Let me tell you about one of my favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (written by John Michael Hayes).
You might know this classic starring Jimmy Stewart as Jeff, a photo-journalist laid up with a broken leg who passes the time spying on the neighbors who live in the apartment building across the way. The objects of his interest include a sexy dancer, a lonely lady, a couple of newlyweds, a middle-aged pair, a struggling music composer, and one or two others. Soon Jeff begins to suspect that one of the neighbors, Mr. Thorwald, a costume jewelry salesman, has murdered his wife, chopped up her body and disposed of the parts. Having nothing else to do, Jeff determines to prove the murder.
This is a movie about romantic love. I am not being sarcastic. How is this so? How could this voyeuristic suspense thriller possibly be about love? The answer: theme.
If you look closely at Rear Window, you’ll see that the idea of romantic love is everywhere. Each apartment across the way dramatizes romantic love in one form or another—the good, bad and the ugly—from the happy Newlyweds busy doing what newlyweds do, to Miss Torso the sexy dancer who has many gentlemen callers, to the Music Man who is trying to compose a great love song, to poor Miss Lonelyhearts who pines for a love of her own, to the recently (perhaps self-made) widower, Mr. Thorwald.
Then there’s the subplot, where Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa does everything she can to convince Jeff that she’s the woman he should marry. (A little far-fetched, I know, considering Lisa is played by Grace Kelly.) But Jeff is a globe-trotting guy who doesn’t see how Manhattan socialite Lisa could make it in his adventurous world. And then…Lisa tries to help prove Thorwald’s guilt when she climbs up and into his apartment and finds Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring, something any married woman would be wearing, if she were alive, that is. As Jeff watches the action in Thorwald’s apartment through binoculars, Lisa puts the ring on her finger, showing Jeff several things at once: Thorwald’s guilty, I am adventurous, and this is what I want you to give me. Love.
The movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” (Today he’d say, “If you want to send a message, e-mail it.”) Goldwyn had a point. The first priority of any good storyteller is to entertain. If you don’t keep the audience entertained you won’t have an audience for very long. There’s a reason why they don’t sell popcorn, soda, and Goobers at church, which is the same reason I don’t go to church. Well, that and the fact I’m Jewish.
Theme, however, can actually enrich the entertainment value of a movie. While the audience shouldn’t be thinking about the theme, it’s there beneath the surface, unseen, but making us feel the movie all the more deeply. Theme is like the subtext for the entire movie—that submerged layer that adds a little something extra to the experience.
Most people think of theme as a moral or message. That’s fine if you’re a preacher or a student forced to write an essay, but it’s not what theme means in terms of a good story. What we mean by theme is simply that it’s an underlying idea. Just an idea, any kind of idea. Very possibly, the theme will not be a moral, not be a message. It’ll be…something else.
Let me go out on a limb and say that all good movies have themes. I bet it wouldn’t surprise you in the least to hear that such movies as A Clockwork Orange, Midnight Cowboy, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, The Seventh Seal, and Les Enfants du Paradis have themes. But let’s put my claim to the test with a “popcorn” movie like Die Hard. Probably not the first movie that comes to mind when you think about theme. Let’s face it, Die Hard is primarily an entertaining action flick about Bruce Willis kicking butt. Nothing wrong with that. And that’s all it needs to be, entertaining. Okay, so what’s the theme of Die Hard?
Die Hard is about the triumph of the little guy. That’s the underlying idea. John McClane isn’t physically little—he’s got more muscles than me, to be sure—but he is presented as something of a little guy. McClane’s just an honest, hard-working New York City cop with street smarts who seems small and out of place in the tall office tower and the glitzy world of the Nakatomi Corporation, He’s competing for survival against chic, well-financed, European terrorists who smoke European cigarettes. He’s up against the big guns of the LAPD and FBI. And it’s one man against all of this, which makes him a little guy. And who are his two allies in the movie? The street cop, Powell. Little guy. Argyle, the limo driver on his first run. Little guy. McClane’s even something of a little guy against his wife, who has been promoted to a big-shot position in her company.
Subplots are real good for supporting the theme of a movie, and the bond between McClane and Powell, both regular joe cops, is where the theme comes through especially strong. And you know that moment at the end when Karl gets blown away and we see that Powell shot him, the man who’s been afraid to pick up a gun ever since he mistakenly shot a kid. That’s a great moment, got a big cheer in the theater. What’s that moment about? Triumph of the little guy.
Theme is something universal, something that we can all identify with, even if our life is nothing like what’s portrayed in the story. Theme helps connect the movie to the audience. We’ve all felt like the little guy at one time or another. Perhaps you were the new kid at school? Perhaps you found out your ex was dating someone richer, prettier, or younger (or all three – yikes)? Perhaps the sports team you root for is always the underdog? I know for a fact that you know what it’s like to feel like the little guy—you’re hoping to break into the movie business, for crying out loud!
Now, if somebody asks you what Die Hard is about, it would be preposterous to say, “Oh, it’s about the triumph of the little guy.”You’d only know that if you were out to unearth the theme, which you wouldn’t do unless you were a screenwriter or film studies professor. It’s actually not the least bit important that the audience leave the multiplex saying, “Wow, that movie had such a great theme!” If they’re thinking of a movie’s theme, it usually means they’re not lost in the story and characters. It usually means it’s a bad movie. The theme of a movie is there to be absorbed subliminally.Felt. So if someone asks you what Die Hard is about, you tell them, “It’s about Bruce Willis king butt.” But, take my word for it, Die Hard is a better kick-butt movie because of its theme.
Now, I realize that “triumph of the little guy” isn’t an especially unique theme. We could probably think of a bunch of other movies that use that exact same theme. But uniqueness isn’t what really counts with a theme. What counts is how well that theme is dramatized in the story. In fact, the most powerful themes are often the ones that are the most universal.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Gotham’s book on screenwriting, Writing Movies.