Movies and Television as Literature: Theme

 Movies and Television work as Literature when they have compelling themes

In Movies and Television as Literature: Story Elements, I briefly described the importance of theme. 

Theme is the first element we should consider when discerning the quality and value of books, movies, and television shows.

That's why it deserves a deeper and more detailed look. 

It is easy to confuse theme with the subject or genre. For example, mysteries, thrillers, and police procedurals are often about the good guys catching the bad guys--but that's not theme. In most of these shows justice is being served, but that's not theme either.  

What is being said about justice?  

  • Justice is blind?

  • Justice always prevails?

  • True justice isn't possible, but the good fight is worth fighting anyway?

Themes are messages conveyed to us through the choices characters make and the consequences of their actions.  

Don't confuse this with "And the moral of the story is. . ." The moral of a story is a lesson or principle the author is teaching us to apply to our lives. This often requires the story to be so broad as to be generic. In trying to convey a lesson as applicable to as many people as possible, these stories often lack depth. They are usually the stuff of picture books for kids. Which is not a bad thing--it just isn't the same as a theme

Although themes should be easily understood, themes don't always reflect Truth, because they are based on what the author believes about the world. And some authors will raise purposefully raise questions by subverting our expectations, or offering up characters who are morally ambiguous.

It takes a bit of time and effort to see past the genre tropes and the story lines to discern underlying messages. I'm going to help you with that by looking at the themes of a few popular books, movies, and television shows. I'm meeting these movies on the ground of their own premise – plot holes and physical impossibilities are for another post. 

Spoiler Alert: Because we are discussing themes, I may give away the plot twist or ending of a story. You've been warned.

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Original story by C. S. Lewis; Written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely; Directed by Andrew Adamson

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an allegory, so symbolism is woven throughout the story, and while symbolism informs theme, they aren't the same.  

An obvious subject considered in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Good vs Evil. For theme we need to ask: "What did C. S. Lewis believe about Good and Evil, and how did he use this story to communicate this to us?" 

Good and Evil are set up as obviously opposing characters with Aslan and the White Witch.  

The White Witch is sadistic and ruthless. She has cast a spell of eternal winter over the land, robs the people of hope by banishing Christmas, and turns anyone who betrays her into stone.  

Aslan, who is wise and loving, endures torture with quiet patience, sacrificing himself to save Edmund. Upon his resurrection he defeats the White Witch once and for all.   

But woven into this plot are questions that reflect theme: 

  • What character traits are associated with Aslan?

  • Does Evil have a necessary place in the world?

  • How does the White Witch prey on and exploit human weakness?

  • Is Evil by its nature self-destructive?

  • Is Good inherently more powerful than Evil?

  • How does Aslan's sacrifice of himself reveal the true nature of Good and Evil?

  • No matter how often Evil seems to have the upper hand, will Good always triumph in the end?

These are questions you can ask any time you and your children are watching The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe together. Listen to their answers because it will open your eyes to your child's understanding about these concepts.

Toy Story

Original Story by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Joe Ranft; Written by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow; Directed by John Lasseter

Toy Story takes us into a world where toys are alive when humans aren't looking. While some stories based on this premise might give us nightmares, Toy Story is a delightful romp. It also explores issues relevant to the kind of growth and change children experience as they mature.  

How does a cartoon illustrate the ways trust and teamwork are necessary for happy and healthy relationships? 

Woody is Andy's favorite toy, and his self-esteem hinges on how often Andy plays with him. He is deeply invested in the idea that life must remain the same in order for them to be happy. However, he and the other toys live in a constant state of anxiety, threatened by the prospect of being replaced every time a birthday or Christmas comes around.  

This insecurity causes them to react without thinking, and results in conflicts among the group. Woody's worst fear is realized when his place is usurped by shiny new Buzz Lightyear. The tension mounts as the toys react to Woody's attempts to regain his status. Woody's actions backfire and they jump to conclusions about his motivations. He is not only no longer viewed with respect and as the 'leader' of the toys, he is totally rejected by them. 

But as the story progresses, Woody, Buzz, and the other toys must face several perilous situations together. They stop competing with each other and start cooperating. A mutual respect begins to grow. They learn to appreciate what each toy brings to the group. Little by little, their anxiety about losing their place in Andy's life diminishes. Their motivations shift from a selfish desire to maintain the status quo to loving and serving Andy in whatever way they can. They actually want to meet new toys and add them to their group. Mr. Potato Head even gets his much longed-for soulmate. 

Woody's character arc is a reflection of the maturing process. Children have to move from being the center of attention to finding their place in the family and society. They must stop rejecting any change that feels threatening and learn to embrace change as not only necessary but good. They start cooperating with others who are different from them, and for a greater purpose outside of themselves. They find out that love means putting someone else's well-being ahead of their own desires. They understand that humility and sacrifice is essential to happiness. 

All that from a cartoon? When a story is well-written, genre doesn't matter.  Fun stories like this can be used to help kids understand the benefits of unselfishness and collaboration, and that's a big parental bonus. 

Jurassic Park

Original story by Michael Crichton; Written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp; Directed by Steven Spielberg

Who hasn't seen or at least heard of Jurassic Park? And what's not to love about an island full of real dinosaurs? Only this time the creatures get loose and wreak havoc on those who created them. Fun-fun-fun. 

