Movie Themes Examples of Common Themes for Screenwriters - Featured

Although we may not always consciously realize it, we seek out stories for their themes. The movies that most affect us – the ones we cherish and carry with us throughout our lives – are those with common themes that have profoundly affected and even changed us. And yet, because movie themes are often buried deep within a story’s structure, it can be hard to articulate or even recognize them. This article will analyze how seven classic movies deliver profound movie experiences through common story themes.

Theme in film

What is a movie theme?

Robert McKee, the famous screenwriting teacher, defines stories as “equipment for living.” He argues that stories teach us how to live by dramatizing common themes that are central to our lives. McKee refers to movie themes as “controlling ideas,” which are “the purest form of a story's meaning, the vision of life the audience members carry away into their lives.” Here's McKee with further explanation.

Movies Themes  •  Equipment for Living 

As seen with McKee’s “controlling idea,” theme can be defined in a number of ways. Often, people define film themes in one, or perhaps several, words. Examples include:

  • Love
  • Death
  • Justice
  • Coming of age
  • Man vs. nature

But strictly speaking, these are story topics or subjects, not themes.  As we define it in our article on theme, a theme in film is actually “the inferred stance taken on a topic of a story.”

THEME DEFINITION

What is a theme in film?

A theme is the inferred stance taken on a topic of a story. Everything that happens within a story should reference back to a theme.

For example, while “justice” may be the overriding subject of a movie, a theme derived from this subject may be something like, “If a person doesn't first do herself justice, she can never do it for others.”

In the film analysis below, we organize a number of types of themes into seven major subjects:

  • God and Philosophy
  • Survival
  • Virtue and Values
  • Love
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Society
  • Discovering Self-Knowledge

For each of these subjects, we generate a list of subtopics, then analyze how classic films transform several of those subtopics into common themes in movies. Any given movie, of course, can yield multiple and overlapping movie theme examples from across these major subjects.

Movie Themes #1

God and Philosophy

In this category, subtopics that yield common themes include:

  • Faith vs. doubt
  • Fate vs. self-determination
  • Reason vs. faith
  • Facing an empty universe
  • Destruction of the soul

Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men (2007) features themes derived from these topics. Typical themes in Coen Brothers' films include the idea that the universe is beyond comprehension or appeal. The Coens often symbolize this theme with a desk, which represents an implacable force that cannot be reasoned with, as seen in this video.

Are the Coen Brothers Obsessed with Desks?  •  Subscribe on YouTube

The symbol of the desk is used in No Country for Old Men, a movie in which the implacable force is pure evil in the form of Javier Bardem’s terrifying serial killer, Anton Chigurh, whose nature and motivations the other characters cannot fathom. 

This character suggests the theme that “the more we try to understand the nature of the universe, the less we are likely to understand it.” The theme is further symbolized by Chigurh’s use of a coin flip to decide who will live or die.

For the Coens in this film, human self-determination is an illusion.

Coin Toss Scene  •  No Country for Old Men

The theme is also expressed through the character of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), mystified and struck helpless by a universe he can’t understand, much less control. The Coens organize the movie as a standoff between good and evil, using the Neo-Western genre as a way to reinforce that traditional story.

But then they subvert the genre’s typical triumph of good in the third act. Not only does evil vanquish good, but Sheriff Bell quits law enforcement, feeling that his actions can no longer make a difference. In this scene, Sheriff Bell lays out this existential quandary. 

I Feel Overmatched  •  No Country for Old Men

A final expression of the theme occurs near the end of the film, when Chigurh is badly hurt in a freak car accident. What could have easily become a moment of cosmic irony or poetic justice is left unresolved.

Themes in Coen Brothers’ films

While viewers can read this as the villain getting his comeuppance, the random nature of it — as well as the fact that none of the main characters even realize that it happens — suggests the theme that the moral arc of the universe does not bend towards justice, no matter how much we want it to.

List of Themes

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

  • The more we try to understand the nature of the universe, the less we are likely to understand it.
  • The moral arc of the universe does not bend towards justice, no matter how much we want it to.

Movie Themes #2

Survival

In this category, subtopics that yield common themes include:

  • Human vs. nature
  • Human vs. human
  • Individual vs. self
  • Perseverance/finding strength
  • Resistance to oppression
  • Facing disease/mortality/addiction
  • Beating the odds

Survival is a subject that lends itself well to movies because it tends to feature intense conflict between an individual and another force (human, nature, machine), as well as between individual and self.

A classic that has touched many viewers with these theme topics is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), written and directed by Frank Darabont.

