Is “Theme” a Useful Concept? Nope.

by F.

I think this is one of the most useless concepts associated with film, literature, storytelling—any of the arts, in fact. I suspect it persists because teachers can ask about it: “What was Fitzgerald trying to say by filling Gatsby’s library with books?”

Fuck if I know. Next question?

Is this concept any more useful to the creator than it is to the audience? I don’t think so, but opinions vary.

On the one hand, there are those who think theme is everything. An example is Robert McKee, the author of Story and the giver of screenwriting seminars. I’ve read Story twice, listened to McKee’s recorded lecture at least 10 times, and gone to his seminar. And I think he is full of shit, for the most part, particularly on theme. Here’s what he says a theme is: “one clear, coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.”

Here’s an example.

Worried about the theme of Chinatown? Worry no longer. Here it is: “Injustice prevails because the antagonist is overwhelmingly ruthless and powerful.” Simple.

Actually, it’s really simple. There’s an algebra of theme. Theme = Value + Cause. So you just go through the story, see where the “value at stake” (e.g., justice) ends up, and trace back through the story to find “the” cause.

Got it?

Incidentally, Michael Chase Walker, a producer of cartoons such as He-Man, has a similar idea. In Power Screenwriting, he suggests that same thing, with a slight variation in his algebra. Walker suggests writers start with a theme as a kid of proposition to be “proved” by the story. In a way, this is like the “holding” of a legal case.

Now, I tried this idea out for some time to see how it fit the data. Whenever my wife and I would watch a movie, I would turn to her and give The Theme, and see what she thought. So, we watched The Fugitive for the second time a while back. Immediately after Dr. Kimbel had found the one-armed man, I knew I had the theme.

“I’ve got it,” I said. “‘Justice is Restored when we Blame People with one Arm.’ That’s it!”
“No—no. Wait. Value plus Cause. Um… Um… ‘Justice is Restored when we Blame Fat Doctors with Accents for Fucking up our Lives and Hiring Retired Security Guards to Kill our Beautiful Wives!'”
“I’m not sure you can—”
“No—no. Just a second. Value. OK-OK-OK-OK, how about, ‘We can Restore our Good name by Traveling around Illinois in a Crappy Sweater we Stole from an Old Man in the Hospital.'”

Needless to say, this got a little annoying. I even started to annoy myself. But I was trying to use this “theory” to see if it got any purchase on stories. Nope. Snake oil.

Above, I said “On the one hand.” You, the patient reader, have probably been waiting for the Other Hand. I hate to disappoint, and so, I should tell you that, on the other hand, there are some sane thinkers on Theme. For instance, David Howard of USC. In How to Build a Great Screenplay, Howard suggests that theme is merely the writer’s attitude toward the work—how he or she wants it to turn out. The theme

“is there to be discovered, not handed to the audience or slapped in their faces. If you can effectively make your point in a simple thesis, then make that statement and forget the story.”

Testify, brother! More:

“The experience of a story is a much more complex thing than a statement of values; it’s an experience of values, of life’s complexities and uncertainties and triumphs and defeats. No thesis can cover all that; all it can do is destroy the experience.”

That feels more right to me than any “Value + Cause” pseudo-algebra. But if that doesn’t feel right to you, consider this wonderfully minimal statement by Paul Raymond Martin, in Writer’s Little Instruction Book: Craft and Technique:

“There are three themes in most fiction: life is a struggle, humans are resilient, and effort will triumph.”

‘Nuff said.