Monday, January 28, 2008


All stories have underlying ideas and subtexts which can be expressed in a basic form of theme. Greed. Lust. Death. Love. Power. Corruption. Revenge. Family. War. And so on. Of course, having evidence of one or more of these ideas doesn’t necessarily represent a theme in itself; how the story is resolved through character and plot reveals what you’re saying about the theme (whether you’re aware of it or not).

For example, say your story is about a man who cheats on his wife (suggesting a theme of lust/love). This could be a thriller, horror, romcom, whatever you want. Anyway, in the story, he gets away with his fling but finishes the affair, realising he’s better off with his wife. However, his wife wants a divorce, feeling that their relationship isn’t working anymore. The man tries to resume his relationship with the other woman but is turned down, and is left alone. The theme could be saying that with love, you can’t have everything your own way (but there could be a 100 bloody corpses or a comic wedding for the finale, depending on your genre).

This is a simple example, but you get the idea. People may not pick up on the theme at all, depending on how the story is delivered, and will have just enjoyed the breakdown of the man’s selfish behaviour. And that’s perfectly fine. Maybe even the writer couldn’t care less what the theme is, and is happily leaving it for others to come to their own conclusions. When people mention ‘theme’, it conjures up pseudo-intellectual posturing about deeper meaning when there may be none in the first place. This is what makes theme a difficult subject. Generally, the audience doesn’t want to be aware of it - not consciously anyway - and certainly not while they’re watching the film/TV ep.

The usual comment about theme is that it should be invisible, and this is good advice to follow. By all means, layer your characters and story with your mind-blowing notions of whatever theme you’re after, but don’t bore the audience with dialogue lectures or insignificant scenes that support the theme (and do nothing for the story). However, it’s interesting to note that one of the acclaimed films of the year gets caught up with its theme, and in my view, robs the film of its full entertainment factor. No Country for Old Men (see end of post for my spoiler explanation).

Writing for theme works in a variety of ways. One, don’t worry about it and get your first draft done, only then revising the story to add notions of theme and what you really want to say. Two, write with theme in mind (many writers stick the theme, or even one word, over their computers to remind themselves that everything must feed into that idea) and really get a hold of the resounding power of your story (get you). Three, forget all about theme. Write what you like. If you feel confident that the story delivers what you want in terms of entertainment value but you don’t have a clue what the theme is, don’t worry, someone else will come up with one for you, probably a critic (especially if the film is a hit). Loads of hit films don’t have themes but that doesn’t mean to say that they’re hollow or without merit. The slimmest suggestion of a theme could be enough. It’s a useful reference, and can certainly bolster your characters/story when you’re fully aware of it, but don’t trip yourself up trying to ensure that your script’s got a thematic argument. That way madness (and boredom) lies.

** SPOILERS for No Country for Old Men, do not read if you haven’t seen the film **

No Country for Old Men stands out as a taut and compelling cat-and-mouse thriller about opportunistic Josh Brolin as he goes on the run from assassin Javier Bardem while doleful sheriff Tommy Lee Jones ponders why the world has turned to ruin. There’s a lot to enjoy in the film - the set pieces, the acting, the direction, the pace/silent flow (it’s not a very talky piece) - and then, for the last half hour, the story completely changes direction and focuses on its theme rather than fulfilling its expectations of plot.

The result, a brilliantly flawed bit of cinema. Brilliant up until Josh gets done, seriously flawed after that. Tommy Lee Jones steps forward for the latter part to have a few great ACTING scenes and to talk about the THEME but do little to engage the viewer or explain what exactly has happened. Indeed, even the Coen brothers, in an interview with Creative Screenwriting, have indicated that they just followed the narrative thread from Cormac McCarthy’s book and don’t fully understand the story’s change of direction. Still, it’s profound, so it must be a masterpiece. Be warned, you’ll only receive that kind of recognition when you have the filmography of the Coens and the acting pedigree of Lee Jones et al in your flick first. And don't worry, I love the Coens but I was confused and dissatisfied at the end of NCFOM rather than blown away.


