Themes in movies (and how to master theme in screenwriting)

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What are themes in movies, why do they matter, and how do you master them as a screenwriter?

What are themes in movies?

While the theme is often not stated explicitly, it’s arguably one of the most important aspects of a film. Oxford Languages defines a theme as “an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.” The theme is a recurring concept or idea that gives a story meaning. Themes tend to deal with universal human concepts, for example “love,” “death,” or “good vs evil.”

For filmmakers and screenwriters, theme might crop up naturally. For example, a movie about a teenager figuring out who they are will have a coming of age theme, even if the screenwriter never sets out to write a coming of age story. However, once you’ve identified your themes–planned or unintentional–it’s important to make it a conscious part of your creative process. When weighing scenes, conflicts, lines of dialogue, character arcs, or plot points, you should consider how certain choices would contribute to the theme or themes you’re incorporating.

Screenwriter Robert McKee talks about the concept of the “controlling idea,” which he says is the element of the film that the audience will take with them back into their lives after the credits roll. This framing is useful, because your theme, or idea, should be what controls the story. Everything is filtered through the lens of the theme, the idea at the heart of your story.

What are some examples of common themes in movies?

Here are some examples of common themes in movies. These themes, or controlling ideas, are the building blocks of every story.

  • Family
  • Good vs evil
  • Coming of age
  • The nature of beauty
  • Love
  • Death
  • Justice
  • Revenge 
  • Loss and grief
  • Sacrifice
  • Betrayal
  • Reason vs faith
  • Man vs technology
  • Survival
  • Man vs nature
  • Perseverance
  • Social or political themes

What do all of these have in common? They are all universal human concepts, and they can all be boiled down to one word or a short phrase. All of these themes are relatable to almost everyone, and have been explored countless times over the course of human history. Every artist who approaches these themes puts their own spin on them, and examines them in their own unique way. 

Theme and worldview

What do The Graduate, Juno, Mean Girls, and Clueless all have in common? These are all movies that deal with a coming of age theme. The screenwriters and filmmakers approached the theme in different ways, creating four extremely different stories that explore the same theme. This is in part due to the fact that they take a certain stance on their themes. A movie like The Princess Bride  takes a different approach to the theme of revenge than, say, Kill Bill. That’s because although they both deal with the theme of revenge, their view of revenge is different. The core values of the movie, the message that the audience will take with them, are different even if at first glance the theme is the same.

Many stories have more than one theme. For example, Jurassic Park examines man vs technology, man vs nature, survival, and family. You could probably watch the film and pick out even more examples of themes. Again, it’s the film’s perspective on these themes that make it unique. Jurassic Park has a clear message that, as the iconic Dr. Malcolm says, “life finds a way.” Imagine the same film, but with the core message that man overcoming nature through the use of technology is actually awesome and risk free. The same core themes would suddenly have a totally different viewpoint, and then you have a completely different movie.

How do I incorporate theme into my storytelling?

If you have a story to tell, you already have something you want to say. Take some time to think about the story you want to tell, and then reflect on the themes that are inherent to that story. Even if you didn’t consciously plan your themes, they will make themselves clear if you reflect on them long enough.

When you’re planning out your plot, filter the entire thing through your theme. For example, if your theme is the power of love, what is your character facing that makes them confront those themes? What power does love have in the story? How does it influence the plot points (does love save the day?) and how does it influence your character arcs (what did they learn?) Think about the specific message you want your viewers to walk away with, and then weave that into the whole story, from start to finish.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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