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By Noelle Buffam · April 1, 2011
Don’t reinvent the wheel. You’ve heard the phrase a million times, and never does it ring as true as when applied to screenwriting.
Often, you will hear people complain that it feels like they have seen the same movie 100 times, only this time with different actors and a new title. It’s true. Most movies do tell the same story over and over again. Few movies differentiate themselves by creating a revolutionary storyline.
Yes, it is common for films to center around the same theme. However, there is no need for dismay; just because a ton of movies are about the same thing doesn’t mean they are all the same movie. For example, take Due Date. The story is practically a carbon copy of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Both films have identical story lines, similar characters, and the same motifs. Yet, the two films are clearly different. It’s not the story itself, but the way the story is told that makes a movie great.
Choose your theme and then write your script in 5 weeks with this guide.
Listed below are the top 10 themes/motifs used in film. These themes serve as a staple to the underlying plots of most films. The most common themes in films describe an opinion about society, human nature, or life in general.
And while you’re getting ready to scoff at Hollywood for using the same themes repeatedly, think about how amazing it is that the same kinds of stories can be told in so many different ways. And while most of the repeated adaptations are lackluster, every so often one triumphantly takes the world by storm.
So, take a look at the most common themes and motifs in film. And embrace the wheel. It’s there for a reason.
10. Man vs. Nature
There are certain undeniable events that will always happen: the moon will rise, the sun will set, and man will struggle against the inevitable power that is Mother Nature. Call it sadistic, but Hollywood has always had a fascination with films that portray the possibility of the total obliteration of mankind (Armageddon, The Day After Tomorrow, Volcano). However, the theme of Man vs. Nature can extend beyond the destruction of planet earth. These films can focus on an individual battling an animal of nature (Jaws) and can often incorporate dystopian themes. Man vs. Nature can also extend to technology perverting nature. These films often warn of the danger of tampering with the natural elements. When technology runs amok, monsters and obstacles are created (Jurassic Park). Action flicks are a staple for Man vs. Nature, but no matter what genre these films surface from, the theme always revolves around the power of natural world and the perseverance of mankind.
9. Man vs. Himself
Sure, Mother Nature can kick some butt. However, nothing leads to man’s demise like man himself. Whether a character is struggling with lust, mental illness, or addiction, the perils he or she faces within are always extremely powerful. Most characters in film experience some sort of internal struggle. Whether it’s the decision to go out on a date or join the Dark Side, characters are constantly faced with internal dilemmas. However, movies that have the theme of Man vs. Himself go beyond that. The entire story is underlined by the notion that man is his own worst enemy. Therefore, many of these films deal with greed, power, and the downward spiral that they can cause. Scarface, Wall Street, and The Godfather are prime examples of this internal battle. With such opportunity for dramatic struggles, it’s no wonder Man vs. Himself plays such a huge role in movies today.
8. The Loss of Innocence
It’s the classic “coming of age story.” This theme incorporates a young protagonist that is introduced to the complexity of the adult world. Sometimes the protagonist is eager to step into this new world (Sixteen Candles), and sometimes they are thrown into it by some incident (Juno). While lighter comedies may focus on rituals of becoming adults, such as drinking and partying, there are many more serious films that center around this theme. Often, the actual loss of innocence is spurred by a traumatic event such as death, abuse, or even a divorce. Darker films (American Beauty) explore the more turbulent world of the modern American teenager. While these films traditionally center on teenagers, they can reach many younger demographics as well (Where the Wild Things Are). Even the smash hit Toy Story 3 touched on the loss of innocence and the end of the childhood era.
Few things in the world have the power to motivate like revenge (cough, cough, Taylor Swift). The theme of Revenge has been present in film from the early silent era and continues to be popular today. While revenge films revolve around the same idea, the endings can differ greatly. For instance, sometimes the revenge is justified and the ending turns out well (Revenge of the Nerds, Mean Girls). Sometimes though, the wrong person feels revengeful and the outcome turns out badly (Carrie, Cape Fear). But even though the endings can vary, films that have the theme of Revenge are always about the journey. Films like Kill Bill and Memento center entirely on this idea, taking us on a tumultuous ride that culminates around an act of vengeance.
