Screenwriting: Theme

In February I posted about story structure. The structure of a film is important because it is the foundation of the story and the framework upon which plot can be built and characters can work. Strong plots and good characters can be weakened by poor structure. They can also be fragmented by a poor theme.

Theme is the real heart of good screenwriting, in the same way that structure is it’s skeleton. The theme of a film is what it is really about. It’s the main message and purpose of the story. The Hustler is a movie about pool players, but it’s theme is one of personal character. In the film, Jackie Gleason plays an aging pool champ. The young Paul Newman is a better player, but he still can’t defeat Gleason because Newman lacks the character, discipline, and self-mastery of the older man. When he obtains it later in the film, Gleason recognizes the fact that now Newman is unbeatable. It’s a clear illustration of the importance of character.

The film City Hall is on the surface a pretty basic political drama, but it shows how mayor Al Pacino loses everything because of small compromises made early in his political career. Its theme is based on integrity, and shows how small sins, no matter how carefully concealed, will lead to large-scale ruin. This theme of integrity is also crucial to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but in a different way, as Jimmy Stewart’s battle against corruption more specifically shows how our hero’s good name and personal integrity are his greatest strengths.

Scripts can have multiple themes, or characters who are not related to the ultimate theme, but this will weaken your film. Two excellent examples of scripts with strong, unified, over-arching themes are those for Rain Man and The Verdict. Neither of their structures are perfect, but both are good examples of careful handling of character arc, plot, and theme.

Rain Man’s theme is familial or brotherly love. Charlie Babbitt childishly kidnaps Raymond, his severely autistic brother, in a desperate bid to contest the father’s will and extort some payments for himself from the executor. Charlie’s girlfriend leaves him in disgust, partly a plot device to force Charlie and Raymond to be alone together, but mostly to prevent a romantic love plotline from distracting from the theme of brotherly love. Raymond loves Charlie, but his autism prevents him from showing it. Charlie loves his brother, but his immaturity prevents him from even realizing it. Nevertheless, when constantly torn between his own needs and those of his brother, Charlie repeatedly dies to himself to serve Raymond.

He does so begrudgingly at first, but gradually he becomes aware of the film’s theme. When he does so, he experiences true character growth. He matures, and becomes more of a hero than an anti-hero. In fact, he grows so much that his desires change. His want (money) and his need (loving his brother) are different, and his new, Act III want is to live with his brother. This type of inconsistency could be a weakness to the story, but the script handles it well.

Charlie still requires the money in order to keep his business running, but now he does not greedily desire it. Because of this understanding, the audience still wants him to get the money, thus fulfilling his first, main goal without compromising his newfound character. He then realizes his brother is better off in a clinic, and his love for him is so great that he lets him go back. The audience applauds his selflessness. This is a strong, universal theme, which easily supports a complicated script because it is the primary emotion that drives the characters. There are no other competing messages to dilute the power of the film. Even the initial kidnapping is motivated more by Charlie’s need for fatherly recognition than by greed.

A better example of this is in The Verdict, where the theme is truth; namely that the truth is important, even all-important, and worthy of professional and personal sacrifice to preserve. Everything in the script­–every action and reaction–­has to do with truth. Every obstacle in the film is the result of a lie, and every mystery revolves around finding out if a person is honest or if a statement is correct. Even the backstories of the main characters revolve around proofs and perjuries. In the end, the hero abandons the love interest because he knows she is dishonest. This is a tough ending to sell to an audience, but it works, partly on the strength of the characters themselves, but mostly because the theme is so powerful. If the audience understands the point of the film, they know our hero can’t compromise anywhere. Associating with liars is just not an option after he has grown.

In fact, the hero’s own character growth is very simple; he just comes to realize what the theme of the film is, and in The Verdict, its simplicity is its strength. At the beginning of the film, our hero is a disreputable, opportunistic, pragmatic lawyer with no clients and a serious drinking problem (which is incidental to his character­–the film doesn’t distract from the theme by adding a temperance sermon). His journey is the ongoing discovery that truth is important. His redemption comes when this truth comes out and sets him free. He also follows the want/need dichotomy that makes up solid cinema character; he wants to win a court case; he needs to tell the truth.

The strong theme infuses the entire film, from top to bottom, and makes the plot deeper and the characters more vibrant. What could have been a boring made-for-tv movie about a routine medical malpractice suit becomes a powerful morality tale with stakes far higher than a mere cash settlement. A film that could h