11 Melodrama Examples to Study

Over-the-top drama and emotional responses characterize these 11 melodrama examples. 

Melodrama is a literary device that shows up in literature, stage plays, and film. It is a subgenre of drama that has exaggerated, often stereotypical characters and sensational, emotional events. The characters are not strong, but they often face typical good versus evil scenarios with quite a bit of drama built-in, and their emotional responses to the trials of life are often over-the-top.

The term melodrama comes from the Greek word melos, which means “song,” and French drame, which means drama. Originally a melodrama was a musical stage play that was popular in the Victorian era, but since these plays had such sensational characters, the term came to mean a story that uses sensationalistic elements to create emotions in the audience.

Melodrama is important in literature because it creates a deep, lasting effect on the audience. It sometimes receives criticism because the drama is so over-the-top. Studying these melodrama examples will help you better understand this type of drama so you can identify it in the future.

Melodrama examples to study

1. All That Heaven Allows by Douglas Sirk

The 1955 movie All That Heaven Allows came from a novel by Edna L. Lee and Harry Lee. The movie is an example of melodrama as it told the story of an affluent widow and a younger man who strikes up a romance. In 1995, it became part of the United States National Film Registry.

In the movie, a suburban widow falls in love with her much younger arborist but finds he has no desire for a wealthy life. When she tells her family and children that she intends to sell her estate and marry him to live a simpler life, they are angry. The movie follows her attempts to decide what she is doing until a near-tragedy leaves her with her final decision.

“Cary Scott: You can’t ignore convention.

Dr. Hennessy: So you gave up a man you were in love with because you were afraid of Mona and the others. And you have the great satisfaction of being taken back into the fold.

Cary Scott: Well I was thinking of my children.

Dr. Hennessy: You’re just as lonely as you were before. Lonelier, in fact. Kay married. And Ned abroad. So what good was your noble sacrifice? Cary, marry him.”

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All That Heaven Allows (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
  • Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson (Actors)
  • Douglas Sirk (Director)
  • Audience Rating: NR (Not Rated)

2. Now Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty

Now Voyager is a melodramatic novel by Olive Higgins Prouty that was transformed into a film in 1942 starring Bette Davis and Paul Henreid. It became part of the National Film Registry in 2007. It also holds spot 23 n the AFI 100 Years 100 Passions list of top love stories in American cinema.

This melodramatic film starts with an unattractive spinster who has spent her life dominated by a tyrannical, aristocratic mother. After getting sent to a sanitarium, she starts to blossom and decides to go on a cruise where she meets an unhappily married man, falling in love after getting stranded on an island for five days. The rest of the film explores how the main character finds meaning to her life, and the ending is a true tearjerker.

“Don’t let’s ask for the moon! We have the stars!”

Olive Higgins Prouty
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Now, Voyager (Femmes Fatales)
  • Higgins Prouty, Olive (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 304 Pages - 10/01/2004 (Publication Date) - The Feminist Press at CUNY (Publisher)

3. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Melodrama Examples: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Image Source: Pygmalion (Dover Thrift Editions: Plays), Amazon

Pygmalion is one of the best-known plays from George Bernard Shaw, and it is the basis for the classic musical My Fair Lady. The play comes from the dramatic work by the same name from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the work that inspired the literary term melodrama. This play pokes fun at the class system in Britain and is both a comedy and a melodrama.

The play opens with Professor Henry Higgins claiming he can teach a cockney flower girl on the streets of Britain to speak well enough to be considered an elegant princess. Along the way, as he helps her learn to speak in a more refined manner, he falls in love. A number of comedic situations help make the play one of the most timeless in history.

“I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you, because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.”

George Bernard Shaw
Pygmalion (Dover Thrift Editions: Plays)
  • George Bernard Shaw (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 96 Pages - 10/20/1994 (Publication Date) - Dover Publications (Publisher)

4. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Wuthering Heights, a 1847 novel by Emily Bronte, eventually became a 1939 film directed by William Wyler. This melodrama highlights the challenges that class divisions create when two people fall in love. The film won the 1939 New York Film Critics Circle Award and was nominated for an Academy Award.

The story involves an orphan boy named Healthcliff who is taken into a wealthy family. He falls in love with Cathy, his foster sister, but she is married off to a wealthy neighbor. He marries in spite, and eventually, the story ends in tragedy with the two never coming together.

“I have not broken your heart – you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine.”

Emily Bronte
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Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics)
  • Emily Brontë (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 416 Pages - 12/31/2002 (Publication Date) - Penguin Classics (Publisher)

5. Still Life, Brief Encounter by Noel Coward

Still Life, Brief Encounter is a 1936 melodramatic play by Noel Coward. This one-act play became a 1945 movie entitled Brief Encounter. The film is often called one of the greatest films of all time, and the British Film Institute named it the second-greatest British film of all time in 1999.

In the story, a married woman encounters a doctor in a train station and takes up a relationship with him. They continue to meet until they fall in love, yet neither is free to leave their families and be together. This unrequited love is the end of the story, creating a sad story for all involved.

“This can’t last. This misery can’t last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There’ll come a time in the future when I shan’t mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was. No, no, I don’t want that time to come ever. I want to remember every minute, always, always to the end of my days.”

