Peripeteia in Film. Definition, Meaning, and Examples

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Definition: Peripeteia is a sudden reversal of fortune or changes in circumstances, especially in drama and tragedies. It is a pivotal moment when the protagonist’s situation shifts dramatically from good to bad or vice versa, significantly impacting the narrative’s direction and outcome.

Peripeteia is closely associated with Greek tragedy and was extensively discussed by good old Aristotle in his work “Poetics.”

In a film, story, or play, peripeteia is the point at which the protagonist’s fortunes take a critical turn — usually from good to bad or vice versa.

Peripeteia is related to plot twists but may differ. While a peripeteia can be a plot twist, not all plot twists are examples of peripeteia (see FAQ).

Peripeteia is prevalent in many films across different genres.

Peripeteia often occurs in the third act, near the story’s climax. But not always.

Here are examples of peripeteia from various movies:

Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places is a great example of peripeteia in film because it happens twice.

Trading Places (1983) revolves around a cruel bet by the Duke brothers, Randolph and Mortimer, who swap the lives of snobbish broker Winthorpe and streetwise con artist Valentine.

Winthorpe is framed and loses everything, while Valentine is elevated to Winthorpe’s former luxurious lifestyle.

The peripeteia in the story involves not just the fall of Winthorpe and the rise of Valentine but also how they team up after discovering they were both manipulated by the Dukes.

Their partnership leads to a plan using their trading knowledge to bankrupt the Dukes, reversing their fortunes again. The Dukes’ downfall at the end is another example of peripeteia.

This film’s sudden change in the characters’ fortunes exemplifies peripeteia, altering their situations significantly.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The peripeteia in ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999) happens when it is revealed that Dr. Malcolm Crowe, portrayed by Bruce Willis, has been dead throughout the film, a twist that redefines the entire narrative and the audience’s understanding of his interactions with Cole Sear, the boy who can see ghosts.

This sudden reversal fulfills the criteria of a peripeteia by dramatically changing the story’s direction and the audience’s perception of the characters and their situations.

Othello (1995)

Shakespeare, of course, also used peripeteia in his plays.

In the movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Othello, peripeteia occurs when Othello, manipulated by Iago, transitions from deeply loving his wife, Desdemona, to becoming convinced of her infidelity, leading to tragic consequences.

This sudden reversal in Othello’s fortunes and understanding is epitomized in his shift from a respected Venetian general to a man driven by jealousy to commit murder.

The climax of this reversal is starkly seen when Othello, under the sway of Iago’s machinations, smothers Desdemona, only to discover her innocence later. This realization marks the tragic downfall of Othello, encapsulating the peripeteia that defines the heart of the tragedy.

Conclusion

Peripeteia, a sudden reversal of fortune, is a pivotal element in storytelling that keeps audiences engaged.

Films like “Trading Places” masterfully employ this narrative device, turning the lives of its protagonists upside down, thus highlighting the unpredictable nature of fate and the resilience required to adapt and overcome.

Up Next: Paradox in Film. Meaning, Definition & Examples


Peripeteia FAQ

Here are the answers to common questions about peripetia:

Is Peripeteia and Plot Twist the same?

Peripeteia and plot twists are closely related concepts, but they are not exactly the same.

While a peripeteia can be a plot twist if it significantly alters the direction of the story in an unforeseen way, not all plot twists are examples of peripeteia.

  • Peripeteia: a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances for the protagonist of a story, often leading to a dramatic shift in the narrative. It is often the result of the protagonist’s actions or a revelation of some critical information.
  • Plot twist: a broader narrative device used across various genres, not just in tragedy. It refers to an unexpected development in a story that surprises the reader or viewer. Plot twists are designed to subvert audience expectations and can occur at any point in a narrative.

Is Peripeteia and Deus ex machina the same?

No, they are not the same. While peripetia involves a pivotal shift within the narrative, deus ex machina introduces an external solution.

  • Peripetia: a sudden reversal of fortune or change in circumstances in a story.
  • Deus ex machine: an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device.

See more about Deus ex machina in film.

Author

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  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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