From Graeme Turner, Film as Social Practice, 2nd ed (Routledge, 1993)



The narrative structure found in the folk-tales of one culture can recur in another, suggesting that there is something universal in the structure as well as in the function of narrative. Vladimir Propp (1975) analysed a group of Russian folk-tales in order to see if they shared common properties. What be found was that all of them, no matter how widely they differed in their surface details (characterization, setting, plots), shared certain important structural features. The most basic of these were the functions of various sets of characters and actions within the tales. Fust, he reduced the range of different characters to a maximum of eight character roles. These are not separate characters, since one character can occupy a number of roles or 'spheres of action' as Propp calls them and one role may be played by a number of different characters. They are:


1. the villain

2. the donor (provider)

3. the helper

4. the princess (or sought-for person) and her father

5. the dispatcher

6. the hero or victim

7. the false hero.


All characters or 'spheres of action' which occur in folk-tales are accommodated by this list. This group of characters then participates in the limited set of narrative units or functions which make up the tale. From his analyses, Propp concludes that:


1. Functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.

2. The number of functions known to the fairy-tale is limited.

3. The sequence of functions 1s always identical.

4. All fairy-tales are of one type in regard to their structure.

****           ****           [LINK TO LIST OF FUNCTIONS]                  ****            ****

Although there is a limit to the parallels that can be drawn between the cultural productions of primitive folk cultures and modem post-industrial cultures, Propp's work has been applied to

mass-produced narratives in contemporary western cultures. Much popular film and television can be found to be structured according to Propp's principles. There have been a number of

morphological analyses of films - for example, of Sunset Boulevard by Patricia Erens (1977) and of North by North-West by Peter Wollen (1976) - as well as more general discussions of Propp and the feature film (Fell 1977). John Fiske (1987b) has looked at programmes such as The Bionic Woman and The A-Team and found an extraordinary degree of correlation between Propp's functions and the narrative structure of the television series. We can easily demonstrate a degree of fit between Propp's categories of 'spheres of action' and characterization in film, too. A list of the main characters in Star Wars fits Propp's eight spheres of action quite neatly:


The villain           Darth Vader


The donor             Obe Kenobe [sic]


The helper            Han Solo


The princess         Princess Leah


The dispatcher     R2D2


The hero              Luke Skywalker


The false hero       Darth Vader


We need not make too much of this as a way of understanding Star Wars, although it might flesh out vague claims about the film's fairy-tale, fable-like quality. It does suggest, however, how applicable to film studies much of the work on the cultural function and structural characteristics of narrative could be. At the very least, it underlines the possibility that the modem feature film and the primitive fairy-tale serve similar functions for their respective audiences.