Although theme is rarely what a movie sells on, your movie better have a theme or ‘it won’t stick’.
The theme is what makes a great story resonate further. It’s the statement you make as a writer about your vision on the world.
Sometimes, when the theme rises to the surface of the story, people will talk about it afterwards. This discussion can be great for the word of mouth around your movie.
Do you know what your theme is?
If you don’t, don’t despair. It may very well be in there somewhere. You just need to identify it. And once you’ve done so, you can move on and amplify it in the next draft – if you wish to.
1. Theme from Inner Journey
Does your story have a transformational character? A Hero with a flaw, who ultimately overcomes that flaw, or grows?
In stories with such characters, the theme is usually about the character’s initial flaw and how that stands in the way of achieving the Hero’s goal, (or achieving happiness in general). In Jaws, Chief Brody says that he moved to Amity because on the island “one man can make a difference.” Therefore, the theme of Jaws could be:
To make a difference in life, one has to show responsibility.
At the start of the movie, we see the result of Brody’s lack of responsibility. His son enters the kitchen, bleeding, because his dad didn’t repair the swings but rather told his son to stay away from them. This is a foreshadowing of how the town will deal with the shark attack: to try and stay away from the shark.
Sheriff Brody ultimately has to grow to personal responsibility and bring safety back, both for his family and the people of Amity.
What is the theme of Thelma and Louise? Thelma clearly has a weakness in that she is overly submissive. So is the theme Feminism? That’s a little too broad. “Dignity is worth dying for?” Perhaps. In any case, it seems that the story is about Thelma’s journey of liberation.
But what if your Hero doesn’t change?
2. Theme from Inner Weakness
In film noir, main characters don’t change. Yet, they are pretty much all severely flawed and that’s where the theme draws from.
The theme in a noir film is often:
Crime doesn’t pay.
Typical for the Noir genre is that Heroes (or anti-Heroes if you wish) have to pay heavily for their morally flawed choices. Often they die at the end. So their weakness IS the theme.
In Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express I don’t think the Hero(es) change(s). The movie is about the Hero’s weakness and the effects of America’s attitude towards Gun Control. So the theme is something like:
Give a man a gun and you get trouble.
All the key moments in the movie have something to do with the decision to accept or use guns. The main characters don’t change. Their weakness provides a theme that is reinforced by many supporting characters.
But to have a strong theme, do you always need a flawed Hero?
No, you don’t.
3. Theme from Outer Journey
Here is where the supporting characters and subplot kick in. Remember the Spider-Man theme/tagline?
With great power comes great responsibility.
This is also the theme. Like other super heroes, Spider-Man doesn’t change, yet the theme is his dilemma.
A technique to find the theme in a film without a flawed Hero is to look at the difference between the opening and closing situation of the movie. What has changed in the world? What has the Hero achieved?
And what was the quality, the virtue the Hero used to achieve this? Most likely this will be your theme.
Then, you can reinforce your theme by showing through subplot how supporting characters don’t have that virtue.
4. Multiple Themes
Can you have multiple themes? Sure you can.
The more themes your screenplay successfully conveys, the richer the texture of your film. Look at Chinatown or Casablanca: those films have multiple themes and therefore have resonated with audiences for many generations.
Some people see Avatar as just an expensive popcorn flick. But the fans will defend it, saying it successfully carries multiple themes:
Nature prevails over Technology.
To survive, mankind has to reconnect with Earth.
To find happiness, one has to follow one’s true calling.
I’m sure the fans of Avatar have found many more themes in the movie. Perhaps your story, too, has numerous themes.
But if you are an unproduced screenwriter, it may be wise to pick one and develop this further.
Do you have an other way of looking at theme? Tell us in the comments!
– Karel Segers
Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.
Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 7-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.
He is also the boss of this blog.
photo credit: qthomasbower
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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5 thoughts on “4 Variations on the Theme”
Nice post. Theme is such an important aspect of screenwriting, and so often overlooked.
I always like to describe it as “Concept is what your screenplay is about, but Theme is what it is really about.”
You make a good point about finding your story’s theme even if you didn’t set out to write with one in mind. I often wonder when analysing scripts or stories for uni or theatre if the writer really set out to include all the themes and depth that students manage to draw out of a piece. (Often under duress, but still.)
It seems if a story is well structured, with believable characters then the ‘theme will out’.
As for Avatar.. yeah it had a theme, it practically smacked you over the head with it.
Good article Karel. Sound insight and YES, I think it does assist a film more than one might suspect. All films, in my opin have a bulls-eye on the heart; reaching it can be tricky. I’d love your opin on mine. Thank you Sir.
haha to your bio. Great article. Thanks.
Thanks for mentioning the bio. It needed updating. :)