The first hand-in for a 1st-year-undergrad university course on Creative Writing I took in 2009. I couldn’t bring myself to read all of it again, it’s so badly informed (notice the complete lack of critical perspective in my bibliography). I assume that I’d rushed this last minute; choosing instead to dedicate the weeks I had in preparation to partying and playing megadrive. That first line even – eurgh! “EVERY film and play has at least one defining theme”?! What tosh. Past Monty is, and always will be, an imbecile. Well, enjoy…
Every film and play has at least one defining theme, if not more. The theme of a piece is a topic, term, or moral that runs through the course of the play, book, or film; like an invisible backbone. Although the theme of a piece may be obvious, there is no restriction on just how many themes an article may have, and there are limitless possibilities to what the themes of a piece are. The theme of a piece can guide the action of the characters, or it may more likely be a reflection on them. The theme can be enlightening to the audience, even cathartic in some cases. A brief example may be in the Disney film “Lilo and Stitch (2003)”, wherein a girl befriends an alien who later becomes an adopted member of the family – the ‘importance of family’ is the prevailing theme of this film, and it is obvious through the plot, the dialogue, “Ohana means family; family means noone gets left behind, or forgotten”, and the fact that the girl herself has been orphaned and lives under the care of her older sister. Disney films are excellent at letting their themes show – they are constructed to imprint moral lessons onto children, and thus must be simple to understand, and to easy remember; Disney films are practically themes that the characters, plot, and dialogue adheres to, which is why I am comfortable in using Lilo and Stitch as a brief example.
The theme of a piece is not always there to educate, but the better themes that surface are the ones that demand thought on the audience’s behalf. If the theme of a piece was ‘betrayal’, the audience must travel through the stages of firstly questioning what betrayal is, whether it is ever justified, and what in the show they are witnessing is an act of betrayal. Having witnessed and considered the term, it is possible that the audience member relates to some of the content, or can recall past moments where they have experienced either betrayal or being betrayed – the stronger the theme, the greater the catharsis. This link is one reason why people enjoy watching things that are positively entertaining, like sitcoms, or sketch shows – comedy in general. Fairly obviously, the themes of comedic pieces will stir more positivity within the audience member’s mind. I do not wish to flatly suggest that all comedy has comedic themes, Chekov’s “The Proposal”, for instance is a comedic piece with such themes as ‘pride’, ‘selfishness’, ‘arguments’, and ‘marital unrest’. Once again, I am not suggesting these to be the only themes of the play, and of course I am not suggesting that they are the most important themes of the piece. Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” includes death threats, drug abuse, fighting, seduction, and much adult content, which contribute to such themes as ‘mortality’, ‘deceit’, and ‘sex’ – all very adult for a comedy widely considered so suitable for children.
Likewise, many Disney films contain questionable themes and morals – the prevailing theme of “Beauty and the Beast” (1994) is ‘Beauty’, with the lesson that regardless of everyone’s exterior, it is the beauty on the inside that truly matters. This is all well and good, but all things considered, the Beast’s transformation into a handsome prince completely detracts from this lesson, replacing it with some loose message that you can change someone you love to better suit you, and that this takes place after the Beast has actually murdered a human character. More themes can be ‘Love’, ‘Winter’, and with most Disney films, ‘Magic’ – and at the other end of the spectrum, there are ‘Prejudice’, ‘Deformity’, ‘Hatred’. Plays and films can have a wide mixture of mature themes as well as childish ones – it is just more noticeable to an adult whenever a mature theme is present.
There have been many occasions of a series of pieces that present a shared theme throughout, for instance the first three “Star Wars” films all explore the themes of ‘Defiance’, ‘Power’, and ‘Relationships’, and they play as a coming-of-age story for the protagonist, Luke Skywalker. Similarly, there are occasions of a series of pieces that, although related, explore very different themes each time, though this is more so the case for television serials than films, for instance the popular television show “Skins” (2007) breaks each episode of its first season into stories concerning, or at least mainly focusing on, just one character, and their troubles at the time. One episode would show the themes of ‘Betrayal’ and ‘Loss’, where another one would deal with ‘Revelation’ and ‘Forgiveness’.
Films can be split into sections that each explore a different theme; the 2006 film “Candy” is split into three sections, “Heaven”, “Earth”, and “Hell”. Following the love life of two drug abusers in Australia, the first segment is concerned with the themes ‘Love’, ‘Youth’, and ‘Success’. The second segment deals with ‘Pain’, ‘Addiction’, and ‘Unhealthy’. The final segment covers ‘Loss’, ‘Defeat’, and ‘Morality’. Though many themes are present, the overlying theme of “Candy” could well be ‘Addiction’, as it is a tale of addiction, both the roots, and the results of it. And in the way that these themes are lesser to a main theme, with my previous example of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, each film itself has separate themes, episode IV about ‘Discovery’, episode V about ‘Trial’, and episode VI about ‘Persistence’.
