Realism In Narrative Fiction
There is no universal, all encompassing definition of realism, nor is there agreement amongst academics and film-makers as to its purpose and use. But what we can say is that there are many ‘realisms’ and these realisms share an interest in presenting some aspects of live as it is lived”. (Lay, 2002, pg.6)
This quote really helped me to understand the question in hand and what John Ellis meant when he said that there is no realism but there are realisms. In the context that I am writing in, about television drama, it means that different television dramas represent different aspects of reality and each one has its own unique function and purpose. For example, soap operas use realistic, life-like situations and issues such as divorce, death, teenage angst and relationships. These are topics that every person has had to deal with at some point in there life. Obviously the storylines on these programmes are greatly exaggerated but they can either help by showing people ways of getting through them or by showing them that their own lives are not as bad as they may think compared to those on screen. Other television dramas present other aspects of reality such as The Bill or Doctors illustrate what live is like in different institutions (i.e. the police force and a doctor’s surgery) and the struggles that they face in the professional and personal life.
To begin with I shall present and explore the views and opinions on realism of other writers that I have researched into and observe their position on Ellis’ statement that there is no one ‘realism’. In addition to this, I am going to be looking at two case studies. These studies will be regarding television dramas of different genres so that I can make comparisons between them. I will also look at how realism is used in these dramas and which theories relate to them.
Then I shall look at Desperate Housewives, which is an American drama set in a cul-de-sac in suburbia where the residents are best friends but all hide dark secrets from one another. I will review Holby City, a drama set in a British hospital that explores not only the situations and issues of the patients, but also follows on going storylines about the lives and relationships concerning the staff. I shall then do my own analysis of each drama individually and comparatively, looking at conventions and how they relate to theories of realism such as ‘British Social Realism’ and the ‘Classic Realist Text’.
John Ellis wrote about realism in his book ‘Visible Functions – cinema, television and radio’, which is where the quote in the title is cited from. In his chapter on realism he says that “…the word ‘realism’ is used to cover a whole series of ideas and expectations, some of which can conflict each other” (1992, pg.15). By this he is saying that there are so many different theories and ideas into what realism is, this means that we cannot talk about realism as having one definition because there is no one realism. Therefore we can only refer to these theories as ‘realisms’ because there is no one way of describing what is it. Ellis goes on to say how he believes that realism can often be over complicated as the word is used to describe a range of “artist construction and of audience expectation”. In his realism chapter he also talks about how it is not just a realistic portrayal of character and events that makes a television programme realistic. He says that the programme also needs “surface accuracy” and to confirm the perceptions of what an audience expects to happen within a television programme that you would be expecting from preconceived ideas and common sense. It also needs to explain itself fully to the audience to fill in the gaps of what they do not out from these preconceptions made from previous viewing. However, these aspects to programme making are not enough on their own. For example, when thinking about “surface accuracy” media producers will also need to be thinking about all features that make up this one area, such as characters costumes, settings and props. In his book Ellis talks about realism as being a way of trying to depict things as they either are or as they were. He goes on to dispute this by saying that “the demand that a representation should explain itself adequately to the audience cuts right across the desire that it should show things ‘as they were’” (1992, pg.16). By this I think that he is saying that an adequate representation may not necessarily show events as they were. This is because programme makers are sometimes more absorbed in making sure that a programme is entertaining to its audience than that it is a completely accurate representation. According to Ellis there are 4 ways in which realism can be used and shown. However, because of how society constantly changes and develops these descriptions will also be in need of changing so that they are more appropriate to today’s society. Programme makers are also trying to break the conventions of realism and try out new techniques and methods to create a new sense of reality and how we recognise it.
The other books that I looked in for research said very similar things about how there can be no one explanation for what realism is. In the book ‘Picture of Reality’ they talk about how knowledge is socially constructed and say that “for realism, no formal criteria can be adequate to the task of characterising scientific explanations” (Lovell, 1980, pg.17). Later on in this book they go on to talk about how people try to find patterns in realism when there really isn’t any to find.
I have also been doing some research on this topic in the book ‘Television Drama – realism, modernism and British culture’. In this book John Caughie talks about what he calls ‘serious drama’, which is what he refers to as a ‘scare quote’ by which he means that he uses this term just to make people realise that studying television drama is not just as simple as watching ER. By this term he means that we should look at dramas in a more cultural way and although it is a series drama, he means that it is series in ways other than just its content. He says “…’legitimate’ cultural territory within television from other areas which are legitimated by the official discourse of cultural approval” (Caughie, 2000, pg.3). In this introductory chapter to his book Caughie also talks about how we stereotype genders to certain television dramas, for example women are more associated with soap operas whereas men are seen as more likely to watch action dramas. Then, because of this we then slip into what he calls a “natural order”.
