From 'Bodyguard' to 'The Count of Monte Cristo', these are the key ingredients of a perfect thriller
Both dramas demonstrate the essential components for truly thrilling entertainment. But, Erica Wickerson asks, why do they work so well?
When we think of thrillers, the words pacy, exciting and unputdownable might come to mind. Also: the idea of being “plot driven”, all about the action, not necessarily particularly highbrow or elegantly written. But what are the successful tropes of this popular genre? And why do they work so well?
Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard garnered the highest BBC viewing figures for the past 10 years. The action-packed story of terrorism, conspiracy and political disillusionment is on the pulse of today’s interests and fears. But the tale is also an old one. The links to Romeo and Juliet, not only with the one of the main character’s names – Julia Montague – but also the protagonist’s despairing bid for suicide and the warring “families” of MI5 and the Met, are palpable. Yet more strongly perhaps, the Bodyguard is an archetype of the thriller genre, following in the wake of great canonical works of literature such as Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Bodyguard and Monte Cristo both demonstrate the essential ingredients for truly thrilling entertainment: the perfect concoction of love, death and politics, spiced up with conspiracy, revenge and uncertain allegiances.
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Such a potion is not typical for all thrillers. The Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, The Third Man or indeed many other notable exemplars of the genre, don’t conform straightforwardly to this mix. The Bodyguard has particular parallels with Monte Cristo despite the significant differences in period and media. So what are they?
It boils down to the stuff of being human (hopes in love, fears of death), collective context (how politics and history affect our day-to-day lives), and the fundamental drives of escapist entertainment (suspense about what will happen next).
The success of the thriller relies on the balance between the familiar and the unexpected. This balance can be seen in three major components: character, context, and plot. In all three, we have a recognisable point of entry or identification tempered with surprising and exciting departures from the norm. The thriller isn’t about the everyday but pushes us in a new and unexpected direction.
The hero of the thriller is often a strong, brooding man, someone with a troubled past that is never fully uncovered, a sexy, silent enigma. His flaws make him human, his courage makes him heroic.
At the start of Bodyguard, as David Budd fretfully wakes on the nondescript public train, his kids sleeping in the seats next to him, with toys and food spread across the table, we are greeted with a familiar sight: harshly lit, slightly too cold, taking too long, on a dark, drizzly evening. He pulls his children’s coats over them to keep them warm and tells them to go back to sleep. We are led to identify with this seemingly ordinary parent in this commonplace setting.
But the fretful waking to the sounds of nightmarish gunfire also marks Budd out: it hints at his background as a soldier with PTSD. As he sees a man acting suspiciously on the platform and watches the conductor nervously eye up an “Asian male in his 20s” onboard the train, Budd’s fears tap into our own. He whips out his ID and reveals his position an “Operational Firearms Commander for Specialist Protection” before single-handedly confronting a woman covered in explosives with a thumb wobbling above the detonator. Clark Kent peels away his boring suit to reveal the Superman costume underneath.
The Count of Monte Cristo starts earlier in the hero’s chronology, before he has been broken by life. Edmond Dantès is a strange mix of highly impressive and inherently likeable. He has just returned from a successful voyage as the first mate of a merchant ship. Upon the death of the elderly captain, Dantès is offered the top job, a particular honour at the tender age of 18. He is also engaged to the beautiful Mercédès. Dantès now has the means to care for his ailing father and to marry his lover. He seems to have an abundance of good fortune.
But with his success, the green-eyed monster of jealousy grips his acquaintances. The conniving Danglars, a junior officer on the ship who had ambitions to become captain, and the hot-headed Fernand, Dantès’s rival for Mercédès’s affections, conspire to frame Dantès. Their plan leads to Dantès being sentenced to life imprisonment in the notorious Chateau d’If, a fortress located on an island out to sea. When he eventually emerges (as Shawshank Redemption said he would), it is as the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, with powers, wealth and a mastery of disguise of mythical proportions.
We can relate to both heroes: their affections and ambitions are wholly ordinary, they are both nice guys. As Budd faces the terrorist, he says: “I can see you’re as scared as I am” – not the words of an invincible superhero. But they also demonstrate strength and bravery that is totally out of the ordinary. Budd hugging the terrorist to prevent her being shot by a sniper, Dantès being thrown into the sea with a cannonball tied to his feet – these are feats to which most people would not aspire. So the heroes begin as likeable ordinary men and then demonstrate almost superhuman abilities.
It matters that they are not, however, superheroes. What the heroes of thrillers do is, most of the time, just about within the realm of plausible. Budd and Dantès may be brave, but it is a bravery that may also be borne of despair. Each is disturbed by his traumatic past, and this adds a vulnerability to their characters.
The exploration of mental illness also spices up the plot and affects audience sympathy. In both cases, it is when the heroes are at their lowest points, fighting with thoughts of suicide, that we come closest to sensing their feelings and motivations. Ironically, this is when the other characters cast the most doubt on Dantès’s/Budd’s integrity and loyalties. Mental health is used as a marker of reliability – in that sense, not much has changed. Even the way in which Dantès tactfully avoids calling his fellow prisoner “mad” for fear of offending him has a ring of modern political correctness.
But at other points, the readers and viewers are given very little insight into the workings of Dantès and Budd, and this heightens the suspense. From the start, we are led to sympathise, empathise, and identify with the protagonists. But gradually, the suspicions of other characters begin to infiltrate our own. The idea of the brooding hero who says very little plays into these suspicions. If we are denied access to his perspective, then we may begin to doubt his intentions.