The theme of a piece needn’t be just one word either. Many themes are expressed through a phrase or sentence, and these can be more focused that the universality of using just one word. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is thematically about ‘Love’, ‘Loss’, and ‘Law’, but it could be more accurate to suggest the theme to be ‘The power of forbidden love’, or ‘The disastrous effect of young love’ or ‘Tragedy in Love’. If one attempts to make a theme too relevant to its piece, then it loses all its universality and goes from being a theme to being a summary of the plot, or story. For example, I could have suggested that “Romeo and Juliet” is about ‘Star-Crossed lovers meeting with tragedy’, but that would be plot; I might even have gone on to say it is about ‘ Star-Crossed lovers in Verona committing suicide for what turns out to be no reason at all’, but that would be story. As we regress backwards through these past few examples, it is clear to see that only “Romeo and Juliet” could have that story, whereas quite a few plays or films could share the plot – “Titanic (1997)”, “The Lion King 2 (1998)”, for instance – and literally thousands of films, plays, books, radioplays, and other media could include the themes, with an even greater scope for the one-word themes.
“Equus” by Peter Shafer (1993) covers many themes – mostly mature themes however, considering the events of the play. The blinding of horses, the trial and mental instability of a teenage boy, praise of a horse-god, and recollection of passionate memories with horses; the play is about ‘Sexual Awakening’, ‘the Influence of Religion’, ‘Lust’, ‘Power, ‘Psychotic behaviour’, and ‘Analysis’. These key themes tell us the content of the story, and in terms of the plot, which may be summarized as ‘The sexual awakening and tragedy of a troubled individual’. My interpretation of the plot contains multiple themes in the one sentence – ‘troubled individual’, ‘sexual awakening’. Plots can be created through the considered process of combining themes of the play. For examples’ sake, I consider the play “Mother Courage and her children”, wherein different themes include ‘Loss’, ‘Wartime Profiteering’, ‘Negligence’, ‘Ownership’, and ‘Pride’ – from these I could suggest the plot of Mother Courage to be ‘The loss suffered by an individual through negligence and pride’. One must be careful though, as it is easy to choose the wrong themes when writing a plot, and thus skew the intention of the play or film completely – if I were to have suggested the plot to be ‘Loss of Ownership through Wartime Profiteering by an individual’, then it would have sounded completely incorrect. The inclusion of ‘Ownership’, despite being vague to someone ignorant of the play, is a direct reference to Mother Courage’s children, and so this ‘plot’ has lost its universality and become a description of the story. The overlying theme of the play, through my interpretation, is ‘Loss’, and that includes loss through ignorance, loss of business, loss of status, loss of morals, loss of her children, actions that result in loss, and the loss of one side in the war from which she is making her living. Mother Courage does not show any regret, so she does not display a sense of loss – which I feel is important to the play – but she does nonetheless lose a great deal over the course of the play. I now reflect on my comment and suggest that ‘Loss through ignorance’ could be a description of the plot. Other films and plays feature it as a plot, ”Downfall” (2006) coming to mind, or even just a s a subplot, as with most villains or antagonists – “Beauty and the Beast” has the character Gaston, whose ignorant pride in himself and ignorant opposition to Beast lead to his downfall, and eventual demise. This aspect of the plot adds ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Pride’ to my list of the themes in “Beauty and the Beast”.
To suggest every play or film has only one theme is ridiculous, but there will always be some themes that are more relevant to the piece – returning to the phrase that the theme is the backbone, the themes of higher importance would be the large vertebrae, and those of lesser importance would be smaller vertebrae. Shared themes among plays and films suggest the theme to be a topic of great discussion – with multiple productions addressing a similar theme; it both suggests the importance of that theme, and the universality of it. The stronger the theme, the greater the interest in the piece, with audiences preferring to view ‘Passion’, ‘Deliverance’, and ‘Genocide’ over ‘Liking’, ‘Biking’, and ‘Drink Spiking’. Theme must always be addressed in the creation of a piece, and discussed after the presenting of it – where a play may be dropped or forgotten, the themes will continue in many other plays and films.
“Equus” Shafer, Peter. London: Longman 2007.
“Lion King 2”, “Lilo and Stitch”, “Beauty and the Beast” Disney, USA 1994-2003
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “Romeo and Juliet” Shakespeare, William. “William Shakespeare: Complete Works” Bate, Jonathon. London: Macmillan Publishing ltd, 2008.
“The Proposal” Chekhov, Anton