Thrill Issues: How “The Bourne Identity” Adheres to Aristotle’s Literary Theory

Best described as a roller-coaster, a thriller film or novel features a carefully-structured, fast-paced, unpredictable plot. Because of its emphasis on plot, the thriller genre naturally maintains Aristotle’s literary theory as presented in his Poetics—perhaps more so than any other genre. The plot, according to Aristotle, is a story’s most important element (Aristotle; moreover, the moments of “reversals and recognitions” are a plot’s most vital parts (Aristotle 1450a.iv). As Aristotle repeatedly offers Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex as a prime example of a well-structured plot, comparing Oedipus Rex’s and The Bourne Identity’s recognition and reversal scenes reveals the extent to which the modern thriller adheres to Aristotle’s literary theory.

A “recognition,” Aristotle writes, is “a change from ignorance to knowledge” (Aristotle 1452a.11). Such a moment occurs at the climax of Oedipus Rex. After having sworn to find and execute the murderer of Thebes’ previous monarch, King Oedipus discovers that he himself killed the late king. Like Sophocles, the writers of The Bourne Identity chose to incorporate a recognition scene into the film’s climax. But screenwriters Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron take the concept of recognition and reversal another step farther: their amnesiac protagonist Jason Bourne recognizes two different, though related, aspects of his own character in the same scene. After having travelled from Marseilles to Zurich to Paris to discover his identity, Bourne finally traps Conklin, the man who knows the answers, and puts a gun to his head: “Who am I?” (The Bourne Identity). Conklin calls Bourne “a malfunctioning, thirty-million dollar weapon” that has inexplicably failed to kill a politician named Nykwana Wombosi in Marseilles (The Bourne Identity). In short, Bourne is a trained assassin working covertly for the U.S. government. Bourne begins to remember; he undergoes the first moment of recognition. Then Bourne experiences a flashback to Marseilles. In a second moment of recognition in the flashback, Bourne, about to shoot his target, realizes that Wombosi is surrounded by his children. Thus, Bourne simultaneously experiences two moments of recognition as he remembers his past.

Any recognition like Bourne’s or Oedipus’ ought to prompt a reversal. Aristotle defines a “reversal” as “a change in the actions to their opposite” (Aristotle 1452a.11). Moments of recognition and reversal are “finest”, according to Aristotle, when they occur simultaneously, as in Oedipus Rex (Aristotle 1452a.11). When Oedipus recognizes that he murdered King Laius, he changes his course of action. Instead of hunting for the killer, he gouges out his own eyes (Sophocles 1268-1272) and exiles himself, saying, “Drive me from here with all the speed you can / to where I may not hear a human voice” (Sophocles 1436-1437). Because of Oedipus’ concurrent recognition and reversal, Aristotle exalts the play as excellently written. Likewise, in The Bourne Identity, a dual reversal accompanies Bourne’s dual recognition. Within the flashback to Marseilles, Bourne recognizes that Wombosi’s children should not witness their father’s murder, prompting him to disobey his orders and flee. Immediately after the flashback, he must respond to his first recognition: he is an assasin. He tells Cronkin, “I don’t want to do this anymore” (The Bourne Identity). Like Oedipus, he exiles himself. Once willing to attract dangerous attention to discover his identity, Bourne reverses his actions and disappears.

Echoing Oedipus Rex and upholding Aristotle’s storytelling standards, The Bourne Identity’s scene of dual recognition and reversal demonstrates the power Aristotle’s Poetics still holds over modern literature.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you think of another modern thriller with a recognition and reversal scene? How effective was the scene? Why do you think it was effective or uneffective?
  2. Other genres in literature use recognition and reversal scenes. For instance, Pride and Prejudice—a character-driven novel—is structured around a recognition and reversal scene at its midpoint (when Elizabeth receives Darcy’s letter). How effective is a recognition and reversal scene in a character-driven novel as opposed to a plot-driven one? Use a recognition and reversal scene from a character-driven novel as an example.


Works Cited

Aristotle. “Poetics.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. Ed. Vincent B.

Leitch, et al. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2010. 88-115. Print.

The Bourne Identity. Dir. Doug Liman. Perf. Matt Damon. Universal Studios, 2002. DVD.

Sophocles, “Oedipus Rex.Sophocles I. 2nd ed. Trans. David Grene. Chicago: University of

Chicago Press, 1991. 9-76. Print.


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