reveal a complex genre history.
Diffrient said he is a fan of the earlier, studio system-era films of the 1930s and 1940s, and so his favorite adventure pieces are the likes of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Captains Courageous.”
“Most of the adventure films at this time were literary adaptations,” Diffrient said. “Charles Dickens was in especially high demand because of the exotic locales and heroic journeys in his stories.”
According to Diffrient, action and adventure are not the same thing, since action puts more emphasis on explosions and spectacular special effects whereas adventure involves exploration and journeys, such as Errol Flynn’s high-sea pirate escapades and Charlton Heston’s 1950s epics.
“These are roguish, male characters, but they still rely more on their brains than they do on their muscle,” Diffrient said. “Adventure privileges narrative over pure spectacle.”
It is more of a cycle than a genre, falling in and out of favor with audiences, according to Diffrient. Though modern comic book superhero adaptations are action movies, they are adapted with throwbacks to adventure serials, Diffrient said.
“Dramatic narratives like AMC’s ‘Breaking Bad’ are vicarious experiences for a lot of people,” Diffrient said. “Adventure is externalized. It is the exact opposite of melodrama, which is internalized into safe, familiar settings.”
Diffrient said that even though melodrama has disappeared after its heyday in the 1950s and degeneration into soap operas, adventure has been around since George Melies’s “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902, the dawn of cinema, and has never fully gone away.
This article was produced by College Avenue Magazine.
According to Chung, who also favors classical Hollywood swashbucklers like “The Black Swan” over more recent releases, the adventure genre is problematic in its representations of women and minorities.
To prove her point, Chung cited as examples Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” and “North by Northwest.” Chung said that IMDB does not list “The Lady Vanishes,” with its female protagonist, as adventure, regardless of the plot’s transcontinental expedition.
“Male protagonists make adventure,” Chung said, “like 007.”
Another adventure text is “Lawrence of Arabia,” which, much like James Bond, is an imperialistic storyline that orientalizes its locations by having a white man enter new territories in search of new experiences, according to Chung.
“’Lawrence of Arabia’ is almost homoerotic with its male-to-male dynamics and bonding,” Chung said. “There are no women, except for one scene with nuns.”
A higher quality example of adventure is the stoner comedy “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” Chung said. Instead of a minority sidekick, both main characters are Asian Americans, and White Castle for them is as elusive as the American Dream.
“It goes to show that mainstream genre films can have commentaries for large audiences,” Chung said.
Whatever the classification, adventure shows provide adrenaline rushes for their viewers over and over again.