In one crucial way, The Shawshank Redemption expresses the opposite theme of No Country for Old Men. While both movies imply that humans are at the cruel whims of an inexplicable universe, Shawshank firmly believes in some degree of self-determination.

No matter how bad your situation is, the way you react to it — what you learn, how you feel, and how you treat other people — is always up to you. That’s what the wrongly convicted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) persists in believing, despite his brutal treatment in Shawshank prison over many years.

“There’s something inside they can’t get to” 

While Andy fights outward oppression, his friend Red (Morgan Freeman) struggles internally. While Red has an easier time of it in prison than Andy, he doesn’t believe that he can make it on the outside if he is ever released.

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice.”

The famous line from the scene, “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’,” can be tweaked slightly to convey another theme: “If you don’t commit to actively living despite your circumstances, you aren’t really alive, and you might as well be dead.” Eventually Red embraces living, leading to one of cinema’s most famous and moving endings.

Ending Scene  •  Shawshank Redemption

List of Themes

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

  • No matter how bad your situation is, the way you react to it - what you learn, how you feel, and how you treat others - is up to you.
  • If you don’t commit to actively living despite your circumstances, you aren’t really alive, and you might as well be dead.

Movie Themes #3

Virtue and Values

In this category, subtopics that yield common themes include:

  • Courage and heroism
  • Honor and loyalty
  • Hypocrisy
  • Facing fear/finding bravery
  • Greed as downfall
  • Pride as downfall
  • Rising to the occasion

Themes of virtue and values are typically dramatized in films for children, especially fantasy adventures such as Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classic Spirited Away  (2001). The movie chronicles the adventures of a young girl, Chihiro, who stumbles into an alternate spirit world where her parents' greed turns them into pigs. In the early scenes Chihiro is fearful, clingy, and whiny, with no spirit of adventure.

“It’s creepy! Let’s go home!”

Determined to save her parents, Chihiro tentatively begins to face her fears, becoming braver and more adventurous as she stumbles into one strange and frightening situation after another. Eventually she makes friends in this world and decides to risk herself to save them. Even the film’s trailer describes her quest in terms of virtues and values.

Judgement, Courage, Loyalty

Ultimately, Chihiro saves her parents and returns to the real world wiser, bolder, and more self-reliant.

List of Themes

SPIRITED AWAY

  • Before you can help others, you must find the courage to conquer your own fears.
  •  A rewarding life requires both an adventurous and a childlike spirit.

Movie Themes #4

Love

In this category, subtopics that yield common themes include:

  • Love vs. loneliness
  • Love vs. Social control
  • Finding self-love
  • Regret over lost love
  • Power/strength of family/friendship
  • Sacrificing for love

Love is one of the most common subjects in movies, and one of the most famous of all love stories is Casablanca (1942). The enduring influence and popularity of the movie is arguably due to the elegant and powerful way that it dramatizes themes of love.

Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a former freedom fighter, has retreated into cynicism, self-pity, and alcoholism in his nightclub in Casablanca. The source of his misery is his former lover, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who abandoned him years earlier and who now shows up at his club with her husband, Laszlo. The couple are fighting the Germans and need Rick’s help to escape to American before they are captured.

“You are our last hope.”

Eventually, Rick agrees to help Ilsa and Laslo. His sacrifice for both Ilsa and the war effort is made out of the highest kind of love - doing what’s best for another person even if it’s not what you want for yourself. The climactic scene in which Rick expresses his love through selflessness is one of the most famous and celebrated in the movies.

Judgement, Courage, Loyalty

The fact that Rick is willing to give up Ilsa for a higher cause also shows that he has gained self-love, as his self-loathing and self-pity would not allow him to make such a choice earlier in the film.    

List of Themes

CASABLANCA

  • True love means doing what’s best for another person even at great cost to yourself.
  • You must first love yourself before you are able to love another.

Movie Themes #5

Social themes

In this category, subtopics that yield common themes include:

  • Class struggles
  • Power and Corruption
  • Fighting for Justice
  • Individual vs. society
  • Materialism/capitalism
  • Progress – real or illusion
  • Resistance
  • Humanity vs. technology
  • Change vs. tradition
  • Chaos Vs. Order
  • The evils of prejudice
  • Quest for power
  • Social mobility

Social themes inform movies in many different genres, including drama, comedy, science fiction, western, war, and biopics. The social issues above are so prevalent in movies, Classical Hollywood even came up with a sub-genre called Social Problem Films. Famous social problem films include The Lost Weekend (1945), Gentleman’s Agreement  (1947), On the Waterfront (1954), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).

