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You Are Your Theme (and other stories)

A blog on theme and how it relates to scripts, audiences, characters - and your entire life.

THEME AND SPECTACLE a.k.a A Tale Of Two Batmen

How do you remember "Batman and Robin"? Gaudy? Too many "ice" puns? And the Bat-Nipples. I don't think many people can unsee the Bat-Nipples.

And how do you remember "The Dark Knight"? Well given it's currently #4 on IMDB's top 250 with nearly 2 million votes and generally held up as the best superhero film ever, probably a lot better.

So, what happened?

I use 2 axes on a mental graph regarding how much a film emotionally affects me:

X Axis: "Does this make me feel something rich and true about the nature of life?"

Y Axis:"Am I silently saying "cooooool" whilst dosing popcorn, cola and adrenaline?".

Spectacle, the Y Axis, ranges from lush cinematography to (more prevalently in the modern age) space battles, giant robots, mutants, Batman. Big set pieces. Stuff explodes.

But Spectacle isn't always enough. Whilst there is a clearer path to improving many things in script writing, what is hidden behind what we see is harder to put a finger on. The X-Axis. The X-Factor.

So then, why the does "The Dark Knight" satisfy so well on both axes?

It has the spectacle, but also deeply resonant themes - "Can we endure, when our rules are tested and we risk being viewed as a villain for doing what is right?".

A strong theme can transform a film. It is the unspoken background to what you see. It transforms even a film with little in the way of spectacle.

If you're writing to a low budget, this can only be seen as good news. #1 on the IMDB list is "The Shawshank Redemption". The theme: "fear makes you a prisoner, hope sets you free". And nothing blows up in that film at all.


How does theme transmit to us when we watch a film?

Simply put, there is no such thing as an objectively good script or film that everyone will love.

There's always someone claiming "Casablanca" was crap. Or that "Star Wars" was dull. Or that "Freddy Got Fingered" is genius. Someone's common sense is always someone else's heresy.

A specific viewer's beliefs and prejudices are a lens that transform what they see. Their opinions also change over time. If a viewer's beliefs change, so does the film. As an example, as a student I thought "Bad Boys" was akin to Shakespeare. Alas, not now.

There is a way of considering what affects us all at a base human level, however.

We have evolved far from our primal states, but the base programming which governs visceral needs still exists, and exists in us all. The most primal needs connect with the largest audience.

Ivan Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs" is a discussion of the ranking of the order of needs that humans have in order to survive. Look it up, then the top 100 films on IMDB . Look at their themes.

There is a decent correlation between higher needs and the themes of the more successful films.

In the case of film, these kind of themes trigger those primal natures and persist over time and to a wider group. Survival, endurance, love, justice, friendship, family, venturing beyond our boundaries, getting home... that's what themes the films that mean the most to me discuss. And probably the ones which mean the most to you.


I can't find who first said it, but there's a line I love:

"Theme is the opposite of the character's flaw".

As examples:

In "E.T." Elliott lacks friendship.

In "Breaking Bad", Walter lacks power.

In "The Kings Speech", Bertie lacks the ability to express himself emotionally.

The theme is of the search for these.

A lot of pitches talk of a character's skill, which is something they can do at any time. A flaw shows the character's journey, the story - if they lack it, the story is of what they need to learn.

In developing your script, when considering theme, try looking at each of your characters and their flaws. What themes bind them together?

I also use this when thinking up script ideas. As a test, develop character ideas for a protagonist via flaw/theme - "imagine a protagonist who lacks [insert theme here]".

What are they like? How does the flaw make them feel and act? Where do you see them? What kind of antagonist would oppose them most effectively in overcoming that flaw? Regarding the antagonist's flaw, what is their journey? Do the scenes keep playing on the battle to fix the flaw?

Pick a different flaw/theme each time and see how many distinct characters you come up with. Hope it helps. Works for me.


Two theories:

1. You are your own story.

You think about your characters a lot. So, what about you?

If you were a character, what would be your skills? Your flaws? What's your genre? What's the pace of your story? What would be your theme?

The stories you tell reflects that which resonates most in your life. "Write what you know" is about the feelings, not the actions of your life.

2. If you connect these personal themes that resonate to the scripts you write, it will strengthen them.

If you have something in your own life that you intuitively understand, you'll translate it better into a script than someone with no conception of it.

As examples, Taylor Sheridan wrote Hell Or High Water after seeing what was happening to his crumbling part of America. Stories like Moonlight are directly lifted from stories of true lives, true struggles.

Everything I write, I try to connect it with a feeling about something - usually overcoming something that makes me angry.

My last script was about an art scandal regarding a painter and socialite in 19th century Paris. When writing it, I always tried to keep in mind how angry I am when public opinion shames someone they don't understand or know. I believe that finding something of yourself in a script can transform it.

Knowing that link to your script gives more power to you when you have to answer a classic pitch meeting question. The producer sits there, looks you square in the eye and asks:

"What is it about you that makes you the person to tell THIS story?"?

Well, now you have an answer. The themes of you that match the themes of your stories.

By the way, that producer is waiting for the answer to the question. Go on.

Tell them the story of your life.

I've tried to find who said "Theme Is the opposite of the character's flaw" first, but it's not clear. Here's two links regarding some potential contenders. If anyone can confirm who did let me know!


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