Irony is generally the difference between what actually happens and what was implied, said or thought was going to happen.
It is an important filmmaking technique. Writers use it for comedic effect sometimes.
Alternatively, irony sets the mood for an atmosphere of suspense so that scenes play out more enthrallingly. There are typically three types of irony when it comes to film. That encompasses verbal, situational and dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony occurs when something is unknown to a character yet it is revealed to the audience. Viewers see the scene play out while the character could be none the wiser.
The audience is provided with some information to this effect. They know more about the situation because of it, unlike the unsuspecting characters.
A popular example of dramatic irony would be a horror film where a character is watching TV unaware that a killer is prowling around the house, having broken in earlier.
The entire franchise is wrought with dramatic irony. It is the reason the film became so popular at a time when monster movies were coming into their own. The series is basically about protagonists battling it out with sharks in a plotline filled with dread and life-threatening scenes.
Throughout the movies, there are several moments where the audience is alerted to the creature’s presence. The characters meanwhile have absolutely no clue.
Dramatic irony in this case creates the perfect heart-in-mouth hook for the series. We root for the characters to get out of harm’s way, to get out of the water, but sadly, they can’t hear us.
And that’s the power of dramatic irony. It captivates the audience and makes them a part of the movie.
The famous beach scene in the first Jaws movie is a perfect example of dramatic irony. It is a wonderful sunny day at the beach. People are basking in the sand and others making merry in the water. A girl screams out her body half submerged.
The lifeguard’s attention is drawn to the situation. It turns outs to be a false alarm as a playful couple are simply having fun. Everything’s perfectly alright and the movie goes on to set the blissful tone for a couple moments more.
As the camera shifts below the water, the mood drastically changes. Eerie music plays, implying that a sinister presence lurks below, away from the attention and view of those having the time of their life above. The audience knows what’s going to happen.
We see the shark prowling for the lunch but the swimmers do not. We hold our breath as we wait for the monster to strike. It eventually does, and the situation turns into chaos and panic.
The “master of suspense” is famous for his penchant of dramatic irony. He uses it plenty of times to build and harness suspense in many of his films. The most famous instance would have to be the shower scene in the 1960 horror-thriller psycho.
Marion Crane runs off with her employer’s money and some bad weather leads her to spend the night at the Bates Motel. She decides to return the money the following day after dinner with the owners.
She opts for a shower after as if to cleanse herself from her wrong doing. Unknown to her, it will be the last shower she ever takes.
As the evening plays out, viewers are altered to the uninvited presence watching her through the walls. Marion doesn’t suspect a thing or feel that she is in any way in danger. The audience knows something bad is about to happen.
That is confirmed when we see a figure lurking menacingly behind the shower curtains as Mario is going about her business. The figure poses for a brief moment and by the time Mario notices what’s going on, it’s too late.
Our next example of dramatic irony is in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 crime-thriller, The Rope. The entire movie is in fact built upon dramatic irony. It begins with the murder of Tony who is stashed inside a chest.
A party is expected in the same venue and this chest doubles up as the dinner table. The guests are all waiting on David’s arrival, unaware that he is dead and his body hidden right there with them. The audience knows this. The information consequently creates an air of tension as viewers dread the chilling discovery.
This musical fantasy animation is based on Greek mythology and the hero after whom it is titled. Hercules is the son of Zeus, the ruler of Mount Olympus and its deities. The movie begins with the gods celebrating the birth of Hercules.
All are happy but one. Hades seeks Zeus’ throne for himself and a prophesy reveals that Hercules will be the one who stops him. The ruler of the underworld hatches a plot to kill the baby.
He sends his demons, Pain and Panic, with orders to kidnap young Hercules and kill him. They make him drink a potion that would strip him of all his powers so Hercules can be mortal.
The potion comes with strict instructions to have the baby drink “every last drop” else it won’t work. Startled by a passerby couple, the minions leave thinking themselves successful.
As the bottle breaks while they flea, we see that to not be the case as a little bit of portion drops to the ground. They later return to complete the mission but Hercules overpowers both with his god-like strength. The two decide against a second round and return to the underworld.
The second instance of dramatic irony in the same film comes when the two demons report back to their boss. Instructed to administer the potion and then kill him right after, Panic and Pain don’t report their failure to Hades, fearing his wrath. The latter in turn thinks Hercules is dead and puts his plan into action.
Shakespeare is one of the masters of irony in literature. Moreover, some of his most famous plays employ dramatic irony. For example —
👉 In Othello, Othello suspects Desdemona has committed infidelity and cannot be trusted. Yet the readers know the opposite is true. Desdemona has been loyal to Othello.
👉 In Macbeth, Macbeth shows loyalty to Duncan. However, the reader knows full well Macbeth intends to betray Duncan and take his crown.
In modern times, the show (as well as in the books) Game of Thrones rely heavily on dramatic irony. In fact, the most memorable moments occur as a result of dramatic irony.
👉 Theon Greyjoy announces to the world that he has killed the Bran and Rickon, leaving Robb as the last male line of House Stark. But the audience learns it’s a lie. Bran and Rickon are alive and well. Theon’s untruth contributes to the Red Wedding, as the Boltons seize the opportunity to usurp the Starks by killing Robb.
👉 The Southern kings (except Stannis) ignore the pleas of the Night’s Watch. Thus, they underestimate the danger presented by the Wildlings and the Others. The audience know this as they follow Jon’s travels beyond the wall and the introduction of the Night King.
Dramatic irony has been in storytelling, since…. Well, since storytelling began. It will continue to be a staple to create tension, subtext and above all…
It creates entertaining narratives that make us sit, watch and listen. At the end of the day, that’s what filmmakers and screenwriters are paid to do — entertain!
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