A political thriller is a thriller that is set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. They usually involve various extra-legal plots, designed to give political power to someone, while their opponents try to stop them. They can involve national or international political scenarios. Political corruption, organized crime, terrorism, and warfare are common themes. Political thrillers can be based on true facts such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy or the Watergate Scandal. There is a strong overlap with the conspiracy thriller.
When reviewing the film The Interpreter, Erik Lundegaard attempted a definition:
The basic plot is an ordinary man pulling an innocent thread which leads to a mess of corruption. The corruption should be political or governmental in nature.
Before 1950, there were spy novels with political elements.
Some earlier examples, however, can be found in the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas (particularly his Three Musketeers novels, which often involve political conspiracies), as well as such literary works as Joseph Conrad's novel The Secret Agent.
The actual political thriller came to life in the early days of the Cold War. Graham Greene's The Quiet American (1955) tells about the American involvement in Vietnam during the First Indochina War. Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) is set in the aftermath of the Korean War and the days of McCarthyism. In Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, an assault on Charles de Gaulle has to be prevented.
Other authors of political thrillers include Jeffrey Archer and Daniel Silva. In Bengali literature, Samaresh Majumdar's Aat Kuthuri Noy Dorja (বাংলা : আট কুঠুরি নয় দরজা, meaning: eight rooms and nine doors) is one example.
Several Alfred Hitchcock films already contain elements of the political thriller. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, a political assault has to be prevented. In 1962, John Frankenheimer made a film adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate. All the President's Men is based on the Watergate Scandal. Other examples of political thrillers are Seven Days in May, Z, Three Days of the Condor, V for Vendetta, Romero, JFK, City Hall, Air Force One, Snowden and The Post. Several post-9/11 political thriller films refer to the September 11 attacks or terrorism in general.
Shonda Rhimes' television series Scandal contains many elements of a political thriller in a chronological format.
The 1990 British drama serial House of Cards, later adapted for Netflix in 2013, is a political thriller set after the end of Margaret Thatcher's tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, with a Chief Whip Francis Urquhart attempting to rise to Prime Minister. The subsequent Netflix adaptation is set in the United States, and details Congressman Francis Underwood's machinations to become elected President.
The former ABC and now Netflix series Designated Survivor depicts the political power struggle that follows as a result of a terrorist attack that destroys the United States Capitol during the State of the Union, assassinating the President and all but one of his line of succession.
2015's Okkupert (English: Occupied) quickly became Norway's most expensively produced TV series, depicting Russia and the European Union cooperating to get Norway to restore its gas and oil production. The series had a budget of over 90 million Norwegian Krona (3.8 Million GBP). It was first broadcast on TV2 in Norway, and then broadcast on Sky Arts in the United Kingdom. It was later added to Netflix worldwide.
The 2017 ABS-CBN's Revenge Crime-Political Suspense Epic Wildflower tells of a woman named Ivy Aguas/Lily Cruz (Maja Salvador) plots her vengeance for the loss of her family and is willing to determine to dethrone the exploitative and oppressive Ardiente Political Dynasty. Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, or simply Jack Ryan, is an American action political thriller streaming television series, based on characters from the fictional "Ryanverse" created by Tom Clancy, that premiered on August 31, 2018 on Amazon Video.
In 2018, British political thriller Bodyguard quickly achieved popularity throughout the UK, achieving the BBC's highest viewing figures since 2008. The series depicts PS David Budd, a British Army war veteran suffering from PTSD. He is working for the Metropolitan Police within their Royalty and Specialist Protection Branch. He is assigned to protect the ambitious Home Secretary, Julia Montague, whose politics stand for everything he despises. It was released on Netflix worldwide on 24 October 2018.
A playwright who has embraced the genre is Gary Mitchell, who in the 2000s became "one of the most talked about voices in European theatre ... whose political thrillers have arguably made him Northern Ireland's greatest playwright".
- Lundegaard, Erik (1 August 2006). "The Manchurian movie - Who took the politics out of the political thriller?". Today.com. Retrieved 2007-05-03.
- Loyalist paramilitaries drive playwright from his home — The Guardian news article, 21 December 2005.