High Ideals: Changing the World With Your Theme-driven Screenplay
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012
Reprinted from Release Print Magazine, March 2003
Not long ago in one of my screenwriting classes, I encountered a student who wanted to change the world. He had an idea for a screenplay that would expose the evils of American foreign policy. I immediately foresaw the challenges, but tried to be upbeat. “Okay,” I said, “what’s it about?” And he launched into his pitch.
Open on President Eisenhower: “Beware the military industrial complex!” Cut to: A young, idealistic lawyer who runs for Congress on an anti-military industrial complex platform. He captivates the national stage with his electrifying presence. Once elected, he tells the truth about corporate market manipulations, CIA assassinations, and U.S. support of corporate-friendly dictators. Boycotts, marches, and letter-writing campaigns ensue. The lawyer digs further into corporate and government dirty laundry. The people elect him president and he acts on Eisenhower’s admonition. Military bases become Peace Corps centers, the United Nations is given seats in Congress, and the Pentagon is made into an environmental impact research center. The end.
“What you have here,” I told my student, “is a theme-driven story.” “What does that mean?” he asked. “It means your story is motivated by a theme as opposed to a plot or character conflict.”
I went on to explain that whereas a plot-driven story is a conflict between a main character and another person or entity and a character-driven story deals with a main character’s internal conflicts, a theme-driven story comments on the state of the world. At the end of a theme-driven story, either the world itself, or our understanding of it, has been significantly transformed. However, involving an audience in a purely theme-driven story is difficult since it is based on an abstract idea—in my student’s case, the evils of American foreign policy. The challenge is to develop an accompanying plot and/or character story that captures the audience’s attention at the beginning and sustains it to the end.
I then gave my student a brief analysis. “You do have one plot element,” I said, “with a triumph at the end. But with no antagonist creating external complications, obstacles, and reversals leading up to it, you do not yet have a fully developed plot-driven story. Similarly, you have a clearly identified main character in the lawyer, but he does not appear to experience any external challenge to an internal conflict that would lead to transformation—he simply glides from obscurity to success—so there is no character-driven story.
Without investment in a main character and a series of tension-building events, a purely theme-driven story runs the risk of being a didactic bore.” In my studies of numerous films, I have observed that plot, character, and theme-driven stories (defining story as the greatest distance traveled within the events portrayed) can exist either individually or in combination. For example, the action-adventure film is almost exclusively plot-driven, with a smidgen of character development, but the rare nod to larger ideas. On the other hand, the slice-of-life story—what critics often refer to as the “small film,” such as You Can Count On Me or Lovely and Amazing—is usually driven by intense character issues, perhaps pointing to some larger themes. However, not much seems to happen. Futuristic fantasy or social satire stories are typically theme-driven, in which case plot elements are used to portray the fate of the world while the characters within that world are either caricatured or one dimensional. These types of films are the more monochromatic examples of how to drive a story from point A to point B. Films that become classics over time tend to be those that have incorporated all three story types into one dramatic structure. But of the three it is the theme story that gives a film far greater resonance than mere plot or character development ever will.
Think of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, a film that resonated with critics and audiences alike. The screenplay is rich with plot: Jerry Lundegaard, a car salesman in Minneapolis, decides to extort money from his wealthy father-in-law, Wade, by having his wife, Jean, kidnapped. But the kidnappers, Carl and Grimsrud, botch the job and as a result three people are killed. Enter Marge Gunderson, a very pregnant small-town police chief. As Jerry works on Wade for the ransom, Carl demands more money from Jerry. Meanwhile, Marge follows a lead to Minneapolis. Wade goes to the drop and is killed by Carl, who is then killed by Grimsrud, along with Jean. Acting on a random tip, Marge finds Grimsrud at the hideout stuffing Carl into the wood chipper.
The plot is an intricate, cat-and-mouse crime investigation. But the film’s resonance does not come from its plot twists. At the beginning, we already know who the criminals are; for us there is no mystery to be solved. There is tension regarding whether or not Marge will capture the killers, but by the end six people are dead, so the usual feeling of triumph is diluted. Furthermore, Marge does not find the killers through brilliant sleuthing techniques, but rather through a random tip.
As for the character-driven story, initially, the main character is Jerry. We see him stammering with the kidnappers and being demeaned by his father-in-law, and we are engaged in his plight. However, when the scheme, which he views as largely harmless, puts his wife in grave danger and causes three other deaths, our interest in him runs cold. At this point, the filmmakers bring in the petite and pregnant Marge to launch the investigation into the roadside murders, and we get on board with her. Introducing Marge’s character at this stage is an unusual example of a film successfully transferring the main character midway through the story. Yet Marge’s internal character journey is still not a driving force, as she is left untouched by the horrific events surrounding her.
