VIDEO ESSAY: What’s the Theme in Fargo

Hello ladies and gents, how’s everyone doing?

I spent the last two weeks working on the video essay below, and I’m so excited to be finally sharing this with you! Not only was this a lot of fun (though time-consuming), I do see tremendous benefits for you — the future filmmakers and screenwriters of the world. This is a new series and — time permitting — I hope to be able to create other video essays like this one regularly.

The topic I chose for this essay was theme. Though I’ve talked about theme before, I thought it would be insightful to pick one movie and one theme, and show how that movie surveys the theme. The film I chose for this was Fargo, and the theme was… well, watch the video, will ya?

SPOILER ALERT: This video essay spoils major plot points in Fargo


Though theme is an important element in a screenplay (and one that academia goes head-over-heels for), it’s worth mentioning that theme is often NOT defined from the outset. If you choose a theme before you start writing a screenplay, you may be tempted (perhaps subconsciously) to overemphasize it, and that may make your story too preachy.

That is trouble because a theme is more powerful for an audience when they have to work their brains to figure out what it is. Notice that in Fargo, even when Marge delivers the life lesson, she does so off-screen. The Coen brothers knew that having a character lecturing or preaching directly to the audience was a no-no. Instead, the Coens (who also edited the movie) elected to show a reaction shot of the perpetrator in the backseat of the police cruiser. This invites the audience to reflect about consequences without being hit on the head with the theme.

On that same note, know that the word “greed” itself is never uttered in the film (at least I can’t think of it). Theme is not marketable. Studios won’t buy your screenplay or film because of its theme. Nor will they advertise the theme when promoting a film. It’s the treatment of the theme, in other words plot and characters, that will determine whether your work is worthwhile.

I hope this makes sense to you. And if not, let me know below.

If you liked this essay, you may be interested in supporting the Elements of Cinema. You can read more about it here.

Comments

  1. Janet says

    I hadn’t thought of ‘theme’ until your Essay. There are passages in the book that are just thoughts and somehow these have to be brought into the picture. When I reach my next stopping point I’ll do a revision to check that important opportunities for enriching ‘theme’ haven’t been lost. The email video was A1 and underpinned the Essay proper. I love this idea of videos. Thank you, Gabriel.

    • Gabe Moura says

      Hi Janet, thanks for your feedback. I’m happy the essay helped you understand the concept of theme, which can be so subtle until someone points out the scenes that highlight it. Best of luck with your book!

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