The importance of theme ☛
I wrote a piece a little time back about the essential elements of any cinematic story, where I claimed that one of the basic building blocks is ‘theme’. At the time discussion of theme got drowned out by arguments about act structure, but I think that there’s more to say on this subject – here goes.
There’s a lot of resistance to theme. Commercial and genre filmmakers often reject it as “something fruity; you know – for the critics”. Ask them what their film is about and they’ll probably tell you that it’s about a man who has three hours to save the world or about the sole survivor of a zombie apocalypse.
At the other end of the spectrum you have art house and social realist filmmakers, some of whom consider theme to be too prescriptive a concept. Ask them what their film is about and they might ask what it means to you, and observe that they don’t want to tell their audience what to think. So where does this resistance to theme come from? Consciously I think both camps are rejecting theme because they’ve got ‘theme’ mixed up with ‘message’, and the last thing they want to be is preachy. As the saying – variously attributed to Sam Goldwyn and Frank Capra – goes “If you want to send a message, try Western Union”. This is what we all fear:
No film works better for coming across like a sermon or government safety warning. Even government safety warnings work better if they don’t feel like government safety warnings.
But I think there’s a deeper reason for resisting theme – it’s hard work. Getting a story to make logical sense, emotional sense, be entertaining, have an active protagonist, be filmable on the budget, have a first act turning point in the right place and all that is tough enough without having to weave in a theme as well. Give us a break!
So can’t we just forget about theme altogether? Well, we can. There have been plenty of scripts filmed where no one has paid any heed to theme. But none of these films have been better for that neglect. If you’ve ever been to see a movie that has all the elements of films you like but just feels a bit flat or doesn’t hang together for some indefinable reason, it may be because no one’s thought about the theme. In fact, we may well leave the cinema asking our friends, “what the hell was that about?” There’s a clue there.
Conversely, I can’t think of a single memorable film, a movie we call ‘great’ where there isn’t a well-developed theme. I’m not just talking about ‘serious’ cinema – Citizen Kane, Babel, The Social Network – blockbusters from Die Hard to Avengers Assemble also usually have themes. They may not be profound, but they’re there. If script gurus like McKee, Vogler and Syd Field have done one service it is that they’ve encouraged Hollywood development executives to take theme seriously. Theme doesn’t automatically make the films good, but it gives them a fighting chance.
Another misconception about theme is that it’s where the writer starts out. Does Aaron Sorkin sit down one day and think “I wish to write about the nature of friendship”? Almost certainly not. Instead he does what we all do: stumbles across a story or has an idea suggested by some throwaway comment and gets interested in it. The idea suggests a narrative and the narrative suggests characters and he might have the bare bones of a story before he asks himself the question “What is this really about?” Even then, he may not be able to quite put his finger on what it is in the idea that fascinates him. Or maybe he thinks it’s about one thing, but when he comes to write the script he realises that it’s actually about something else.
If theme isn’t message, what is it? It’s difficult to give a definitive answer. Perhaps “an idea or question, to which everything in your story has relevance”. McKee has a useful way of seeing theme – a simple formula. It states that the theme of your story is:
So Dirty Harry would be “When a cop takes the law into his own hands, then justice is served”. While even McKee accepts that this is simplistic, if not reductive, it is a useful thought experiment: a way of seeing what your story is actually saying. But a theme doesn’t have to be expressed in this format.
It is important to understand the scope of a theme. Themes tend not to be specific; they may not have to be universal but, given that movies have to be able to sell across the globe, the theme should be something that speaks to all societies, if not necessarily every corner of every society. For example, the theme of a biopic of John F. Kennedy would not be “Was JFK a good man?” Younger people in China or Brazil may not have a clear idea of who Kennedy was, and may not care that much. If, however, the theme of your film was “Can a flawed man be a great leader?” or “The difference between public image and private reality”, either would give you a subject to which most people across the world can relate.
Indeed themes are often expressed as a question. One of the most famous themes of any movie, one which the film discussed quite openly, was that of When Harry Met Sally – “Can men and women ever be friends, or will the sex thing get in the way?” The TV series Sex in the City had similarly up-front themes but went further: CUT TO close up of Carrie Bradshaw’s screen as she types a line from one of her articles, which turns out to be the theme of the episode. At this point it feels like we’re in danger of getting back to He-Man and its surface level moral messages. The difference is that a question isn’t preachy, unless it’s followed by an unambiguous answer.
More commonly, however, the theme is invisible. This is one of the reasons why some filmmakers feel that themes are dispensable: they just don’t notice the presence of themes in the movies they love. Certainly I’ve seen many films where I couldn’t tell you if put on the spot what the theme was, although I could work it out if given time. And that’s how it’s meant to be.
Whether hidden or overt, a theme is really just a subject for discussion. It can be challenging, asking us uncomfortable questions, or it can be a question that we’ve seen asked a hundred times before, but perhaps not in that way. It depends on the sort of film you’re making. All that matters is that it’s there.
Like a musical key, theme ties the story together and makes it feel like a coherent whole. If you have a clear sense of your theme and keep it in view at all times, nothing in your story will feel random or out of place. And best of all, unlike most things in film-making, themes are absolutely free – you can’t even copyright them. What’s not to like?
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge