A popular film genre that has seldom received much respectful attention from critics and scholars is the romantic drama. Such “women’s films” were a mainstay during Hollywood’s golden age of the 1930s and ’40s, as female stars such as Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Kay Francis, Joan Crawford, and Jane Wyman performed in a steady stream of such films, including classics or near-classics such as Camille, Jezebel, Romeo and Juliet, Dark Victory, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Magnificent Obsession, and All That Heaven Allows.
Since the 1950s, however, the romantic drama has not fared well, and in recent years such films have been saddled with increasingly bizarre and distracting plot devices, as USA Today critic John Elliott notes in his aptly titled article “Five Ridiculous Romantic Movie Premises.” Elliott notes tomorrow’s theatrical release of If I Stay marks the appearance of another weird romantic drama premise—in this case, a young woman in a coma caused by an automobile accident must decide whether to live on with her boyfriend or die to be with her family, who were killed in the accident.
It’s far from the first such amped-up premise for this type of film in the current century, he notes, citing What Women Want, Sliding Doors, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lake House, and Kate and Leopold. I’ve seen only three of those films, and they are indeed head-scratchers, making one wonder why the filmmakers thought the bizarre supernatural premises were necessary or even advisable. The article is worth reading for the comical details.
Elliott largely just has fun with the premise, however, and doesn’t attempt to explain why romantic dramas have resorted to such weird, high-concept ideas. (As is surely his prerogative.) One obvious factor is that high-concept films are still an important trend in the industry, as superhero films, insane comedies, and spectacularly violent crime/action films rule the box office. Filmgoers seem to require a grand, operatic concept if they are to be drawn away from their computers and smartphones into the theaters—although it can’t all be blamed on technology, as the predilection for high-concept cinema has ebbed and flowed regularly since the 1970s.
It’s clear that the genre is a rather difficult one to do well, as the central romantic couple is usually kept apart by circumstances, and the latter typically have to be somewhat dire in order to be convincing in keeping the couple apart. Hence the classics of the genre often inflicted terrible illnesses or disabilities on one member of the couple, depicted powerful social strictures against the union, or imposed serious financial or psychological impediments on the couple.
The difficulty is to make these obstacles sufficiently powerful while keeping them plausible. It is in the latter respect that today’s romantic dramas tend to stumble. Comedies can pile on the absurdities because they don’t depend as greatly on plausibility. Successful drama, however, requires intense audience identification with the film’s characters, and such identification is undermined by overblown, bizarre plot devices.
A sensed difficulty in finding plausible obstacles to marriage may be why today’s romantic dramas are so inclined toward florid concepts: social strictures against pretty much any kind of romantic union are basically nonexistent, and the financial strictures of today are nothing like those of the 1930s through the 1950s. Moreover, marriage itself has come undone with governments’ imposition of no-fault divorce, which undermines the reliability of every marriage for each party, thus making the stakes of a romantic drama less important. In addition, major strides have been made against infectious diseases and other possible impediments to marital happiness. As a result, filmmakers intent on creating romantic dramas increasingly turn to supernatural problems, as the latter pose more significant obstacles than more common current-day worries such as whether to have the wedding on a tropical island or in a quaint small town one will rent for the day.
It might appear that the romantic drama is simply not sustainable in the present day, given the happy circumstance that the obstacles to marital unions are much diminished from earlier times. Yet that is surely not the case, as it is by no means uncommon today for circumstances to stand in the way of couples’ forming and staying together, just as in the past. Indeed, there are new impediments and worries, such as the need to balance dual careers and the raising of children. In addition, classic concerns such as rivals and misunderstandings still arise and are highly plausible plot devices with which audiences can surely identify.
What it will take for the romantic drama to become a respectable genre once again is for filmmakers to take the formation of a couple seriously as a matter of real import. Marriage and the possibility of raising children can be the fulfillment of a great longing in the human heart, and a couple’s attempt to achieve that is in itself a sufficiently serious matter to make for great drama. The key to rescuing the romantic drama is simply for filmmakers to take romantic love and marriage seriously again and trust that audiences will identify with realistic (even if slightly melodramatic) problems and situations. The tragedy of the high-concept romantic dramas of today is the disdain they show for the audience’s intelligence and ability to sympathize with others. We should hope that these filmmakers are wrong about that.