To put Ellis’ theory about how there is no one ‘realism’ into context I am going to be looking at and analysing the television drama that is Desperate Housewives (fig.1). I will be talking about what the drama is about, where it is set and the characters in it. As well as this I will be exploring how this supports the opinion of Ellis that this drama will only be representative of one type of realism and portray one aspect of live. Desperate Housewives is a drama made mainly for the purpose of entertaining its target audience. It is based around four main female characters, and narrated by a woman who used to be in their circle of friends but committed suicide in the first episode. The programme follows these women through their lives and the challenges and traumas that they face in the weekly episodes. Like a soap opera the events that take place are usually the type of situations that people are confronted with in every day live. However, the frequency of the events is exaggerated immensely in order to make the programme more appealing and entertaining to its audience. This means that Desperate Housewives both does and does not display realism, because the events and the way they and handled are realistic, yet the regularity at which they are occurring are not realistic for a setting such as the one in which this drama is situated. This location of this programme is another aspect to consider in terms of realism. By this I mean that Desperate Housewives is set in a quiet col-de-sac called Wisteria Lane (fig.2) in the fictional town of Fairview. This is another issue that could be deemed realistic or not because the town itself is not a real place, but it is realistic in the sense that it is representative of suburban towns and streets in America. Looking at even these view issues we can begin to unravel what Ellis means when he says that there can be no one definition of what realism is. This is because even in this one television drama there are many different areas that we have to look when considering if it is realistic. We cannot declare that the programme is realistic as a whole when some areas may lack in realism. In certain ways Desperate Housewives does relate to some aspects of the ‘Classic Realist Text’. I mean this is the sense that it will quite often use ‘dominant specularity’, where we as the viewer know more than the main characters. This will happen in the majority, if not all of the episodes because even though the main characters are a group of women who are best friends, they still have many secrets from each other. As the audience we are aware of everything that happens on Wisteria Lane, whereas if there is a scandalous event occurring that involves one of these women no one else will be conscious of it. Desperate Housewives also deals with some of the issues raised within ‘Social Realism’, but not in the sense that it deals with working class characters because the families are very middles class. However, in the way that it deals with contemporary issues such as homosexuality, suicide and racial issues.
I also decided to examine Ellis’ theory in relation to a different type of television drama so to make comparisons between to the two. To do this I chose to look at Casualty (fig.3), a hospital drama which is broadcast on BBC1. Casualty is the longest running medical drama (first broadcast in 1986) and it follows the lives of the staff and patients in the Accident and Emergency department at the fictional ‘Holby City’ Hospital which is located in Bristol. The programme not only concentrates on the goings on within the hospital, but also explores the private lives of the staff. It also does not only focus on the one profession of people in the hospital (i.e. the doctors), but centres around surgeons, nurses, receptionists etc (fig.4). This makes the drama seem a lot more realistic because obviously all the staff in a hospital are of equal importance. The makers show this by not having just a few main characters; instead they have many characters that get roughly the same amount of screen time and storylines each. Each episode will start off with the back story of the person, or the family of the person, who is going to be the main patient within that episode. We will see the events leading up to their incident and see how it happens. Obviously the majority of the programme is set in the hospital but we also follow to ambulance drivers when they go on call outs. This makes Casualty fit in with certain aspects of Social Realism which is often filmed on location. There are ways in which Casualty is both realistic and not. It shows good realism from a medical perspective, they manage this because they have real medical staff on set at all time to make sure that everything is represented accuracy. They also have to make sure that they always use the correct terminology and get all of the medical concepts exactly right as to make sure medically it is 100% accurate. However, similarly to Desperate Housewives, the lack of realism is down to the frequency at which events are occurring. Every week in Holby City hospital there are many more disastrous accidents and much more disease than any real life hospital would see, but again the incidents obviously all need to be exaggerated greatly to keep the audience interested in the programme. I can make a similar observation of Casualty that I did of Desperate Housewives. This is that Ellis was write in his theory that ‘there is no realism’ is correct, not only over television drama itself (that is to say that all programmes represent different aspects of reality) but in each drama individually. This becomes more and more obvious when analysing television dramas because, as I said before, there are so many elements to a drama that some could be realistic and some could not be. Therefore, event within one drama series there are what can only be described as realisms.
Both of these television dramas that I have been studying have a lot of similar conventions to those of social realism. To begin with they both deal with the contemporary issues that I mentioned before (e.g. homosexuality) in a very open way and do not try to hide this type of issues away, because that is not what we should and do act like in society. They are also contemporary in the sense that, unlike watching a film, we never know what is going to happen in the end because there is no end, and the programme makers may not even know so it is impossible for anyone else to. In addition to this, they fit the convention of being secular; an extension of real life, because they use real life situations and adapt them to entertain their target audience.
In contrast to Ellis’ views about how there are many realisms, some people do believe in ‘Anti-realism’. This theory basically says that realist theories only show the surface and that we need to question the understanding behind it. Lukacs would say that realism fails to look at underlying social structure within television dramas and that it should advance our knowledge of society by focusing more on the programmes narratives. He also goes on to say that new social realities are in need of new forms of representation to get them across to the viewer.
Although I do agree with some one the anti-realist policies and that some realist theories do need to grow with the development of society, I still think that Ellis was correct in his quote that “there is no realism, but there are realisms”. This is because in my eyes there can be no one definition of realism because every film or programme that we watch show reality it a different way.
John Caughie (2000). Television Drama – Realism, Modernism and British Culture. New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 1-8.
Samantha Lay (2002). British Social Realism – from Documentary to Brit Grit. Great Britian: Wallflower Press. Pg. 5-9.
Terry Lovell (1980). Pictures of Reality – Aesthetics, Politics and Pleasure. London: British Film Institute. Pg. 17-18.
John Ellis (1992). Visible Fictions : Cinema, Television, Video. USA: Routledge Publishing. Pg. 15-19.
R. Lapsley (1988). Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Pg. 156 – 180.