Movies that capture the essence of Greek tragedies

Published On: January 31, 2020 12:45 PM NPT By: URZA ACHARYA

Greek tragedy is an art form that reached its peak during the Greek Golden Age of the fifth century and influences literature even in the present day. Initially, tragedy was a term that was designated to a certain type of drama presented at a particular Athenian festival held in honor of the god Dionysus. In those days, plays had to follow strict guidelines to be counted as a tragedy: they were mostly characterized by seriousness and dignity and involved a great person who experienced a reversal of fortune. 

Essentially, a Greek tragedy is where a tragic hero/heroine—who otherwise is pretty moral—is ruined by one tragic flaw which brings doom to not only them but also those around them. Though the context, costumes, and plots of Greek tragedy may differ from contemporary cinema, many recent films still carry its essence, showing characters ruined by their flaws as well as other ideas like familial discourse and catastrophe that were synonymous with Greek tragedy. Here is a list of five films that have brought the essence of Greek tragedy to modern cinema.  

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane is a film about a classic tragic hero. The film which was produced, written, directed and starred by Orson Welles was released in 1941. Though the film wasn’t as successful when it was first released, it has now become an iconic piece of cinema. The film is about the life of Charles Foster Kane, an extremely wealthy newspaper publisher. At the beginning of the film, we see Kane on his deathbed all alone in his palace-like estate “Xanadu”. The story then unfolds to show us his sad and tragic life. Kane, who once had the potential to be the governor of New York, is deserted by his wife and friends because of his pride and ego. A promising youth, as Kane grows older, his fascination with fame and respect cost him his happiness and relationship. This phenomenon of a hero bringing catastrophe to himself due to pride is a common theme in Greek tragedy.

King Kong

We are, of course, talking about the 1933 classic King Kong. If one were to look deeper into the story, which directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, one can see that a Greek tragedy is unfolding at the climax of the film atop the Empire State building. In the film, we see a giant, monster-like ape show affection to a blonde actress named Ann Farrow. But really, it’s a story about two creatures, one ape and one woman, and how they develop an understanding relationship from similar circumstances. And of course, it ends with the unhappiest of ways leading to the now-iconic line, “It wasn’t the bullets, it was the beauty that killed the beast.”


Oldboy is a 2003 neo-noir South Korean film co-written and directed by Park Chan-wook. For the film, Park took inspiration from Sophocles’ tragic play “Oedipus the King”. Park’s film is constantly discussed for intense scenes of violence stemming from vengeance, but it is all grounded in the roots of Greek tragedy that makes these scenes even more powerful. The film is a story about a man named Oh Dae-su who is imprisoned for 15 years in a hotel-like prison without really knowing why. The film shows the case of reverse-Oedipus scenario. For instance, when the theme of unknown incest is revealed, Oedipus gouges his eyes out to avoid seeing a world that despises the truth, while Dae-su cuts off his tongue to avoid revealing the truth to the world. Lastly, Dae-su’s entire life is effectively ruined by one tragic flaw which is that he “talks too much”. 
The Kill

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a 2017 psychological thriller directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, based on a screenplay by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou. The story is based on the ancient Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis by Euripides. In the ancient play, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek coalition in the Trojan War has to decide whether or not to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the goddess Artemis and allow his troops to set sail to preserve their honor in the battle against Troy. The film follows a cardiac surgeon, Steven Murphy, who secretly befriends a teenage boy named Martin with a connection to his past. He introduces the boy to his family, who begin to fall mysteriously ill. Later in the film, the surgeon has to decide and kill one of his children to balance his carelessness during a surgery that killed Martin’s father. Lanthimos has put Euripides’ play into a modern context and has made it somehow even more gripping and intense.

Funeral Parade of Roses
Funeral Parade of Roses is a 1969 Japanese drama film directed and written by Toshio Matsumoto. Just like in Oldboy, Toshio Matsumoto drew from Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” into the plot which along with its avant-garde feel makes this highly original film stand out. The film has merged the ideas of Greek tragedy into the gay underworld subculture of transvestites in 1969 Japan. Not for the lighthearted, the film is a theatrical version of a boy murdering his mother to marry his father—a spin on the classic Greek tale. Matsumoto shows how a film that evokes Greek tragedy doesn’t know how to be emotionally draining, but it can be experimental and unique in form without deviating from the ideas presented by Sophocles. 

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