“What’s it about?” I’m sure you’ve been asked that question as soon as you begin to tell someone about an incredible movie you’ve watched. If we’re going to invest the time into it, we want to know what the movie is about. But that’s not really the question.
“What’s it really about?”
That’s the question. Same but different.
I’m a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier. His films are loaded with dark imagery, heavy symbolism, and an almost dreamlike perception of reality. Saulnier uses a small cast and sparse dialogue to tell incredibly engaging stories.
The more experienced I become at the art of storytelling, the more I realize how lean a great story should be. It’s easy to throw thousands of words and countless characters at a reader, but making it bigger and complex doesn’t make it better. I find a beautiful simplicity in telling a story in as few words as possible.
My two favorite Jeremy Saulnier movies are Hold the Dark and Green Room. If you pull up the short description for Hold the Dark, it reads:
Summoned to a remote Alaskan village to search for the wolves that killed three children, a wolf expert soon finds himself unraveling a harrowing mystery.
Fine. But that doesn’t tell me what it’s really about.
If you read the description for Green Room, it reads:
A punk rock band becomes trapped in a secluded venue after finding a scene of violence. For what they saw, the band themselves become targets of violence from a gang of white power skinheads, who want to eliminate all evidence of the crime.
Again, it doesn’t tell me what the movie is really about.
So what if I answer that question? What is Saulnier really trying to tell us? The ideas I came up with below could be considered spoilers, but I’ll try not to do so.
Hold the Dark is really about a cold existence on the edge of civilization. It’s really about the corrupted soul. It’s really about the brutish life of the natural world. It’s really about the human desire to transcend mortality. It’s about all of that and maybe none of that, depending on how you interpret the film.
Green Room is really about the danger of sunk costs. It’s really about the way greed and hate can corrupt the human spirit. It’s really about our animalistic nature and drive for self-preservation. It’s about all of that and maybe none of that, depending on how you interpret the film.
That’s the problem. I can easily explain what literally happens in a movie, although that’s not usually enough to convey the emotional impact the story had on me or why we’re even talking about it. Or, I can explain my interpretation of the film’s theme, but that doesn’t typically explain the genre, which might be important. For example, someone who is interested in how the soul can become corrupted, but who is squeamish when it comes to on-screen violence, would not want to watch Hold the Dark. Or Green Room, for that matter.
We can’t all be brilliant enough to wear a beret while sipping an expensive latte and discussing “the merits of film in modern cinema” at the city’s hippest coffee shop. Most of the time, normal people just talk about movies. But still, “What was it about?”
I find theme and symbolism critically important because I have to assume that most of us watch movies to find meaning. We use Story to make sense of the chaos in our world, to figure out how to live our lives, to search the heavens for answers in a galaxy of questions. Therefore, what the story is really about is far more important than the physical actions that take place on the screen.
Once I’ve conveyed to you why the movie matters—or should matter—then it makes sense to say that Hold the Dark is about a wolf expert summoned to the remote wilds of Alaska. Or that Green Room is about a punk rock band at the mercy of a gang of violent white supremacists.
“…I’m quite sure that I never thought much
about theme before getting roadblocked on [writing] The Stand. I suppose I thought such things were for
Better Minds and Bigger Thinkers. I’m not sure I would have gotten to it as
soon as I did, had I not been desperate to save my story. I was astounded at
how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
-Stephen King, On Writing
Many writers today shy away from theme because to create a strong theme means picking sides. It means you must state your position and stand by it, even if it’s not popular. In today’s outrage culture, nobody wants to take a stand and then, have to defend it against the masses—or worse yet, face the vocal minority that will drown you in a tidal wave of political correctness. But having the courage to crystallize a theme and then write a story to illustrate it is what all authors should aspire to do.
I know I’ve become a better storyteller when I do the work to identify the theme. And before you raise the objection, yes, every work of art has a theme. Every creator is trying to convey a message to the reader, viewer, listener. Even a movie like The Jerk has a theme. It’s about a white guy born a poor black child in Mississippi. But it’s really about the search for an identity, a man’s quest to belong.
A sequence of events without theme can be entertaining but also forgettable. Theme without an interesting sequence of events can be heavy-handed and dull. You need to know what your story is about and what it’s really about.
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