A film takes viewers on a journey through a story and into the world of ideas, connecting us on a deeper level to our own lives. Regardless of genre, a great movie “speaks” to us and creates an emotional impact through plot, character and conflict that revolves around the exploration of a theme.
Almost all films have a theme - some simple (Star Wars), some complex (Schindler’s List), and some just ‘tacked-on’ (Transformers) with little to no role in serving the story. Even farcical comedies, such as Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, which is a concept or premise-driven film (the concept being a parody of Westerns), incorporates a theme (the issue of tolerance).
Theme answers the question, “What is this story really about?” or, in other words, “What’s the purpose of this story?”
Little Miss Sunshine: What it means to be a winner or loser in life.
American Beauty: What it means to live a full and authentic life.
The Cider House Rules: Finding one’s place in the world.
As writers, the more we can understand about our own lives, the better we can create stories that resonate. A great script begins with a writer who is clear about the theme he or she wants to explore and finds ways to express those ideas in the story through scenes, characters, dialogue, conflict, and images.
Hope is the theme of the film The Shawshank Redemption. Writer Frank Darabont deftly weaves this theme throughout the script with scenes that reflect hope: the building of the prison library, Andy Dufresne locking himself in the warden’s office and playing operatic music over the loud speaker for the prisoners to hear, and Andy arranging for a group of prisoners to enjoy cold beers while working on the rooftop. Darabont also expresses the theme through images and dialogue, such as in the final scene of the film:
I hope I can make it across the border.
I hope to see my friend and shake his hand.
I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams.
At the other end of the theme idea spectrum is the film Unforgiven, which focuses on the hopelessness of the human condition, exploring the issue of violence. Screenwriter David Webb Peoples chooses elements that best serve the theme, revealing why people may desire violence (as retribution for a horrendous crime against a powerless victim who is denied justice), but ultimately illustrating that violence only begets more violence and makes matters worse: Davey and Quick Mike’s murders do not provide any satisfaction for Delilah or change the fact that she is maimed, Sheriff Little Bill uses violence to keep the peace in the town (and is eventually killed), the Schofield Kid romanticizes the notion of violence but becomes physically ill when he witnesses the real thing.
Every character in the film, save for the Schofield Kid, is worse off at the end of the story then when it began. At the beginning of the film the protagonist William Munny is a reformed and redeemed gunslinger (who can no longer even shoot straight), a tea-totaler, and a responsible father. By the end of the story, Munny is a falling-down drunk alcoholic and mass murderer who shoots with deadly accuracy; no longer redeemed, he is far from being “forgiven”.
What is the theme of your story? What is it that you want to “say”? How will you weave the theme through the screenplay and convey it every scene?