Examples of Verbal Irony in Film

For all you Gen X’ers or 1990s enthusiasts, do you remember this song 🎵🎵🎵

There’s a section that goes like this:Mr. Play It Safe was afraid to fly

He packed his suitcase and kissed his kids goodbye

He waited his whole damn life to take that flight

And as the plane crashed down, he thought

“Well, isn’t this nice?”

And isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

As the plane comes crashing down, I certainly don’t think he meant it literally when the man said “Well, isn’t this nice?” 

And this leads us into today’s topic in hand 👉

Verbal irony occurs typically in dialogues between characters or their inner selves when they say the opposite of what they truly mean. 

For instance, say a character had a torrid day at work. Nothing went right for him, it was a series of mishaps and trouble no matter what he did. 

When quizzed by another character how his day went, he replies, “It was the best day of my life!” Surely, he didn’t enjoy that day. He doesn’t mean it. It’s a witty way of saying it was terrible.

And this example illustrates what was going on with the man in Alanis Morissette’s song.

Sarcasm versus verbal irony – one and the same?

Sarcasm and verbal irony can be one and the same in certain instances. The two are often confused but it’s not always the case that verbal irony turns out to be sarcasm. 

Sarcasm typically involves mockery or criticism of a particular individual. Verbal irony doesn’t always have this element. It’s not always intended to mock or hurt a singular character, unlike sarcasm. 

Verbal irony pokes fun at a general situation or mocks/criticizes the speaker himself. Most of the time, it targets ironic situations, and the characters saying the opposite of how that situation makes them feel. 

Though verbal irony can also be sarcastic.

❓ So what is the purpose of verbal irony in film anyway? 

For one, it adds depth to characters’ conversations and is great for character development. It spruces up everyday language to make it more appealing to the audience. 

Verbal irony can also be implored for comedic purposes to liven up what would otherwise be dull conversations between characters.  

Examples of verbal irony in modern cinema

Dr. Strangelove and the iconic quote that made it famous

Dr. Strangelove is a dark humor flick satirizing the Cold War and the growing uneasiness between the US and the USSR. It is a highly acclaimed film whose aesthetic, historical, and cultural significance earned it a place in the National Film Registry.

One of its memorable scenes occurs in the War Room bunker. Important figures are meeting to discuss the nuclear crisis on their hands among other issues. 

The scene starts out with a dialogue between Pres. Muffley and two others.

The irony that made Dr. Strangelove a classic

The Soviet Ambassador and General Turgidson are in a heated argument with each other. Turgidson isn’t too impressed with the ambassador’s assessment of the Premier of the USSR. He views the sentiments as threats and throws in a couple of insults of his own.  

The president walks away from the conversation, his attention lured by an intriguing finding. When the camera comes back to the pair, they’ve gone full-on WWE on each. Turgidson and his attacker are now wrestling on a bench when the president quickly walks up to them.

“Gentlemen. You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!” the president reprimands, breaking up the fight in the most hilarious fashion. 

Why can’t they fight in there? Because it’s the war room! A room built for the very purposes of war yet two people squaring out their differences in fistful fashion are stopped from fighting? No fair!

2017 animation adaptation, Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a popular fairytale about a village girl who falls in love with a hideous creature. The beast was once a handsome prince called Gaston who was the envy of all. Unlike his looks, the prince’s habits were far from pleasing. 

Here is the trailer:

Summary of scene

He was rude and couldn’t care less about the plight of others. Hence a witch cursed him into a beast when he turned her, disguised as an old beggar, away. Bella (beauty), on the other hand, was the exact opposite. She would go out of her way for others, was kind, and generally a really nice person to be around. Everybody loved her.

So in the scene where Bella tells the Beast, “I just don’t deserve you” we clearly see the verbal irony at play. The latter had just kidnapped Bella’s father. 

In exchange for his release, he accepts Bella’s forced stay at his castle. He was not a good person at this point in the film. Most of his actions were self-serving. Bella didn’t really think she was unworthy of him. It was obvious she just didn’t want to marry him at this point.

The audience knows it is in fact Gaston who is not deserving of Bella. His personality is off-putting. He takes what he wants without regard for others, and he couldn’t be more undeserving of her love.

The 1982 dramedy, Annie

Annie is set in the recent years after the Great Depression. A young orphan, Annie, takes up accommodation at NY’s Hudson St. home. 

Here’s the trailer for the film:

Verbal irony in Annie

The caretaker Miss Hannigan is anything but caring. She drinks a lot and often takes it out on the orphans in the home. 

Every day she makes all the children take up strenuous cleaning chores beyond their capacity. Throughout the film, Miss Hannigan is portrayed as one of the cruelest people you’ll ever meet. The children are visibly uncomfortable in her presence, terrified by her threats and punishments.

In one scene, the orphans hide a dog in their room, knowing it would cause immense trouble if found. When Miss Hannigan walks in, Annie is caught unsuccessfully trying to hide the animal under a pile of sheets. 

The other girls are in a flurry to recreate a deceptive air of normalcy. As the caretaker walks up to her, Annie says, “I love you Miss Hannigan,” to which she replies, “And you will love the paddle closet.” She uncovers the dog behind Annie, turns to it, and dragging it by its ear says, “And this will love the sausage factory.”

It is clear from this dialogue what kind of person Miss Hannigan is, and why it would be hard for anyone to care for her. Annie doesn’t actually love Miss Hannigan, and they both know it. She is cruel and feared by all of the girls. Miss Hannigan knows that the false declaration of love is only a ruse to divert her attention and she doesn’t fall for it.

Verbal irony makes for witty dialogue

When you make a film, you’ll need to create compelling dialogue. 

Avoid on-the-nose.

Strive for subtext!

The best way to do that is through witty dialogue and characters who are masters of verbal irony.

In the HBO show Game of Thrones, one of the most memorable characters is Tyrion Lannister. On the surface, he’s nothing but a dwarf with mismatched eyes and walks like a penguin.

But the tongue on that one! Here are his most witty moments:

Modern cinema has many examples of verbal irony. And it will continue to do so. It’s a great way to make memorable characters and plot points in any movie or TV show.

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