Although we are more invested in Marge, it is in Jerry that we follow a character journey. Once his plan is underway, events quickly get out of his control—first he is shocked to find traces of violence at the kidnapping scene, then he is confronted with his son’s despair at losing his mother. Finally, he sees his father-in-law dead in the parking lot along with the brutally murdered parking lot attendant. In a classic moment of tragic recognition straight out of Greek drama, he realizes the harsh repercussions of the plot he set in motion. If Fargo was a character-driven story about Jerry, this would be his moment of transformation. But we are not invested in Jerry’s fate, so his transformation is not as important for its character function as it is for its thematic function. Through Jerry’s despair, we gain another facet of understanding of the level of extreme violence in our society. This is the substance of the story’s theme.
At the beginning, when Jerry Lundegaard describes his scheme, it sounds like a harmless caper out of a Hardy Boys novel. We almost believe that Jerry’s plan could work: a couple of masked men could carry a woman off and hold her in a hideout until the ransom is delivered and all are happily reunited. But as events unfold—seven people are murdered, five point-blank, and one is disposed of in a wood chipper—the image of Midwestern innocence is replaced by a world of insatiable greed, psychopathic murder, and gratuitous dismemberment. Any illusions remaining about white-picket-fence America are stripped away to reveal a brutal picture of the violence that permeates our world. In the film’s thematic progression from blind innocence to unhindered violence, we are not being shown that the world itself has changed—the violent nature is present from the beginning—but our understanding of the world is what becomes significantly transformed.
A good example of a theme-driven film in which the world itself changes is the 1976 film Network (written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by Sidney Lumet). Here is the plot in a nutshell: When UBS fires network news anchor Howard Beale for poor ratings, he proclaims on the air that the news is all bullshit. His ratings shoot up and Frank Hackett, hatchet man for corporate parent CCA, decides to keep Howard on the air at the urging of entertainment executive Diana Christensen, but against the objections of news division head Max Schumacher. As Howard’s ratings fall, he begins to lose his grip on reality and Max tries to protect him, but Frank fires Max and gives Diana control of the news show. Howard tells his audience to yell out their window, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” and his ratings soar again. He keeps ranting about television lies and corporate evils while ratings climb, until, finally, he reveals the secret identity of a Saudi Arabian company in negotiations to buy CCA. CEO Arthur Jensen lectures him on global corporate interests and instructs him to preach the corporate message. Howard does so and his ratings plummet. Frank and Diana want to fire him but Jensen won’t allow it. The network executives conclude that the only way to get rid of Howard, and achieve good ratings, is to assassinate him on the air.
Believe it or not, the main character in this complex story is news division head Max Schumacher. From the start, we become invested in him because he appears to represent the lone voice of reason amidst the network insanity. We also see that his attempts to protect both Howard’s well-being and the integrity of the news division are thwarted by profit-mongering corporate interests. However, Network is not a character-driven story—Max does not emotionally or psychologically progress in the course of the film. After he loses the battle against the corporate interests at the midpoint, his involvement in the story is limited to his affair with Diana, which ends uneventfully, with Max simply returning home to his wife. The character progression amounts to one reasonable person being overtaken by forces beyond his control.
As for the plot progression, the film begins with a dramatic conflict in which the old guard of network news is trying to hold its ground against the encroaching new guard of entertainment television. But that battle is lost halfway through the story when Max is fired, leaving Frank and Diana firmly in control. From that point on, the audience is no longer engaged in watching the fate of Max Schumacher or the conflict between the old and new guard. Our interest is taken over by a new concern: the fate of the world of network television news. The film becomes a cautionary tale in which the writer extrapolates what will happen when news as a public service is supplanted by commercial interests.
The greatest distance travelled in Network is the progression at UBS television from an Edward R. Murrow-style commitment to reporting the Truth to a Geraldo Rivera-syle treatment of the news as Entertainment. It is this axial shift in the world of network news that gives the film its theme. And, indeed, while this film perhaps did not succeed in actually changing the world, it speaks an alarming degree of truth about where the world was headed at the time it was made.
On both films, the question remains: Were the writers consciously creating theme stories, or did the theme emerge from other elements as a happy accident? Joel and Ethan Coen were inspired by a newspaper account of a wife-kidnapping/father-in-law extortion case. They started with a plot, and the theme came out of that. According to screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, “The point of Network is that the networks will do anything for a rating.” Chayefsky started with the theme and constructed plot and character elements around it.
So there is good news for my well-intentioned student: challenging though it is to work from a theme, it is not a futile undertaking. Indeed, many of us would like to have an impact on the world with our screenplays, especially in these troubling times. But this is not the only, nor the most important, motivation for toiling in lofty ideas. The highest function theme can serve, when effectively woven in with plot and character, is to elevate a film beyond mere popular diversion and into the realm of art.