Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Does Theme Have a Place in Screenwriting?

(SPOILERS: To Kill a Mockingbird)

“If you want to send a message use Western Union”
-Sam Goldwyn

What Sam Goldwyn meant, of course, is that movies ought to be entertainment. I think he’s right about that. But that doesn’t mean your movie can’t have strong, thought provoking thematic elements. In fact, I believe every movie sends out all kinds of thematic messages whether the filmmakers mean to or not. And personally I like to be aware of what kinds of messages I’m putting out into the world.

We don’t use the word theme much in the movie business but we do talk about it. We often discuss “what the movie is really about” and “what’s the heart of the story” and “how will the film resonate with the audience.” These are all ways of getting at theme.

First I’d like to differentiate between theme and thesis. Theme is the philosophical topic of the story. Thesis is the take the writer has on that theme. So a movie’s theme may be “infidelity” and the thesis may be “infidelity leads to unhappiness for all involved.”

What good old Sam Goldwyn was really railing against was thesis, not theme. Thesis can get you into trouble. Often the most thought provoking of thematic movies don’t have a strong thesis. They take an ambivalent approach to the theme.

If you want thematic depth in your story you have to have a thesis with some complexity. The movie Extraordinary Measures (written by Robert Nelson Jacobs) has this problem. The movie makes the profound statement that disease is bad and helping kids is good. I hardly need a movie to tell me that.

If you’re making an action movie or comedy you can easily get away with a simplistic thesis such as “love conquers all” or “good men can’t be knocked down.” In fact, you might be better off keeping things simple. But if you’re doing a drama or social satire where the main appeal is that it’s going to engage the viewers’ minds then you better explore a complex theme. And you’re probably going to be better off avoiding a strident stand.

There are exceptions, though often they are most powerful in the context of their time and place. Philadelphia (written by Ron Nyswaner) wears its thesis in support of AIDS victims on its sleeve, but it was released in a time where such a thesis wasn’t very widely accepted. That made it controversial. A similar movie released today would probably bore the audience.

To Kill a Mockingbird (screenplay by Horton Foote) holds up much better. At first glance it may seem that the movie’s thesis is “racism is bad” – a pretty simplistic idea. But though the movie does assume that point, its real theme is about standing up for one’s beliefs.

And it doesn’t treat that theme in a simplistic way at all. Atticus Finch suffers for his beliefs and ultimately loses his case. Scout, whose eyes we’re watching this through, is left with the distinct message that ultimately life isn’t fair. Doing the right thing doesn’t always succeed. And that ambivalence is what makes the movie profound and makes the thesis – that it’s important to do the right thing even when it’s not popular – resonate powerfully.

In practice I’m not always aware of exactly what my theme is when I’m developing my story. Often I think I’m writing about one thing but discover after the first draft that I’m really writing about something else. It was only after Sweet Home Alabama was released that I realized it was actually about the mixed feelings I had about my small town roots when I moved to Los Angeles. I always thought it was a love story!

And it’s in the first draft where we best listen to Mr. Goldwyn. If you want to get the audience involved in your story it must be about characters and their problems, not about philosophical arguments. You can think a lot about theme in the development phase, but when it comes time to write the scenes you need to get all of that out of your head and concentrate on what the characters want and what stands in their way.

(That is how movies like Philadelphia can hold up over time. Even after the relevance of the movie's "message" fades, we can still become involved in the character's struggle.)

Ultimately the best way to explore theme and convey thesis is through character. How you do that will be the topic for my next post!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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