Movie Themes: Using Concept to Inform Screenplay Story
Ask the average person to list some movie themes, and they might respond with only a confused look.
But start to name a few movie themes, and they’ll likely be quick to smile or nod in affirmation. Why’s that? Because while movie themes are inherent to the ongoing popularity and love of cinema, few people outside the film industry tend to think about them.
Movie themes are typically universal concepts or life experiences that most people can relate to or have gone through themselves1. And as the examples below demonstrate, it’s also why films with strong thematic material often do so well and stand the test of time even decades after they’re made. At the same time, this universal aspect of life often makes movie themes part of the storytelling process that slips under the radar of many movie lovers—kind of like asking a fish to be conscious of the water it lives in.
The following breaks down some of the most popular movie themes and why so many filmgoers are drawn to them. And for all those filmmakers thinking about their first or next project, an exploration of movie themes is a great place to begin for finding a story that can resonate with millions of others.
Coming of Age
As mentioned, most movie themes encompass universal experiences, and few experiences are more universal than that of growing up with all the awkward, angsty and otherwise awful events and emotions that go along with it. No matter where a person lives, what their obstacles are or how they deal with them, the coming of age story2 is one that many people can relate to regardless of their personal unique circumstances. But as with many movie themes, the coming of age story can be told in a variety of ways, such as through humor, drama, flashback, ensemble or a single protagonist’s point of view.
Writer Shayne Anderson discusses the role that this theme played in his work: “When writing my script, I was aware of a theme. It was apparent early on the story I wanted to tell revolved around a family. Not only a biological one but a family at the school. Friendship as family.”
Examples: Boyz in the Hood, The Breakfast Club, Lady Bird, The Outsiders, Rebel Without a Cause, Stand By Me, Superbad.
Dangers of Technology
Sometimes movie themes can represent not necessarily what we experience in life but what we fear, particularly when it means losing control to someone—or something—else. Hence, films about the dangers of technology. Particularly over the last 40 years, this type of film has been a constant on the screen. In many cases, they play not only with the idea of technology taken too far but also biological and medical advances gone awry that may potentially mean doom for a country, a continent or even all of humanity.
Examples: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gattaca, Inception, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Minority Report, The Terminator.
Remember when we said that the coming of age story is universal? Still true, but when it comes down to it, the concept of death definitely has it beat. Of all movie themes, death is truly the most universal—bittersweet at its best and downright terrifying at its worse. As a result, death can be worked into nearly any film genre, including drama, romance, comedy, horror and even children’s animation. The idea of death can also be approached from many angles: the knowledge that death is coming, attempted escape from death, the aftermath of an unexpected death and even the experience of existence post-death.
Examples: Big Fish, Coco, Dead Man Walking, Death Becomes Her, Final Destination, Harold and Maude, Ordinary People.
Good Versus Evil
People just love to categorize. Black or white. Hot or cold. Big or little. And above all else, we enjoy categorizing anything and everything as either good or bad. For this reason, the movie theme of good versus evil has been one of the more successful on the big screen—especially when good finally triumphs over evil. Because who doesn’t love a happy ending? As the examples below illustrate, good versus evil movies are generally depicted in an over-the-top, larger-than-life kind of way with superheroes fighting supervillains, both on earth and planets or worlds outside ours, making this theme one that lends itself well to epic blockbusters.
Examples: Avengers series, The Dark Knight, Harry Potter series, The Hobbit trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Indiana Jones series, Star Wars series.
Everyone loves love, right? But what’s so interesting is that when it comes to movie themes, love itself is hardly the main component of a love story. Rather it’s the struggle to find, retain or win back love—typically with a satisfying result—that keeps people in their seats and rooting for the star-crossed couple3. It could be cultural differences, family interference, social constraints, good old-fashioned miscommunication, war or even a sinking ocean liner that keeps the star-crossed lovers apart, but no matter the obstacle, audiences usually remain riveted and hopeful until the final frame that those lovers will eventually find their way to each other. Says Actor and filmmaker Julia Manis, “I love watching and telling stories that involve complex emotional journeys, philosophical arguments, and paradoxes. The more complex, the better!”
