In my book The Screenplay as Literature, I gave a brief treatment on “theme” in cinema and how the term differs from “premise.” In this work I defined “theme” as a thought-provoking idea that pervades the entire production—an idea that is often simple and profound. I pointed out that a “theme” and its meaning should always be self-evident to the audience—even if only on an subconscious level—not demanding proof or demonstration, but development instead. This I contrasted to a “premise,” which I defined as a proposition that must be proved or demonstrated. Subsequently, I became dissatisfied with my earlier treatment of this important topic, primarily because my book did not included a suitable example of a film with a full-blown theme; I had endeavored to include one, but for reasons I cannot go into here, I was compelled to drop the chapter dealing with such an example (the film, by the way, was Hiroshima Mon Amour).
Sometimes the theme of a film is related to its premise. For example in the very harrowing Soviet film Come and See (1985), set during World War II in Russia, the premise is that war brutalizes its victims: robbing them of their humanity, and for the young, also robbing them of their youth, even their childhood. This is really a subset of the theme, which, in this instance, can be stated in a number of ways: The Apocalypse of Our Time, War is Hell, and Man’s Inhumanity to Man. (By the way, the title of the film is a Biblical reference to the destruction wrought by The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.) In this monumental film the theme is developed by depicting scenes of greater and greater brutality and horror. The premise, on the other hand, is demonstrated (or proved) by a “coming of age” story in which the protagonist, a young, adolescent partisan, is thoroughly brutalized by his wartime experiences (shockingly, his hair turns prematurely gray at the film’s end).
Sometimes this dramaturgical concept of a theme is confused with the way the term is commonly employed in the film industry. In this instance, “theme” or “action-theme” is used to describe what a film “is about.” Thus “a secret agent prevents a terrorist organization from detonating a stolen nuclear weapon and destroying a major city” might well be the “theme” of a James Bond film. And sometimes a filmmaker endeavors to make what his film is about rise to the level of a theme in the higher sense. The British film Love Actually (2003) is such an example. Here, in the opening scene at London’s main airport, Heathrow, we are told (by a voice-over) that love is all around us; and we are shown various couples (lovers, families) who obviously share love. The film then goes on to depict various relationships (ten in all) from all strata of society (including one involving a Prime Minister and another involving a couple who meet on the set of a porno film) which end in committed relationships and marriage. or hopefully will. The film ends where it began, Heathrow airport, where we see many of those same couples coming together (if they have not already done so). Love Actually is a very clever and well-made film. But in the end it is just a film about love; its contrived love stories never rise to level of “theme”. We just don’t feel the love.
Some of the more intriguing examples of theme are to be found in some rather unexpected places. The films of Charles Chaplin, a comedian and director whose film career began in the silent era and spanned several decades, provide just such an example. Chaplin’s signature hapless tramp, with his little mustache, battered hat, cane and clumsy gait clearly embodied the indomitableness of the human spirit. No matter how much he was beaten down by the vicissitudes of life–and beaten down he was–he always picked himself up, dusted himself off, and walked off into the sunset with his peculiar gait, ready for whatever life would throw at him next. In the early days of silent films, the actors had no names. But theater owners had only to put a cardboard representation of the little tramp in front of their theaters and the audiences would come–because they knew who he was. He was them!