Indeed, after years in the isolation and darkness of the dungeons, Dantès prefers the shadows of his subterranean palace and the company of his mute servant. He retreats like a mole, acts like a bat, and is repeatedly taken for a vampire. The perspective shifts, so the reader joins other characters who see the count – or one of his aliases – for the first time. It may take us a moment even to work out that it is indeed him. This alienates us from the familiar, everyday hero of the opening.
As for David Budd, it isn’t clear why he doesn’t reveal his association with one of the would-be assassins, he exchanges meaningful glances with the imprisoned terrorist, he goes rogue on the trail of gun sources: the audience is also left wondering what he’s hiding.
Budd and Dantés are also both straight, white, professional men; ie their worldviews represent that of the dominant European male at their respective times. The Bodyguard is admirably mixed in terms of gender and ethnicity representation; nevertheless, the portrayal of the main female Muslim character hovers between passionate Jihadi terrorist and oppressed and vulnerable victim. In Monte Cristo, Dantés’s Nubian slave Ali is mute after having had his tongue cut out. Dantés saved his life before the rest of the death sentence could be carried out, but allowed the first stage to be committed because he had always wanted a mute servant. Ali is not only enslaved by and indebted to his master, but also literally lacks a voice. Both Dantés and Budd see the world through the eyes of those with social dominance and agency. This may add to our sense of familiarity with them, but the presumptions they make can also be problematic.
The characters’ personalities play into the seesaw between identification with a familiar and flawed figure and suspense about who they really are and what they might do next.
The context is also part of this seesaw. The Bodyguard is set in contemporary Britain, a time overshadowed by the very real threat of terrorism. Meanwhile political debates rage about the need for heightened security measures and fears of invasions of privacy. The opening period of Monte Cristo’s France is ruled in oscillation by King Louis XVIII and Napoleon Bonaparte. Allegiance to one while the other is in power – or even the rumour of an allegiance – could lead to imprisonment or death.
The Bodyguard and Monte Cristo intertwine personal stories of betrayal and revenge with contemporary politics. Budd and Dantès are put in danger and their reputations in doubt because of rumoured political allegiances and potential revolutionary ideals. The politics gives us a recognisable context, something on which we can hang the personal stories. The personal stories give us an angle through which to read the political context.
Because Dumas sets the beginning of Monte Cristo 30 years earlier than the time of writing, even contemporary readers would have had some historical hindsight. Dantès may be imprisoned for alleged Bonapartist sympathies, but this is just before the so-called Hundred Days, when Napoleon returned to power, at which point Dantès’s “crime” would be seen as no such thing. So perhaps there is hope for our hero!
The Bodyguard’s contemporary setting is more in line with the traditional thriller mould, where the audience knows nothing about what may happen next. Although Keeley Hawes said that her portrayal of the home secretary was informed by Amber Rudd; the male Tory prime minister avoids close comparison with any current political leader. So it’s anyone’s guess as to who might do what.
The plot of the thriller is key to its appeal. But it is perhaps surprising that love (of different kinds) plays such a central role in these gritty, nerve-wracking stories with cool, distant protagonists. Political allegiances and revolutionary sympathies may undermine the integrity of the heroes – both in the eyes of other characters and quite possibly in ours too – but love is a key motivator for most of the action.
As we saw in the openings to both, the characters’ fates are interwoven with those of their families. The Bodyguard might seem a little James Bond the Invincible as Budd confronts the terrorist, but for the fact of his children retreating to safety down the train. He glances nervously over his shoulder to check that they’re moving away and shows the would-be bomber a picture of them on his phone to get her to empathise with him. This isn’t just a traumatised solider who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies (it often feels that way with James Bond, except for the fact he is invincible). Similarly too, Dantès’s father’s life depends on his son’s support; with Dantès’s arrest comes the inevitability of his father’s decline. In the dungeon, he is tortured by the thought his father might be dead or Mercédès may have married someone else. It is love for them that fuels his initial despair and then his desperation to escape. These aren’t the typical orphans with no attachments of many a thriller or adventure story; they’re more classic family-oriented people with affections with which the audience can identify.
Both plots, however, also push us well beyond the realm of the familiar. Secret meetings with MI5 to hand over blackmail potential against a senior politician, a clearly traumatised and mentally ill officer being put in charge of the home secretary single-handedly despite repeated scrapes with death – even without intimate knowledge of the workings of government, it seems unlikely that this is what Amber Rudd or Sajid Javid get up to in day-to-day life. Not to mention the complex conspiracy that reaches into the depths of the Met and the intelligence services. Monte Cristo doesn’t seem much more realistic. Admittedly, Dumas was inspired by the true story of François Picaud, who was denounced by his friends as an English spy and subsequently imprisoned. Upon release, he discovered a vast hidden treasure and embarked on a revenge killing spree. So perhaps Dantès’s discovery of an Ali Baba cave of wonders is not as far-fetched as it might seem to us today.
Part of the point of the thriller – indeed, precisely the thing that makes it thrilling – is that it takes us out of the everyday into a world of improbable events and unknown developments. It is the idea that anything could happen that means that we don’t know what will happen. The Bodyguard and The Count of Monte Cristo strike this fine balance between the comfortably recognisable and the disturbingly improbable. We can see ourselves in the characters while the stories take us out of ourselves.