WATCH OUT: there are spoilers in the comments section as well.


Anonymous said...

I disliked NCFOM and one of the reasons is the whole Tommy Lee Jones thing you talked about.
"Still, it’s profound, so it must be a masterpiece."
Exactly. What Tommy Lee said has nothing to do with anything and was making me angrier the longer he kept speaking.

But I also had issues with the characters (can you say two-dimensional?) and the overall 'point' of certain scenes and basically the film as a whole.

Anonymous said...

I read the script and I thought that the ending was a total let-down. You can't have the big moment happen off-screen.

Anyway, I can't write without having something to say. Great directors have something to say, it's in their entire body of work i.e. Kubrick and his obsession with human behaviour, which, in my opinion, is all about reflecting society back at us: This is who we are.

Specific themes govern me. The trick is to find new ways of writing the same theme. Audiences are affected by theme, they just don't know why. There's a reason why certain films are revisited often. Theme talks to the subconscious.

Lucy V said...

I think we are drawn to certain themes and repeat ourselves unconsciously, *kind of* like Freud says in the whole repetition-compulsion idea he has (not that advocate Freud's ideas as a whole: child abuse does not exist! All women are lesbians and breast feeding is disgusting! Doesn't work for me at ALL).

But it is funny - I have had clients come back to me time and time again and I feel I have got to "know" them through their work through what they want to write about. That's not to say I'm right of course: though I have met many of my long termers as I call them, it's only scratching the surface. But it is interesting. This is what my Scriptwriter mag article is about actually Danny - was supposed to be out this month but has been bumped back to March.

Simon Kennedy said...

Have you considered that the main character is not the protagonist?. This explains why what appears to be the main event (the end of the main character) is played off screen. By not showing this, the focus turns to the protagonist, ie the sheriff. His emotional journey is the central narrative, not all the creeping socks in motel corridors stuff.

Perhaps this is clearer in the book? I haven't read it.

Maybe the directors got sucked into the traditional chase format because it works so well on film. The inner dialogue of a protagonist is so much harder to represent on screen.

Either way your points stand - the directors were not really in control of the material, and the end sections do fit oddly with the rest of the film.

Anonymous said...

The sheriff is hardly in the film, and although I accept that the main character and protagonists give us more story options, the protag needs to drive the story and be entangled in the story. I think it's the Sheriff's lack of screen time that hurts it. I need to see the film and figure out if the whole thing works. I was left bemused after reading the script.

Simon Kennedy said...

I don't think we are at odds here. The shefiff isn't much in the film. But he *should* be. At least, his presence should be more felt, even if he is not on screen.

He is the story's protagonist (even if the directors don't realise this). The chase action (strictly speaking, the secondary action) is there to drive his emotional development from a good ol' boy - a socially and emotionally rooted lawman - to disillusionment. That is to say, to develop the theme.

Worthy of note here is that he is the only character in the story who does change. Why is it that the main character doesn't develop in any way, and his relationship with his wife is curiously unexplored? Answer: he is secondary in the story to the protagonist.

It is the sheriff's story. The chase action ends up dominating because it is easier to depict. The directors are confident in this mode. So much so, that they get carried away by it.

But the story proper is of how all the killing changes the sheriff, how he is affected, and reassesses his whole life as a consequence.

The flaw in the film is therefore not that TL Jones did too much acting, but that he did too *little*.

The directors could not find a way to depict his 'arc' through drama, and ended up instead tacking on crude voiceovers and sitting in cafe scenes.

The plot - to return to Danny's starting point - does not speak to the theme sufficiently, and the film becomes an engrossing but superficial technical exercise ("filmography"), because it is distracted from the story. The authors didn't understand the material they were working with.

It is a good example of how books and films are different.

Anonymous said...

