THEME: What Ties it All Together

If plot is what’s on the surface of a film, easily visible to the audience, then the theme is what’s under the surface… kinda hidden like a secret gem, waiting to be uncovered. Themes are sometimes called a life lesson or a message, and the best ones are always subtle.

Some authors claim that themes are one word long:


“The theme of a story is the aspect of the ‘human dilemma’ that it will explore. Betrayal, loyalty, self-worth, ambition, jealousy, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation — these are all valid themes that could explore. Note that there are no verbs involved, no value judgements inherent in potential themes. Something like “love conquers all” or “jealousy destroys from the inside” is a value-charged thesis rather than a theme.” – David Howard, author of How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

While other authors argue that themes could be a sentence long:

“WITNESS has a point of view. Love cannot bridge the gap of two different worlds. In THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the opposite is true. Love can bridge the gap of two different worlds. […]  The message in CHINATOWN is this: You can get away with murder if you have enough money.”- David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script.

Though these two writers define theme differently, their interpretations are still pretty similar. Notice how Trottier’s examples still have  thematic words like “love” and “money” that  define what the movie is about. And regardless of what you call it, your film will always have a moral and a message. The important thing is that you know what you are trying to convey with your film, so that you can be consistent and effective.

However,  Trottier urges your caution: “This moral is not a sermon and it is not preached. Often, you don’t know that this moral or message is when you start scripting your story. Not to worry – you’ll know before you’re through. Just keep writing. CAUTION: There is a danger in focusing on the movie message. You run the risk of writing a preachy script.”

And on this  point both writers agree. Howard calls it a “thesis” and you don’t wanna bang your audience’s head too much with it. They paid $20 for entertainment, not a sermon.

Theme is NOT the Same as Conflict!

I wanted to make a special mention of this because I have seen many professors and publications make this error. If you ask someone for an example of a theme, they might answer: “Man vs. Nature” or “Man vs. Himself.” In my opinion, these are not themes but types of conflict. Types of conflict are the framework for any plot, but they are different from the theme. Below are the four most famous types of conflict:

  • Man vs. Man (Dirty Harry, The Terminator, Witness)
  • Man vs. Himself. (Finding Forrester, The Truman Show)
  • Man vs. Nature (Dante’s Peak, Noah)
  • Man vs. Society (High Noon, Milk)

Some of these overlap. High Noon, for instance, is both a Man vs. Society and a Man vs. Man kind of plot.

Theme as Unity

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) tells the story of a handicap photographer (James Stewart) who suspects a murder has happened in his apartment complex after noticing abnormal events unfold from his living room window. This is the forefront of the movie; its plot. Nobody gets out of the theater not knowing that.

The theme, however, is subtle. Most people that have watched Rear Window may or may not have grasped what its theme is. Since themes are delicate and subjective, scholars and critics may occasionally debate. But I think that in Rear Window, the prominent theme is relationship. Even more so than romance because romance implies good moments. But relationship also contains the nitty-gritty stuff: arguments, despair, and solitude.

In Rear Window, the apparently disjointed string of events is held together through this theme, which furnishes it with unity.

The romance between Jeff and Lisa (Grace Kelly) is too obvious an example, but even a superficial analysis of some of the neighbors is enough to elaborate the underlying relationship theme:

  • In the beginning of the movie, a newlywed couple moves into an apartment. All joy. Blinds drawn implies a honeymoon in progress. But as the story unfolds, their marriage deteriorates.
  • Miss Torso, a lovely ballet dancer, is often “doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” With so many suitors, her options are plenty, though she often dismisses them all.
  • Mrs. Lonelyhearts is an old, single woman who seemingly failed to attract a man into wedlock during her prime years. Clearly disturbed, she hosts dinners for two even though no one joins her. Alone, she addresses an invisible man, product of her imagination, with whom she dines.

Clearly all these side characters and sub-plots were created to develop the theme. Furthermore, the heart of the plot – the murder – also draws a parallel to it, as one of the possible causes for the assassination was the bitter relationship in which the murderer and his victim lived in.

Theme as a Lesson

Besides providing unity and tying the story together, theme can also exist to send a message or teach a lesson to the audience. In the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer, one of the lessons expressed is: if someone wants love, then they need to take action and chase it.

500-days-of-summer

Like in Rear Window, one of the themes in (500) Days of Summer is relationship.

From the beginning, the movie builds this lesson until it’s clearly stated in the ending: “Love doesn’t just happen.” This concept also illustrates the main character’s arc. At the movie’s beginning, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the type of guy who waits for love instead of making it happen. At the end, Tom finally takes action and is rewarded.

A Little Trivia

“If you have a message, call Western Union” is a famous sentence sometimes quoted by producers to express their disdain for  themes or messages or lessons in the movies. Some producers simply don’t like to talk about it because it’s too brainy.

The quote is often misattributed to the famous producer Samuel Goldwyn (The Best Years of Our Lives, Guys and Dolls), but there’s no consensus as to who said it first.

I wish I would know how most producers, directors, and writers approach the idea of theme. Is that a priority in their movies? Or do they just allow a theme to emerge as the story progresses?

Do you agree with the themes and lessons above? Or could (500) Days of Summer be about something else? What about Rear Window? As I mentioned, themes are subjective and open for interpretation. I would love to hear your thoughts below.