10 March, 2015

Theme Fiction

Recently, I had an almost-polite altercation with a friend about whether Interstellar is a good movie. His issue was basically that the theme was confusing, which made the movie listless. As many budding authors read this blog, it drew to mind a distinction that one should know:


There.  I said it.

My friend cited Alien as a movie with a simple, comprehensible theme: the theme of rape. It's hard to explain to people who aren't interested in making art, but Alien does not have a theme. A theme is an INTENDED EFFECT. An intellectual effect, mostly, but the attachment of that effect is achieved through emotional connections much as anything else in fiction. Theme is most certainly not something for people to write dissertations about twenty years after the film is made. It's an INTENDED EFFECT for the viewer/reader to walk away with upon completing the movie/book, much like everything else in good fiction.

Alien doesn't have a theme. It's a very simplistic horror movie. It's intended effect is to be afraid of scary monsters. It's excellent. It's a tight, gut wrenching narrative about death and fear and escape and, indeed, powerlessness in the face of a frightening monster. In fact, to say it's about rape simply because the main character is a woman has to be one of the most inadvertently sexist comments I've ever heard.

Even more importantly, rape can't be a theme. Why? Is it an INTENDED INTELLECTUAL EFFECT? Hell no. It's not an idea. It's an action. It's like saying, "The theme of American Sniper is shooting guns." Bullshit. The theme can be to make us think about how shooting guns, or rape, is wrong, but Alien made no such attempt. It made us think about how much it would suck to get chased by scary monsters.

Now, as someone who's taught women's self defense, I feel icky even writing that word, so I'll have to drop that subject now and move on.

The bottom line is, even if Alien were about that (which it isn't, just to be clear) there's a difference between what a movie's about and its theme. American Sniper is about shooting people. Is that a theme? No. Selma is about civil rights movements and racism. Is that a theme? No. "Racism is wrong" can be a theme, but racism itself is a topic, as are civil rights movements.

Let's give an example of something with a great theme: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Never judge a person before walking a mile in their shoes. That theme is reiterated over and over. In just about everything that happens in the book, even in most conversations within the book, we are given the idea of how judging a person is wrong. We are reminded of how people are intricate creatures who cannot be understood simply by staring at them from the outside. And once you understand someone, you'll never want to judge them.

A theme can make you reflect on other things. For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird has the potential to make someone reflect on racism. But is the theme "racism"? That's not a theme. Can it make us think about how racism is wrong? Yes, for the same reason you shouldn't judge a person without walking a mile in their shoes: all people are inherently equal.

People can walk away with different reflections based upon how the theme resonates with their own experiences. In America, readers tend to hone in on the idea of race, because of the racial issues that still persist in your country. No offense, but the rest of the 1st world isn't like that, and if you don't believe me, you've never lived in Canada.

The trial only takes up 1/3 of the book. To Kill a Mockingbird does not mention race on every page. But every page does ooze the idea that you shouldn't judge a person without walking a mile in their shoes. The movie, which did not feature that guy from the Superbowl commercial, focused on the trial because it's a big dramatic hinge-point. It's a thematic hinge-point too, and inherently so, because a well integrated theme will be in every way tied to the drama.

Reflection on the theme is an INTENDED INTELLECTUAL EFFECT. That's why everything in the book is so exquisitely tailored to it. Without that understanding, an artist can never create themes of their own, because they must understand that it's not a question of the topic you want to cover. It's a question of the thoughts and reflections you want your reader to walk away with.

My picture for Pinterest this time is chosen to illustrate why people grow up with misconceptions about themes. Namely, we're taught wrong. This picture is a sheet for school. (I teach English on the side.) It's basically forcing students to fail to understand what Harper Lee did, and fail to understand how fiction is made, and indeed, fail to attain good grades based upon your own honest reading experiences. School is, in essence, judging you intellectually without attempting to walk a mile in your shoes.

Note the word "themes", plural. Bullshit. Note also the focus on racial issues. Reflection as a result of the theme. Not the theme itself. (Intended reflections perhaps, but that changes nothing.) Note how, if you have any real insight into the truth of a subject, school will make every attempt to beat that out of you. Just a personal grudge, there, but you'll see that topic in my books frequently.

To far too many young people, their relationship with society looks too much like this:

1 comment:

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Superb theme!I like it very much.I really enjoy reading this post and thank you...