After viewing many films and reading many books on the craft of screenwriting one of the most important aspects of film seems to be theme. I’m sorry, I’m starting to ramble. My question is this: is it bad to formulate an entire screenplay on the basis of a theme, or does that get in the way of creativity? Should an idea stem from a theme, or should the idea produce the theme, or can it work both ways? I thank you in advance for reading this, I know that you have a tumultuous schedule.
"Theme" is one of those words that’s thrown around a lot without any consensus about what it’s supposed to mean. Here’s my definition to add the to mix:
Theme is the emotional, intellectual or spiritual issue at the core of the story. It is the "dark matter" that gives a movie weight – you don’t notice it directly, but when its missing, the movie seems frivolous and disconnected.
Sometimes, it can be summarized in a word. In X-MEN, the theme is mutation, and all aspects of the story radiate around this word. The heroes and villains are all "mutants," different than normal people. The villain wants to change – mutate – all the world’s leaders. Rogue and the others suffer prejudice and persecution because of their "otherness." In crafting the story, the writers focussed on parallels in the real world: particularly Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X, and the controversy over gay rights.
In ALIENS (the sequel), the theme is motherhood. Almost asexual at the start of the movie, Ripley adopts a surrogate child in Newt. When Newt is kidnapped, Ripley must face off against the alien mother, resulting in one of the best lines of dialogue ever shouted: "Get away from her, you BITCH!" (Interestingly, in Cameron’s original script we learn that Ripley did have a child of her own once, but after all these years asleep in space, Ripley has outlived her.)
In GO, the theme is shouted by several characters in crucial moments: "GO!" Which means, "I don’t care which way you go, you have to go now!" In each of the three stories, characters get in way over their heads, but there’s never time to stop and think through to the best answer. You’ve made a mistake, but you have to keep going.
Which comes first, idea or theme? Ultimately, I think they’re too inter-related to divide. When I was brought in to work on TITAN A.E., I explained to the studio executives that I loved how the Earth was blown up in the first three minutes, but that the only way to thematically balance the Earth’s destruction was to create a new world at the end. The story, which had previously been "Treasure Island in Space," with the Titan holding the Earth’s fortune, became a Genesis allegory, albeit with a lot of laser blasting and cartoon cleavage. Thematically, it was now a movie about Home, and every beat of the story focussed on some aspect of it, from the initial destruction, to the derelict station, the drifter colony, and finally the Titan itself.
The movie tanked, but how ’bout those themes? In your own work, it’s definitely worth sitting down and looking at whether you’ve really explored the idea-within-the-idea. The world doesn’t need another hollow action movie, but it could use another SPEED (you can’t slow down), MATRIX (reality is an illusion), or RUN LOLA RUN (what if you could do it again). It’s no coincidence that the best movies of a category generally have the best-explored themes.