Saturday, February 14, 2009

Theme According to Epstein

Theme, according to Epstein (2002), is "the underlying, human question your story deals with. Your main character, stakes, jeopardy, and obstacles give us reasons why we care about how the story turns out. The theme gives us a reason why we should care" (p. 53, Esptein's emphasis).

Epstein also makes a distinction between good and great movies. Great movies have a theme, while the "sheer popcorn entertainment" would not. If you want your movie to have "a lasting effect on people," then you want a theme (p. 53, my emphasis).

"What gives a picture a theme is that the major scenes in it touch in some way on the question the theme raises. It doesn't have to actually answer that questions" (p. 54). Epstein offers A Clockwork Orange as an example.

Some of Epstein's examples of movie themes:
  • Bladerunner: "What does it mean to be human?"
    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: "Decency is enough to defeat corruption."
  • Star Wars: "Faith can defeat empires."
  • American History X: "Hatred kills." [This one is highly relevant to this research blog.]
"If you are working with a theme, then try to make each scene tell a truth about the theme. All the main characters, with their goals and their flaws, should in some way reflect the theme... Your theme comes to light in their conflict with one another" (p. 55). Interesting verbs he uses: "reflect" and "comes to light." I would use the verb "show," but what does that mean? How exactly do your put theme into a script?

Epstein writes that the theme should "underlie the story," and not "come to the surface" (p. 55). "Let the story take care of the theme. You don't need characters to talk about the theme" (p. 56). So, I guess, it should be built into the plot, not something that is beat over the head in dialogue. Is this the most effective way to persuade an audience? Does this approach work?

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