In spite of the fact that contemporary film and Greek drama are radically different modes of representation, one model for the rules for realism in movies comes to us from Aristotle's Poetics . In the Poetics , Aristotle staked the success of dramatic representation on what he called the play's probability ( eikos ). For Aristotle, dramatic action was a form of rhetoric, and the role of the play-wright was to persuade the audience of the sense of devoid of ve reality, or verisimilitude, of the dramatic work. From here flowed rules about characters, the words they speak, and the actions they perform on stage. For characters in a tragedy to be believable, for instance, they must be noble, that is to say slightly more virtuous than the citizens watching the play, and they must act and speak in accordance with their rank in society. If the characters were not more virtuous than the spectators, and if their actions were not consistent with their rank, the audience would feel neither the pity nor the fear, which, for Aristotle, justify the creation of drama. As for events, to be believable they must meet three criteria: 1) they must be logically justified, what today we call this motivation; 2) they must conform to the rules of genre; and 3) they must have, as Aristotle famously said, a beginning, middle, and end.
Aristotle's Poetics is a brilliant defense of the art of fiction and at the heart of this defense is a plea for the importance of verisimilitude. Small wonder, then, that Hollywood plots are so closely tied to Aristotelian notions of believability. As David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson have shown, verisimilitude in Hollywood cinema is supported by very specific forms of filmmaking that have remained remarkably consistent over the years. From George Cukor's Dinner at Eight (1933) to John Ford's The Searchers (1954), the "excessively obvious" style of the classic Hollywood period is bound up with modes of production and with technical or stylistic elements that insure a film's continuity and stylistic transparency. First and foremost, the films that constitute classical Hollywood cinema are driven by narrative causality. More often than not, they center on individual characters, who are often subject to the whims of fate and who undergo dramatic reversals of fortune, even if the films end happily. In Hollywood films, narration is determined by a rigorous chain of cause and effect, with scarcely any room for events that do not, somehow, announce future actions.
Ultimately, for narrative causality to seem real, it must be ushered in by a series of technical elements that maintain the film's continuity. The historical accuracy of wardrobe has long been a key to the realism of Hollywood's period pieces. Extra-diegetic music plays an important role in narrative causality by announcing on-screen action and smoothing over gaps in the narration. Irises, fades, and dissolves serve to mark the passage of time and maintain narrative flow. Match-on-action editing, shot/reverse-shot, the 180 degree rules, and synchronized sound serve to create the illusion of spatial continuity. All these technical elements that dominated classical Hollywood but also regularly appeared throughout the cinema of the world work to make cinematic fiction more believable. Even the star system served to maintain the verisimilitude of a film—central casting and spectators came to expect stars to play certain roles—hero, villain, femme fatale —and attempts to get beyond typecasting were often met with skepticism.
Within the confines of this verisimilitude, Hollywood films have defied the laws of nature, challenged scientific objectivity, and promoted a vision of life as an unending melodrama, but this matters little. Once verisimilitude is established, spectators enter into a rhetorical contract with a work of cinematic fiction wherein, to reprise Samuel Coleridge's formulation, they temporarily suspend their disbelief. Rules of verisimilitude may change over time, but this rhetorical illusion nonetheless helps to explain why spectators in the 1930s felt the frisson of evil when watching The Invisible Man (1933), which seems so dated to contemporary audiences. Understanding the rules of verisimilitude is a key to understanding audience reactions to films.
The term "realism" was first applied to painting and literature in the 1830s to describe new forms of art that developed in parallel with the rise of nineteenth-century democracies and claimed a privileged relation to material reality. If Romanticism glorified the imagination, realism, as Peter Brooks has said "makes sight paramount." Thus the novels of Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), George Eliot (1819–1880), Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), and Émile Zola (1840–1902) emphasize description and luxuriate in the details of everyday life. But realism also brought with it new subject matter, in particular the everyday existence of ordinary people, and it closely linked character development to social factors. In painting, Gustave Courbet (1819–1877) first developed this new form of realism, bringing to his canvases a concern for the present, a representation of the working class, a refusal to slavishly reproduce established genres—there are no historical or mythological scenes in Courbet's paintings—a move away from neoclassical idealization of the human body, a representation of bodies at work, and an emphasis on description at the expense of narration.
Nineteenth-century realism was an immensely successful artistic movement. Dominating literature and painting, it spurred scientific positivism and encompassed the invention of photography and film. Indeed, some scholars have suggested that the invention of these forms of mechanical reproduction was less a great technological leap than a symptom of an age when representation of the real became tantamount. Many of the scenes of the early films by Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948), such as the workers leaving the factory, men playing cards, a middle class family having breakfast, or a barge on a river, could have figured in the pages of a realist novel or the paintings of Edgar Degas, Gustave Caillebotte, or Courbet.