Examples: An Affair to Remember, Brokeback Mountain, Casablanca, The Notebook, Titanic, West Side Story, When Harry Met Sally.
Man Versus Nature
Many people fear the dangers of technology, but sometimes it’s nature that we need to watch out for! As with its technological counterpart, the menace of the wild is frequently explored through film4. However, one fascinating contrast between the two is that while technological horrors are often depicted as affecting millions of people, if not the entirety of humanity (à la The Terminator), man versus nature stories generally focus in on one person—or a small group—being terrorized by the natural world around us.
Examples: 127 Hours, The Birds, Cast Away, Into the Wild, Jaws, The Perfect Storm, The Wind.
No one goes through life without their fair share of challenges. While in the everyday world we don’t often get the chance to be celebrated for overcoming them, they do in the movies! And that’s exactly why, among movie themes, that of overcoming adversity is so popular. What many people do in following a protagonist’s journey is begin to identify with them, so their challenges become our challenges and their victories, our victories. When we finally see them nail that dance number, hold their own in the boxing match or even escape an unwarranted prison sentence, we celebrate as if we overcame those obstacles ourselves.
Examples: Billy Elliot, The Blind Side, Forrest Gump, Milk, Rocky, Rudy, The Shawshank Redemption.
Even some of the more fulfilling parts of life can require sacrifice and sometimes even a little suffering. Training for a physical event or endeavor. Studying for a major test or working towards a degree. Or trying to have a family and raising kids. Parenthood encompasses a significant portion of many peoples’ lives, which naturally leads to films about it being quite popular. Especially as the concept of family has evolved over the last several decades, stories about what parenthood means have exploded onto the screen.
Examples: The Kids Are All Right, Kramer vs. Kramer, Mrs. Doubtfire, Parenthood, Raising Arizona, Three Men and a Baby, Wonder.
There’s good adversity like getting through college or raising a family. And then there’s bad adversity like getting bullied at school or being enslaved against one’s will. When it comes to the latter, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a wronged person exact revenge on those who oppressed them5. Among movie themes, that of revenge can often be viewed by the audience member through the lens of fantasy. As with overcoming adversity, filmgoers tend to identify with the person who has suffered, and while in real life most people—thankfully!—do not seek out vengeance, we can gleefully live out that fantasy through this type of film.
Examples: Carrie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gladiator, Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2, The Lady Eve, Mean Girls.
The experience of war has changed dramatically over the last one-hundred years, but the popularity of it in movies has not. Take a look at the list of war films mentioned below. Every single one of them has been nominated for or won Academy Awards. In fact, war has been one of the most dominant movie themes since the inception of cinema. While not everyone experiences life on the battlefield, few aspects of life have changed the world more than war. Moreover, within this microcosm we typically see more universal concepts emerge, such as heroism, cowardice, betrayal, sacrifice, grief, and fear. And because of this, war does, in fact, become a universal experience that continues to inspire filmmakers to explore it.
Examples: All Quiet on the Western Front, Apocalypse Now, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Deer Hunter, Glory, Patton, Platoon, Saving Private Ryan.
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- 1. "Theme". Elements of Cinema. published: . retrieved on: 24 December 2019
- 2Butt, Kathryn. "What Makes a Coming-of-Age Film? (Genre Series)". Raindance. published: 30 July 2018. retrieved on: 24 December 2019
- 3Accorto, Karla. "Six Reasons Why Romantic Comedies Are The Only Films You Need In Your Life". Odyssey. published: 12 August 2015. retrieved on: 24 December 2019
- 4Nilescu, Horia. " 25 Great Man vs. Nature Movies That Are Worth Your Time". Taste of Cinema. published: 7 November 2015. retrieved on: 24 December 2019
- 5Vulture Editors. "Vulture Asks: What Are the Best Revenge Movies?". Vulture. published: 7 August 2017. retrieved on: 24 December 2019