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 » CLASSICAL GREECE
by Forde, Steven
Brilliant scholarly dissertation on the mind-set of Alcibiades and the politics of imperialism in ancient Athens. You’ve gotta be a real aficionado to find this book (try your local college library) and get through it. But it will reward the serious reader. I borrowed all kinds of goodies from Forde for Tides of War.
by Morrison, Coates, and Rankov
Triremes were the famous ancient warships with three banks of oars. The problem: no one of the past 1500 years knew how the old guys did it. All design and engineering has been lost. The authors of this book play detective, scouring ancient texts, coins, carvings, and using their own imaginations. They figure it out, then build a trireme of their own. It works! Fascinating.
by Xenophon (Loeb Library, two volumes, translated by Walter Miller)
Though this book purports to narrate the upbringing and conquests of the great Persian king, in truth the society Xenophon describes is that of Sparta (no outsider knew it better than he), complete with “peers,” good manners at the dinner table, and why a true warrior never urinates on campaign (he should have eliminated excess water entirely by sweating).
by Herodotus (translated by Aubrey de Selincourt)
This is the book “The English Patient” was carrying. Funny, personal, and very entertaining, this book recounts the history of the clashes between Greeks and Persians, out of which arose the modern world. The battle of Thermopylae is in here—and Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea—plus dozens of zany, fascinating flashes into ancient life.
by Thucydides (translated by Rex Warner)
Tough sledding because of the dense but absolutely brilliant prose. May be the greatest book on war and human nature ever written. Timeless.
by Houston, Paul
My friend Paul Houston, in England, put together Sparta World, a work-in-progress website for Spartaphiles and aficionados of all things Spartans. The site is interesting in and of itself (and constantly evolving) and also a great jumping-off point and clearinghouse for re-enactor groups, hoplite fighters, artists, writers, and all other contemporary upholders of the Lakedaemonian tradition and ethos—and just for the fun of it. Paul invites all interested groups and individuals to contact him, link to the site, and network with their “peers.”
by Thucydides (edited by Robert B. Strassler)
A different but also excellent translation—but this one comes with maps, dozens and dozens, down to postage-stamp sizes, on almost every page. They help.
by Plato (translated by Hugh Tredennick)
Okay, okay . . . Two works by Plato . . . Translated by Hugh Tredennick, The Last Days compiles four dialogues into an organic whole narrating the trial, conviction, and death by hemlock of Socrates. Deep stuff on the subject of dying.
by Plutarch (translated by Richard J.A. Talbert)
The best one-book introduction to Sparta and Spartan thought. Several of Plutarch’s Lives of famous Spartans, plus Sayings of the Spartans and Sayings of the Spartan Women. Start here.
by Xenophon (translated by Rex Warner)
Ten thousand Greek mercenaries follow Cyrus the Younger’s three months’ march into the wilds of Persia, then lose the battle they came to fight. Xenophon was there as a young officer. His tale of the Greeks’ long and harrowing retreat against the hordes determined to obliterate them is justifiably immortal. Hollywood’s The Warriors, about a street gang from Brooklyn, was cleverly knocked off from this.
Easiest to read of all “the sources.” Short bios, packed with anecdotes and wisdom, of every great man of the Classical era. Plutarch wrote them in pairs, juxtaposing Caesar to Alexander, Alcibiades to Coriolanus, that sort of thing. My faves: Lycurgus, Solon, Themistocles, Alcibiades, Alexander.
This Penquin paperback assembles the lives of all the major players in Athens’ rise and fall—Theseus, Solon, Themistocles, Cimon, Pericles, Nicias, Alcibiades, and Lysander. A brilliant editorial concept, The Last Days can be pretty scary when you read-in the parallels to the contemporary United States.
by Lazenby, J.F.
Another hard-to-track-down work (try the Reference Librarian) that may lack the readable touch, but is crammed with great esoteric stuff like what the Spartans called a platoon leader [an enomotarch.] Only for true Sparta fanatics.
by Cartledge, Paul
Chairman of the Classics faculty at Cambridge, Cartledge is the expert, from whom I have also borrowed major tonnage. Here he’s not writing an exhaustive, all-inclusive tome, but hitting the high spots with great depth, if you know what I mean.
by Plato (translated by Walter Hamilton)
Hard to pick only one work from this great writer, thinker, and wrestler (Plato was his nickname, meaning “broad-shouldered”) and protégé of Socrates, but this is it. A night of gentlemen’s conversation, drunk and sober, at Athens in its glory days, highlighted by soliloquies “in praise of Love” by Aristophanes, Alcibiades, Agathon, and Socrates. Truman Capote wishes he threw a party like this.
by Carey, Christopher
Still extant are the actual lawyer’s arguments from a number of famous ancient cases. Trust me, Johnny Cochrane had nothing on these slick Athenian legal eagles.