Noel Coward
Brief Encounter
  • Amazon Prime Video (Video on Demand)
  • Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Jack Hedley (Actors)
  • Alan Bridges (Director) - John Bowen (Writer) - Duane Bogie (Producer)
  • English (Playback Language)
  • English (Subtitle)

6. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Melodrama Examples: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Image Source: Mildred Pierce, Amazon

Mildred Pierce is a 1941 novel by James M. Cain that became an Academy-Award-winning film in 1945. This novel is a psychological thriller, but it contains many elements of melodrama as well. The film also included a murder mystery to add to the drama. Mildred Pierce also had a five-part miniseries for television created in 2011.

The story in the novel opens in California where a middle-class housewife, Mildred, works hard to keep her family’s social position while fighting the realities of the Great Depression. As Mildred fights to provide a better life for her daughters, one of her daughters, Vera, decides to live a loose lifestyle and take all of her mother’s money. The story ends with financial ruin, murder, and someone going to jail.

“The hand that holds the money cracks the whip.”

James M. Cain
Mildred Pierce
  • Cain, James M. (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 304 Pages - 05/14/1989 (Publication Date) - Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (Publisher)

7. Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley

Kitty Foyle, a 1939 novel by Christopher Morley, is also a 1940 film by the same name. Filmmaker Sam Wood created the movie, casting Ginger Rogers as the lead. The film and novel have many characteristics of melodrama, as the storylines highlight the tragic plot of Kitty as she tries to find love and success as a working girl.

The book and film show Kitty, a saleswoman who wants to make her own way in the world. When she marries and separates, she is thrown into a relationship with a doctor, only to return to her husband in the end. Class differences create struggle throughout the tale, making it a classic example of a melodrama.

“Life’s a lot different from what people pretend. That’s why pretending is fun. I used to think it was some special wickedness of my own that made such queer things happen. Now I’m beginning to guess that everybody’s like that.”

Christopher Morley
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Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley (1939-06-02)
  • Hardcover Book
  • J. P. Lippincott (Publisher)

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

The Count of Monte Cristo is a famous novel that tells the tale of wrongful causation and imprisonment, leading to the desire for revenge. The original French drama novel has had multiple adaptations, including plays, movies and television shows.

In the story, Edmond Dantes is elevated to the ship’s captain when his captain dies suddenly. This promotion creates jealousy in some of the other shipmates, and they accuse Dante of a crime, causing his arrest on his wedding day. Eventually, he escapes from prison and plots his revenge on those who wronged him, leading to one of the most melodramatic plots in literature and Hollywood.

“All human wisdom is contained in these two words – Wait and Hope”

Alexandre Dumas
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The Count of Monte Cristo (Penguin Classics)
  • Alexandre Dumas père (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 1276 Pages - 05/27/2003 (Publication Date) - Penguin Classics (Publisher)

9. It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra

The story of George Bailey is one of the most classic Christmas tales, but it is also an example of melodrama. It’s a Wonderful Life released in 1946 and has had a following ever since. Its over-the-top sentimental plotline creates the melodramatic scene as Bailey discovers just how important he is in the world.

In this movie, George Bailey is about to take his own life. An angel stops him, and takes him on a journey into the future to see what life would be like without him. He soon sees that he matters, even with the challenges of life, and goes back to his family to embrace his role as husband and father.

“Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.’”

Frank Capra
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It's a Wonderful Life
  • .
  • James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore (Actors)
  • Frank Capra (Director)
  • English (Subtitle)

10. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snickett

Though it’s not a romance tale, the children’s book series A Series of Unfortunate Events is a clear example of melodrama. Written by narrator Lemony Snicket, a pen name for the true author, these books have a dire warning on the first page of each one telling the reader nothing happy is going to happen.

In these books, which later became both movies and a Netflix series, the children must go through crisis after crisis only to find more tragedy and misfortune at the end. Though the true ending is somewhat positive, it cannot be called happy. Still, the story shows just how plucky the Baudelaire children are, and that makes the reader come back for more every time.

“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happen in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.”

Lemony Snickett
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The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1)
  • Hardcover Book
  • Lemony Snicket (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 162 Pages - 08/25/1999 (Publication Date) - HarperCollins (Publisher)

11. Stella Dallas by Olive Higgens Prouty

Melodrama Examples: Stella Dallas by Olive Higgens Prouty
Image Source: The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events #1), Amazon

The 1937 film Stella Dallas, directed by King Vidor, is yet another example of melodrama. It comes from the book by the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty, which hit bookshelves in 1923. The film continues to receive high praise today because of its ability to capture melodrama without being too emotional.

Stella Dallas starts out in a factory town where the daughter of a mill worker decides it is time to better herself. She marries and becomes a mother, eventually doting on her daughter over her husband. The rest of the movie shows how her life progresses as she tries to figure out who she is and what she wants.

“These are your new friends, Laurel. Cornelius, over there by the piano, is the oldest. ‘Con’ we call him for short. And Dane comes next. ‘Great Dane’ they call him at school. But I call him little Dane. And the little boy in your father’s lap is Frederick. ‘Rick’ is his nickname. He’s the baby—five years old now. We haven’t any little girl for you, Laurel,” she sighed. How lucky! No girls! Boys weren’t half as cruel.”

Olive Higgens Prouty
Stella Dallas
  • Hardcover Book
  • Prouty, Olive Higgins (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 184 Pages - 12/07/2020 (Publication Date) - Wilder Publications (Publisher)

If you liked this post, check out our guide of great books on writing fiction.

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