There are some major differences between the book and the movie, even though author Michael Crichton had a hand in the movie screenplay. For this post I'm just going to examine the movie. The book is definitely for adults, while the movie is marketed to families. 

It would be a mistake to dismiss a commercial blockbuster like Jurassic Park as entertaining fluff.  It has some great story roots, which is why we are still watching it 20 years later.

The fact is--Jurassic Park has some interesting things to say about the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  

Jurassic Park is the result of the work of geniuses built on the work of other geniuses. The technology and expertise involved is staggering. However, "great men are not always wise" (Job 32:9) and are often so carried away by their abilities they do not fully consider all of the ramifications of their actions.  

I remember feeling a sense of foreshadowing when Dr. Grant gets into the fancy helicopter with a non-functional seat belt, and travels to an island far beyond customary safety and ethical oversight. Again and again we see talented and knowledgeable people neglecting small but important details in their rush to scientific (and monetary) greatness. They also lack humility, a sense of mutual purpose, and teamwork. Each one stakes out his own territory without contemplating the needs of the Park as a whole. 

John Hammond, billionaire and owner of InGen, claims to have "spared no expense" in crafting the Park. But this is contradicted by his preoccupation with automation, efficiency, and saving money. He only employs a minimal staff, and security is primarily dependent on computers, which contributes to the Park's downfall. 

Hammond and geneticist Dr. Henry Wu believe that because they have created these dinosaurs, they will also be able to control them. They've engineered the animals to be female so they can't breed without permission. Dr. Wu also inserted a gene that keeps the dinosaurs from processing the amino acid lysine, without which they will slip into a coma and die. The purpose of this contingency is to make the animals completely dependent on the Park for their survival.  

In spite of their understanding of genetics, Hammond and Dr. Wu neglect to fully address the complexities of animal behavior. They ignore the possible effects of completing the dinosaur's gene sequences with the DNA of other animals. The result is some dinosaurs are able to change from female to male because of the single sex environment Dr. Wu and his team created.

It's interesting that the staff misspells the names of some of the dinosaurs they are cloning, which is evidence of their preoccupation with scientific discovery without bothering with little details.  

image of misspelled dinosaur name from Jurassic Park

John Hammond boasts that he hired the best people in their fields to design the park systems. Dennis Nedry,  looking like he was plucked straight out of his mother's basement, is the computer genius. Although the safety of the entire park is in the hands of Nedry, Hammond treats him as an annoyance. This motivates Nedry to accept a bribe to sabotage the park's security long enough for him to steal some dinosaur embryos. Nedry (whose name at a glance looks like Nerdy) has been far removed from the dinosaurs themselves. This is probably why he never considers the dangers he is releasing into the Park by disabling doors, gates, and fences. Later he falls victim to his own short-sightedness and greed. 

Let that be a lesson to you. 

The Park's balance is more delicate than anyone realizes, and Nedry's betrayal acts as the catalyst to the eventual breakdown of the entire Park. 

Robert Muldoon, game warden and wildlife expert, is a sensible guy who understands the danger the Park poses to humans. However, his hunting skills and 'real life' experience with the captive raptors doesn't give him the insight he needs to avoid becoming their prey. He should have been at Dr. Grant's dig in the beginning of the movie where Grant explains the raptor's hunting tactics. 

John Hammond, Dr. Wu, and Dennis Nedry are contrasted sharply by the other characters who have the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. Dr. Alan Grant and Dr. Ellie Sattler are true experts with dirt under their fingernails and between their toes to prove it. In spite of the emotional impact of seeing real dinosaurs in the flesh, they were not distracted from their doubts about Hammond's accomplishments.  

Grant and Sattler point out the arrogance of thinking that scientists could control living, breathing creatures -- even ones created in a lab. Grant, who spent his entire career studying fossil evidence, explains his anxiety about extinct animals suddenly being back in the mix with humans. He feels a sense of responsibility for these creatures even though he didn't have a hand in creating them. 

Sattler chides Hammond for choosing plants for their appearance without knowing they were also toxic. These 'decorations' posed a real danger to future guests of the Park. I guess after seeing raptors demolish a cow, no one cares about poisonous plants.

Dr. Sattler listens to Hammond's pity party, which reveals that he still believes he will be able to regain and maintain control over the Park. Sattler sets him straight and reminds him of the human lives at stake. 

Ian Malcolm has no hands-on experience with dinosaurs, but as an expert in chaos theory, he understands the unpredictability of complex systems. He has no faith in Hammond's vision or the skills of his scientists. Malcolm points out that those who don't earn knowledge don't respect it, and are too preoccupied with invention and progress to consider the consequences of their actions.  

These two groups of characters illustrate the difference between knowledge and wisdom. That's theme.

By understanding how to discern themes:

  • you can turn your kids from passive to active viewers

  • help them perceive the messages being conveyed to them through movies and TV

  • teach them to recognize the good and bad in popular culture

  • spark interesting conversations about complex and controversial issues

  • learn more about your child's understanding of the world.

Have you read Movies and Television as Literature: Story Elements?

Share your experiences with exploring themes in the comments!