By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 10, 2016
What do we mean when we say a book or a movie is “about something?” This question is a lot trickier than it seems.
Did you see the movie The Break-up, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan? A facile answer regarding this film would be, “It’s about a break-up.”
The subject is a break-up.
The theme is something else entirely.
The subject of the Jurassic Park movies is dinosaurs.
The theme is, Don’t mess with Mother Nature.
The subject of Out of Africa is Karen Blixen’s experiences in Africa.
The theme is possession. “Is it possible,” the movie asks, “for a person to truly own something—a farm, a lover, her own fate?”
The theme of Out of Africa in statement form is, “It is not possible to own anything, and the harder we try, the more certain we are to lose what we wish to hold.”
A theme does not have to be true in all instances.
We can write one book with Theme X, then follow it up with another with Theme Opposite-of-X.
Sometimes a writer or filmmaker will deal with the same theme over and over. David O. Russell (one of my faves) seems to love the theme, “An individual, no matter how beset by his/her own self-sabotage and the sabotage of their family, can triumph if he/she is passionate enough, brave enough, and creative enough.” The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, Joy.
A theme can be totally unoriginal and still work beautifully. It can be a platitude. It can be a cliche.
“Love conquers all.”
“Might makes right.”
Remember the advertising line for the first Rocky?
His whole life was a million to one shot.
That statement is not far off from the movie’s theme, which is in truth a word-for-word statement of the American dream:
The sorriest bum in the street is capable of greatness if he’s just given the chance.
The theme of Casablanca is another cliche. “It’s better to work for the good of the group than for your selfish personal ends.”
There’s nothing wrong with your theme statement being a cliche. In many ways it’s better. Why? Because it means your theme has broad applications. It’s universal. It applies to everybody.
Part of the reason Rocky was a hit was that so many people could identify with its theme.
A theme should have multiple layers. We should be able to interpret it on the personal level, the political level, even the spiritual level. The more levels the theme works on, the more powerful it is.
Casablanca came out in 1941, while the U.S. was in a raging internal debate over whether or not to enter World War II. When in the film Humphrey Bogart declared
I stick my neck out for nobody
I’m the only cause I’m fighting for
he was speaking on the personal level. But his words were understood by the audience on the political level as well. He was giving voice to the powerful “American First” sentiment then prevalent in the country.
Bogie was also stating one side of the movie’s theme. The hero, remember, embodies the theme. How he or she acts in the final crunch becomes the movie’s statement of the theme.
In the climax of Casablanca, when Bogie forsakes his own selfish ends (to fly off to safety with his former lover, Ingrid Bergman) and instead puts Ingrid on the plane with her husband, the gallant Resistance fighter Paul Henreid, while he himself remains behind to join the fight against fascism, his actions state the movie’s theme not just personally, but politically.
Level One: Bogie elects to act for the greater good.
Level Two: America should do the same. It should get into the war.
Why is theme so important?
Because it gives a story focus and depth.
We’ve all read a millions sagas about plucky Moms and punchy prize fighters and self-centered gamblers/con men/operators. (In other words, subject). But when the struggles of these characters are given focus by the right theme, and when that theme contains a second or even a third level, then the story’s power is magnified and its emotional wallop is doubled and tripled.
Which leads us to the next aspect of theme—cutting everything that is not on-theme.
We’ll talk about that next week.
Posted in Writing Wednesdays
ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN
by Kilcullen, David
by Douglas, Keith
Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.
by Sun Tzu
by Rommel, Erwin
This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”
by Halberstam, David
by Danelo, David
Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!
by Coram, Robert
Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.
by McNab, Andy
Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.
by Crisp, Robert
A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.
by Galula, David
by Moorehead, Alan
Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.
by Maclean, Fitzroy
You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.
by Sajer, Guy
Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.
by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich
Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.
by West, Bing
by von Clausewitz, Carl
by Fick, Nathaniel
The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.
by Gant, Jim
The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.
by Gant, Jim
by Bagnold, Ralph
The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”
by Lawrence, T.E.
by Hammes, Thomas X.
Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.
by Small Wars Foundation
by West, Bing
by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril
You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”
by Ranfurly, Hermione
When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.