6. Death as a Part of Life
As one of the most emotional and thought-provoking issues of life, death is an eternal theme in films. The inevitability of death, the mystery that surrounds it, and the implications that it brings make death one of the most interesting motifs of all. Some films incorporate it into the narrative of the story and thus the theme of death emerges. Harold and Maud, for example, is the story of a boy that is obsessed with death and dying. However, many other films focus on impending death, exploring issues of grief and loss (Steel Magnolias, Pay it Forward). Often, films that incorporate the theme of death as a part of life explore the after world (What Dreams May Come, The Lovely Bones). While these films portray death and dying, the theme truly resonates when the characters discover that life continues even after the physical body is no more.
5. The Battle
Conflict is an integral part of any film. However, some films revolve around a literal battle. This battle can be between two individuals, two countries, or even two worlds. Usually, the audience does bond to the protagonist’s cause. It is easy to pick sides with films like Braveheart and 300. Unlike the traditional Good vs. Evil theme, the battle may incorporate two differing sides – neither of which is right or wrong. For example, films like The War of the Roses make it difficult as both main characters are neither good nor evil and a little bit of both. Films that center on a battle are often based in historical facts (We Were Soldiers), but they can also be categorized as science fiction, action, war, or epics. And although the theme of battle can span genres, these films will always contain a definitive battle scene(s), literal, figurative, or both. Often it’s the fear of dying that weighs the most.
4. Individual vs. Society
With Man vs. Nature and Man vs. Himself, it seems the only thing left for man to battle is society – as he or she often does in film. This theme shows the battle between the protagonist and the social norm or social traditions. Often, these films show the protagonist sacrificing his own well-being for a cause. For instance, Schindler’s List tells the story of a man who becomes concerned for Jewish people after witnessing their persecution under the Nazi regime. Erin Brockovich tells the story of a ordinary woman who takes extraordinary measures to take down a power company. These characters are willing to sacrifice everything for their cause. However, the Individual vs. Society isn’t only about sacrifice and social injustice. These films can explore the individual fighting against authority (Fight Club), or societal acceptance (The Elephant Man). No matter the subject, the characters face constant conflict as they try to come to terms with society.
3. Triumph over Adversity
It you walk out of a film feeling all warm and fuzzy, there is no doubt that it probably centered on the theme of Triumph Over Adversity. In almost all movies, the main character faces an obstacle that he or she needs to overcome. However, in films with this theme, characters’ lives and stories are defined by the adversity they face. For instance, The Blind Side tells the story of a homeless boy who becomes an All American football player. Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of a Mumbai teen who becomes a successful contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The theme of Triumph Over Adversity almost always revolves around an exceptional person in a horrible and hopeless situation. Whether they are born into it or fall into it, these stories show how the human spirit can rise up time and time again over tyranny, injustice, or just plain bad luck.
2. Love Conquers All
Ah, love. It can be romantic. It can be fun. It can be heart wrenching. It can even be sick. Whatever it is, it is definitely all around us all the time. In film, the theme that Love Conquers All has always been an infectious standard, good and bad. FromLove Story to The English Patient to Titanic, there is no doubt that Hollywood considers love to be the most noble of pursuits. And regardless of the genre (from the Disney animated classic Snow White to the sci-fi thriller The Adjustment Bureau, the overpowering presence of “love conquers all” is seen as characters fight the undeniable fate of true love. No matter what obstacle a character may have to endure, movies revolving around this theme will end by reiterating this notion. Whether you are a boy-wizard (Harry Potter), an Alzheimer’s patient (The Notebook), or an Ogre (Shrek), rest assured that love is the strongest force in the world.
1. Good vs. Evil
It’s the ultimate throw-down, twelve rounds of lethality between heroes and villains brawling it out on the sands of the Colosseum. It’s the struggle that underlines comics, books, films, and even culture. There is the good: courage, freedom, loyalty, and honor. And there is the bad: cowardice, imprisonment, selfishness, and betrayal. Almost all of the aforementioned themes can find themselves a comfy little spot under the Good vs. Evil umbrella (Man vs. Himself, Triumph Over Adversity, The Battle and Revenge). Films that explore the battle between Good vs. Evil, however, can range from children’s animation (Fantasia) to fantasy films (The Chronicles of Narnia), to classic action flicks (James Bond). This theme tends to be especially prevalent in film series (Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter). While good almost always triumphs over evil, it can be fascinating when evil prevails (Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back)… even if it is only temporary. No doubt, Good vs. Evil is a celebrated theme within movies as it represents the ultimate showdown of polar opposites.