"It is a good example of how books and films are different."

It's also a good example of how No Country for Old Men sucked. Haha

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Simon :) I agree with you entirely.

Anonymous said...

I've read so many gushing reviews and after seeing the film thought to myself "Is it just me?" We wondered if the projectionist had skipped a reel it was so disjointed. It's true to it's theme, yes. But as others say above if a meditation on good and evil/death/taxes was the aim why not make the sherriff central in the story?

By the way finding what you're looking for by driving lugubriously around a town or city until bumping into them randomly is a 'trick' TLJ used to great effect in Double Jeopardy, where he bumps into Ashley Judd in the middle of New Orleans Mardis Gras. Twice.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I liked the fact that Moss' death is offscreen because this is part of what the film is about - frustrating audience expectations of the thriller genre. That's what I loved most about it, the avoidance of a conventional shoot-out ending, this would have lessened the impact of Moss' death in my eyes.

With regards to issue with the protagonist I think only real flaw the film has is that the sheriff character is so absent. In the novel it feels more that the sheriff is the narrator telling you the story. There is more a tangible feeling of his progressive change of attitude throughout, but this is absent from the film and so the ending loses much of its impact. That said, the trade off is that the Chigurgh character is much more interesting in the movie. He is fantastic.

So, I guess it is give and take....

potdoll said...

the sheriff and his side kick could have been cut.

so could woody harrelson's character.

like you, i found it all deeply satisfying until thingy died.

and that car crash?

Simon Kennedy said...

I think that one of the reasons that the killer is such a strong character is that it is clear what he wants, and this aim is tangible: the money and a murder. This can't be said for the two other mains.

The sheriff is almost completely passive, following events from various diners: 'will I take another coffee, oh go on then, why not? It's been that sort of day I can tell you.'

Josh is poorly drawn. We are told that he likes to prove how clever he is, but this is never shown. That scene with the bag in the heating ducts - what was that supposed to say exactly? We had all that detail about welding expertise, but in the one 'A-team in the garage' scene he ends up connecting the tent poles with tape, and making quite a meal out of this simple job. It didn't make much sense. His motivation remains the money - and this is not enough for the audience to like him.

Personally I found his flight pretty irritating, as it really isn't so hard to disappear in the USA - change motels every night for a start.

Anonymous said...

"That's what I loved most about it, the avoidance of a conventional shoot-out ending, this would have lessened the impact of Moss' death in my eyes."

I supposed a conventional shoot-out ending may have been predictable, but it would have certainly satisfied the void, I felt, that was left by abandoning the current protagonist at the point of his departure (which we do not see) and then replacing him with another (new) protagonist who again, left me unsatisfied in the end. Lots of set-up, not a lot of pay-off, does not a happy viewer make.

What frustrates me the most is that there was a really spectacular movie in there. It was shot beautifully; lots of good aesthetic decisions, awesome villain... and yet it left me feeling like they had no idea why they left things the way they did. And it sounds like they didn't. Which is disappointing.

Joshua James said...

Couldn't disagree more, I loved the film, one of my favorite films of the year, and the kinda thing I'd watch more than once.

The interest came when I realized I wasn't going to be able to predict what was going to happen, it was at once shocking and exhilerating, frightening and liberating, to have a story like that told so well and not know where it was going.

That's my two cents.

Anonymous said...

It's very well told up to a point (IMO) and not knowing where the story was going was a plus. Being bamboozled is also a massive plus - but I'd prefer to be bamboozled by the story itself rather than the telling.

Chris Blaine said...

I think one of the disappointments for me in NCFOM was that there was the chance for a change in Josh Brolin's character. He speaks to Chigurh on the phone and tells him he's coming after him - he's no longer running, it's not cat and mouse any more, he's the mouse who turned. Big battle is promised...

Ok it's not big themes or anything but it would have been a more fitting climax to what had, up to then, been a very taught and exciting thriller.