Thematic Arguments in Movies
The foundation of timeless classics.
A well-defined thematic argument can help a movie resonate with a broad audience and stand the test of time, but what is a "thematic argument"? Is that the same a 'theme', you ask.
No. They're related, but the former is a deeper dive into the latter, so allow me to explain.
A 'theme' in screenwriting is a broad and abstract concept that touches on fundamental human experiences and values, like 'justice', 'love', 'friendship', etc. Personally, I think these should be called 'topics', not themes, but since most people call them themes, we need another phrase to describe the exploration of that theme/topic in a story. Hence the term 'thematic argument'.
A thematic argument is a moral, philosophical, or ethical dilemma drawn from the wellspring of a universal theme.
It is the question the screenwriter subtly weaves into the story, inspiring the viewer to wonder on a subconscious level how they would react in a given situation.
It is the maypole that every major character's journey revolves around and reflects in different ways.
It is referred to as an argument because there are two equally compelling sides to the issue.
And it is that answer a screenwriter should give when a producer or manager asks, "But what is your story really about?"
Here's an example of a classic thematic argument:
"The good of the many always outweighs the good of the few."
That's a universal question we all ask ourselves at some point, whether the issue is big or small. You could argue it either way, depending on the circumstances and your point of view. And no matter which side you choose, there's a catch-22. That's why it's so great.
Just like most elements of screenwriting, exploring a thematic argument is best done by 'showing, not telling' your audience. That usually means via a character's actions, and less so through their dialogue. But truly memorable films take this one step further.. They construct plots that act as visual metaphors for the main character's inner battle with the thematic argument.
Why we care about a film.
Audiences go to films for two primary reasons: 1. To be entertained, and 2. To care about the relationships in that story.
How do screenwriters convince an audience to empathize with their main character? Assuming the ending is a positive, one way is to...
Give that character a relatable, emotional/psychological wound in their past.
A wound that has caused the hero to develop a flawed view of the world. A view that puts them on the wrong side of the movie's thematic argument.
That view leads to flawed decision-making and behavior.
Most of that is established in Act One.
Then, throughout the story, as the hero faces obstacle after obstacle, they realize their way of doing things is off-target.
They come to understand the wound they carry inside is the cause of their problems.
This realization allows them to correct their behavior and achieve their goal (if the ending is positive). The goal may not be exactly what they wanted initially, but it is what they need to fix what was broken within.
Audiences enjoy watching these heroes fix their flaws because it gives them an unconscious hope that they, too, can fix their faults one day.
From thematic argument to thematic metaphor
But a film solely focused on a hero performing surgery on their warped psyches, i.e., their inner journey, would be boring.
That's why the best-told stories create compelling A-plots that are visual metaphors for the thematic argument in their B-plots. It's a way to intertwine the story's action with its heart. It helps create empathy for the hero. The audience wants them to achieve their A-story goal because they realize it means their B-story wound will be healed.
If you need help with a script, look at the classic/popular films below. Examining how their A-stories are metaphors for the thematic argument in their B-stories may help.
And after that, if you feel like your script still needs more help, feel free to contact me.
Examples of thematic arguments and metaphors:
"The Shawshank Redemption" (1994):
THEMATIC ARGUMENT: Hoping in a hopeless situation is the worst thing you can do.
In the A-story, Andy Dufresne, a wrongfully convicted inmate, seeks his physical freedom from Shawshank State Penitentiary. But Andy is not the character who arcs. He may be depressed about his situation, but he doesn't breakdown when he enters the prison. And by the end of Act One, he commits to getting out. The B-story revolves around RED'S inner struggle with hope. He sees hope as a dangerous thing when you're facing life in prison. Watching Andy refuse to give up hope inspires Red to dream again of a world outside the walls. The thematic metaphor is evident as Andy's escape from prison represents the triumph of hope and encourages Red not to give up on his.
"The Godfather" (1972):
THEMATIC ARGUMENT: Loyalty to family takes precedence over all else.**
The A-story centers around Michael Corleone's rise to power within his family's organized crime empire. The B-story explores Michael's internal conflict as he grapples with the corrupting influence of his family's legacy and his own moral choices. The thematic metaphor is seen as Michael's efforts to protect his family's interests mirror his internal descent into darkness and moral ambiguity.
**Another thematic argument revolves around destiny and whether we can escape it.
THEMATIC ARGUMENT: Punching above your weight will only get you hurt.
The A-story follows Rocky Balboa's training and journey to compete against heavyweight champion Apollo Creed. The B-story explores Rocky's personal growth and self-belief as he discovers his own worth and fights against his self-doubt. The thematic metaphor can't get any clearer. Rocky's physical boxing matches serve as a visual representation of his inner battles and determination to prove himself.
THEMATIC ARGUMENT: If you put your job before your family, you could lose the thing you love the most.
In the A-story, Bryan Mills embarks on a relentless mission to rescue his daughter, Kim, from human traffickers. The B-story centers around Bryan's internal journey to redeem himself for not being around for his family and his desire to rebuild his fractured relationship with Kim. The thematic metaphor is evident as Bryan's external goal of saving Kim parallels his internal need for redemption and the chance to prove himself as a loving and dedicated father.
THEMATIC ARGUMENT: The good of the many outweigh the good of the few.
In the A-story, Rick Blaine holds letters of transit allowing two people to get to America. His former lover Illsa and her current lover, freedom-fighter Victor Lazlo, need them to escape the Nazis, but Rick is bitter about how Illsa abandoned him years ago. The B-story focuses on Rick's internal transformation from a spurned and jealous lover to knowing Illsa is better off with Lazlo. The thematic metaphor is present as Rick's external choices and actions in the A-story reflect his internal journey of finding redemption, letting go of past hurts, and ultimately sacrificing his desires for the greater good.