by Dennis MaGee Fallon
Theme can be a tricky thing. It’s often hidden in good scripts, heavy handed in bad ones, and sometimes nowhere at all. But, as many screenwriters, critics and film buffs can attest, a powerful theme can make all the difference in a great story. So, what is theme and how can we get some of it for our own scripts? Creative Screenwriting sat down with award-winning author and script consultant Michael Hauge on an especially hot afternoon in Los Angeles to discuss theme, that most mysterious element of screenwriting. Hauge’s book Writing Screenplays That Sell breaks down the idea of theme into a simple set of guidelines and that can be applied to any story, from the smallest indie cinema to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.
For Hauge, the idea of theme is tied in closely to character arc and a hero’s inner journey. Below, the author explains in his own words what a theme is and how to make sure your theme, characters and plot all line up to create an emotionally satisfying story. On the way to figuring out what theme is, Hauge enlightens us on Carl Jung, Iron Man 3 and old fashioned, red-blooded “American” themes (we bet you didn’t know there’s really only three).
DENNIS MAGEE FALLON: How does theme differ from a hero’s inner journey? They seem interconnected.
MICHAEL HAUGE: They are almost the same thing. This is my definition of theme: theme is the prescription for living that the writer wants to give the audience or the reader. It’s the statement made by a movie as to how we should live our lives, so we can be more fulfilled. This is how to become “individuated”—the Jungian term for psychological maturity. Whatever theme the screenwriter wants to explore, that must be the inner journey for the hero of the story. So if your theme is that to be fully evolved and fulfilled human beings, we must learn to connect with others (as it is in Shrek, Good Will Hunting, Rain Man and countless other films), then that’s what the hero of your screenplay must learn through the course of the story. In other words, that must be the hero’s character arc. Character arc is the transformation from living in fear to living courage; it’s the journey from being defined by others to defining yourself. When you make that character arc universal—when it can apply to anyone who sees the movie—then it’s the theme of the film.
FALLON: Carl Jung is quite a reference for an article on screenwriting. So how is this arc or “individuation” developed in those films you mentioned?
HAUGE: Will Hunting in Good Will Hunting is defined by the fact that his father beat him. In Rain Man, a 3-year old Charlie Babbitt had his brother taken away, his mother die and his father abandon him. And Shrek was repeatedly rejected for being an ogre. These wounding experiences made each of these heroes afraid of getting close to others; they are emotionally cut off. But, at the end of those movies, these characters are all in one way or another able to stand up and say, “I choose to define myself as who I really am.” They are no longer going to be defined by what other people did to them or said to them.
FALLON: Do all the main characters in a movie need to echo the theme or is theme solely about your hero?
HAUGE: The principle characters will usually contribute to or echo the theme, but that doesn’t mean all the main characters go through the same arc. They may not find the maturity or individuation the hero has found. Or they may have their own arcs, separate from the hero’s. A lot of times you will have a nemesis character (an opponent or villain) who has some similarity to the hero at the beginning of the film. For example, in Shrek, Lord Farquaad regards Shrek as a dumb ogre incapable of love—which is exactly how Shrek sees himself. But by the end of the film, our hero has evolved and transformed, but his nemesis has failed to evolve. So, both characters contribute to the overall theme.
FALLON: Is theme present in modern, mainstream “popcorn movies”?
HAUGE: Sure. Let’s take Iron Man 3. Screenwriter and director Shane Black was exploring the idea that if we lose our sense of self—our ideals from the past—then tragedy will result. Tony Stark and the three villains in the film have all lost touch with who they really are. But only the hero ultimately has the courage to let go of the celebrity he has become and again define himself before it’s too late.
FALLON: Sounds deep for a “comic book” movie.
HAUGE: Even Ben Kingsley’s character is reflecting this main theme because he is a character who is pretending to be somebody he is not. Now, with Kingsley‘s character, it’s played a little more over the top, but the theme is there nonetheless. And the Guy Pearce character becomes a tragic character because he doesn’t really have the courage to confront what we‘re talking about—he can’t recognize how he has changed.
FALLON: Is the theme in a movie just a way of telling us how we should feel? Could you say that the theme is the same thing as a story’s message?
HAUGE: No, theme isn’t how we should feel, but how we should live. I make a distinction about theme and message. A theme is universal—if a movie develops a character arc that is solid, if there is a good theme, it will apply to anyone that sees a movie, it doesn’t matter your circumstance. A message is a statement about how you should live your life in a certain situation.
Take a movie like Hotel Rwanda. The message has to do with genocide in Africa—it wants to stir our emotions and get us to take action against it. That’s a great thing that a story can do, but the theme of that movie has to do with standing up and doing what was right, no matter what the risk to yourself or the people close to you. That’s the arc the hotel manager goes through in that movie. You may never have any personal experience with African genocide, but all of us must learn that we’ve got to stand up and do what’s right, regardless of the consequences. That universal truth is the theme of the movie.
FALLON: Since themes are universal truths, do a lot of movies and stories have similar themes?
HAUGE: With Hollywood movies, there are three themes you see repeatedly. I think this has something to do with these three things being very American ideals, because you don’t necessarily see the same themes when you look at foreign films. The first is that you must connect with other people. It’s the idea that you can’t isolate yourself or shut down emotionally. The second theme is that you must stand up for who you truly are and define yourself, regardless of what other people think or tell you you should be. The third theme is that you must do what is right, regardless of the consequences. Those three ideas are developed again and again in American movies.
FALLON: What about themes in films from other countries?
HAUGE: These three themes aren’t necessarily themes you will see occurring in other cultures. One of the things that permeates a lot of British storytelling is the class system. That really isn’t something we deal with much here. Take an American romantic comedy like Pretty Woman and compare it to a British romantic comedy like Notting Hill.
They are both about chasms, they are both about haves and have-nots, but in Notting Hill it is very much a class sort of thing. In Pretty Woman, even though the setup is that he’s a billionaire and she’s a hooker, the theme doesn’t deal with that disparity. It’s really about having the courage to risk intimacy. In America, we at least like to think that anybody can become anything, regardless of their class.
While it may be easy to categorize Hollywood films as being too slick, mainstream and superficial to contain any substantial theme, it’s Hauge’s view that the best Hollywood movies contain ideas, principals and universal truths in addition to being slick and commercially successful.
In Writing Screenplays That Sell Hauge draws a thematic parallel between a hero and his nemesis, while drawing differences between a hero and his “reflection” (reflection characters are often sidekicks and friends that help the hero with his outer motivation- think Donkey in Shrek). Theme emerges from the hero’s similarity to the nemesis and differences from his reflection.
Finally, it’s important to note that, for Hauge, a writer’s main concern must always be to the hero’s outer motivation first—a theme can’t be imposed on a story’s concept. Layers like allegory, archetype and symbols must develop naturally from within. Theme is an “unconscious development” that reaches your audience on an unconscious level.
For a more in depth look at theme and character arc and how it applies to the hero/protagonist of your story, Michael Hauge (along with author Christopher Vogler) released a lecture DVD entitled, The Hero’s 2 Journeys, which compares and contrasts two well known author’s unique approaches to the structural principles of a story and how it relates to the deeper storyline of inner journey and character arc. For Hauge, a hero moves from “hiding within a protective identity to experiencing his or her true essence,” while Chris Vogler feels “the hero’s inner need is invisible at first, but is revealed to the hero by the end of the story.” More information is available at www.strorymastery.com.
Why not take a look at these great videos from Michael, available for streaming from this website?