Do screenplays need a theme? That’s a question I get a lot.
An aspiring writer confessed to me the other night that he’s intimidated by the idea of theme. Screenplays, he’s been taught, are supposed to have a theme, which he interprets as a strong opinion about something, like that capital punishment is wrong, or that the sins of the father are visited upon the child, or power corrupts.
“I don’t have strong opinions,” he said. “Maybe I’m not cut out to be a writer.”
Well, to me having a theme just means that your script is about something beyond the mechanics of the plot, but you don’t have to be pushing one side or the other. You can explore the topic by showing how several viewpoints have their own merits.
The classic film “Patton” is a great example of this. Both pro-war and anti-war people have claimed it as obviously being on their side. (If you’ve never seen “Patton,” get a DVD and correct this situation.)
So, I told the aspiring writer, not only are you qualified to write, your lack of dogmatic positions probably will allow you to create more complex and more interesting screenplays than someone who has an axe to grind.
By the way, don’t worry if you don’t know what your theme is before you start writing. Many successful authors have said it’s only with hindsight that they realized what they were trying to express below the surface of the story.