A more contemporary social problem film about racism is Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing (1989), which was hailed as a masterpiece upon its release and propelled Lee into the first ranks of American filmmakers. Do the Right Thing chronicles a hot summer day in Brooklyn during which simmering racial tensions come to a boil.

In this famous scene, various characters from the movie shout racial epithets directly at the camera.

Mookie and Pino

Do the Right Thing is a powerful indictment of systemic racism, of a society organized around racial hierarchies — with white people at the top — and police policies that single out black people as especially threatening.

Death of Radio Raheem

But Lee also calls for personal responsibility, exhorting each of us to do better at treating each other with kindness and empathy. The themes in Do the Right Thing  are not dramatized with particular subtlety, but they remain as relevant as ever.

List of Themes

DO THE RIGHT THING

  • Defeating racism requires both social and personal change.
  • Empathy and tolerance are key to co-existing in a diverse society.

Movie Themes #6

Good vs. Evil

In this category, subtopics that yield types of themes include:

  • The destructive nature of crime and violence
  • The horrors of war
  • The temptation of sin
  • The ugliness of revenge
  • Resisting oppression

Like most crime films, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) dramatizes both the rise and the fall of a group of criminals. Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) is a poor kid who is thrilled to discover a path to easy power and money with the Italian mob. It’s fun for a while. But eventually the mobsters’ reliance on crime and violence results in their long and ugly decline.

Scorsese conveys their rise — the good times of power, pleasure, and wealth — with lush colors, warm lighting, nostalgic music, and sweeping cinematography, as for example in the famous Copacabana scene. In this scene, a long take tracking shot ushers Henry and his girlfriend Karen inside with a flourish that creates a sense of excitement and grandeur.

The hottest spot north of Havana

In the second half, the characters’ embrace of crime and violence takes its toll as they succumb to infighting, drug addiction, financial problems, prison, and death. Compare the early Copacabana scene to a later scene when Henry and Karen realize that life as they know it is coming to an end. Scorsese conveys the theme visually, using ugly mise-en-scene, flat lighting, and awkward framing to reflect the poverty of their values.

“Why did you do that!?”

Ironically, there is very little good in Goodfellas. What good exists is represented by the barley-glimpsed working class people for whom Henry and his friends have nothing but contempt.

For Scorsese, the worst thing about these gangsters is that they never learn why the humble lives of the working class people are more noble than their own. Recognizing this at least might set them on the path to some kind of redemption.

List of Themes

GOODFELLAS

  • One may achieve power and pleasure through crime and violence; but hurting other human beings for personal gain will have ruinous effects on one's psyche and soul.

Movie Themes #7

Discovering Self-Knowledge

In this category, subtopics that yield types of themes include:

  • Coming of age
  • Shallowness vs. depth
  • Finding empowerment
  • Starting over
  • Learning to live with mistakes/guilt/regret
  • The cost of not accepting one’s true identity
  • Disillusionment/Loss of innocence
  • Dangers of ignorance
  • Finding self-awareness
  • Desire to escape
One of the most common themes in movies is discovering self-knowledge. This theme is most evident in coming-of-age stories such as Amy Heckerling's classic teen comedy Clueless (1995), based on Jane Austen’s coming-of-age novel, Emma.

In Clueless, Beverly Hills teen princess Cher (Alicia Silverstone) is basically good-hearted. But her wealth and privilege, and her obsession with clothes and popularity, have contributed to her shallowness and ignorance, preventing her from growing into a well-rounded person.

Contempo casual

Cher designates herself matchmatcher in the movie, trying to find love for her friends and teachers. But she tries to hook them up based on shallow considerations such as what social clique they belong to.

Cher’s new project

Because Cher doesn’t take the time to really get to know people, she ends up feeling confused and alone. Once she begins to accept people for who they really are — and recognize that nobody’s perfect — she is able to develop a deeper understanding of herself.

All by Myself

In each of the movies we’ve analyzed, the arc of a character’s change — his or her ability to find some degree of enlightenment and happiness — depends on discovering self-knowledge, whether it’s Cher, Rick in Casablanca, Red and Andy in Shawshank, or Chihiro in Spirited Away.

Conversely, the characters that don’t discover self-knowledge, such as Henry Hill and his fellow gangsters in Goodfellas are doomed to a life without true fulfillment.

List of Themes

CLUELESS

  • You can’t discover who you really are until you learn to accept people for who they really are.
  • To really grow up, you must accept your flaws and failures and learn from them.

UP NEXT

Theme: Definition and Examples

Now that we’ve identified common themes in seven classic films, read the StudioBinder article on theme and learn more about its purpose and how screenwriters and directors weave theme within narrative film.

Up Next: What is theme?
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