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What is Theme? [Examples in Film and Literature]

by Neil Chase

Are you looking to create an impactful story?

Theme is the underlying concept that a piece of literature or film conveys. It’s the central idea, mood, and emotion of your work. By exploring this underlying theme in-depth in your work, you can craft stories that will captivate readers and viewers alike.

Not only does this make for powerful filmmaking or literature, but it also allows audiences to relate more to your story on a personal level. 

Whether it’s the courage to pursue one’s dreams, coming out on top despite difficulties, or any other message – delivering strong literary themes makes the story memorable and resonant.

Let’s take a closer look at what is theme, and then explore some powerful examples of common themes in film and literature.

Understanding Theme in Literature

Understanding the major and minor themes of a piece of literature is integral to any reader’s full appreciation for it.

A story’s theme is an overarching idea, message, or moral that builds throughout the narrative and ties its elements together. If plot is the what, then theme is the why.

There are many different types of themes in literature, such as love, death, power, betrayal, and justice, to name just a few. These themes can involve characters navigating difficult situations or exploring deep-seated human emotions.

The role of theme is to draw readers into the story by giving them something to relate to – when readers recognize a literary work has themes relevant to their own experiences, they’re more likely to feel connected and empathize with the characters.

By recognizing a compelling theme in literature and understanding what it’s expressing, readers can gain new perspectives on life and gain meaningful insight from the stories they read.

Understanding Theme in Film

In filmmaking, the theme is the main idea that drives the story forward. It serves to establish what the audience should take away from the film and sparks an emotional response when executed effectively.

There are many types of themes you can explore in film production, such as redemption, exploration of identity, loss, coming of age, and more.

Themes not only guide filmmakers when creating shots and sequences but also play an integral role in visual storytelling by setting the tone for each scene.

By exploring key themes throughout your film and utilizing visual elements to emphasize them throughout, you can create a powerful movie-going experience.

How to Identify Theme in Literature

Identifying a thematic statement in literature can be a challenging yet rewarding task.

A great place to start is by performing a close reading of the text; this includes analyzing characters, plot, and setting.

It is also important to understand the author’s purpose in writing the literature; this will help you get a clearer picture of why a story was written in a certain way.

Lastly, as you start to see patterns or symbolisms throughout the work, begin making connections between those patterns and how they overlay onto larger topics or themes.

Don’t be afraid to ask yourself questions about different aspects of the literature, such as symbols, language, and structure; these questions may lead you in an unexpected direction that could unearth deeper meanings and revelations about the story’s core purpose!

How to Identify Theme in Film

The key to identifying common themes in films is to watch movies closely and thoughtfully – this means paying attention to characters and their interactions, noticing how the plot develops, and considering what elements of the setting play an essential role in the story.

As you watch through these lenses, you will gain insight into the director’s vision for the film.

Furthermore, if you have difficulty discerning underlying themes from watching alone, consider researching online reviews or asking other people’s opinions – different perspectives can help solidify your own understanding of the movie’s enduring themes.

Examples of Themes in Literature

  1. Love – A recurring and universal theme in literature that explores the nature of affection and relationships between people.
  2. Redemption – This theme follows a character’s journey of atonement and eventual transformation for the better.
  3. Loss – This theme is often linked to the idea of mortality and highlights the inevitability of change and the pain that comes with it.
  4. Coming of Age – This popular theme usually involves a protagonist’s personal growth, adapting to new circumstances or situations.
  5. Justice – The theme of justice represents fairness and equal treatment, particularly under the law, often serving as a conflict or obstacle for a character to overcome.
  6. Power – This theme is based on the use and acquisition of power, its potentially corrupting influence, and the struggle for control over others.

Examples of Themes in Film

  1. Friendship – This theme depicts the bond between individuals who share loyalty, support, and companionship in times of happiness and sadness.
  2. Overcoming adversity – This great theme is about characters who overcome significant obstacles, disabilities, or setbacks to achieve their goals.
  3. Good vs. Evil – A classic major theme contrasting the forces of good and evil, where the protagonist must overcome evil to achieve justice or positive change.
  4. Self-discovery – This theme follows the journey of a character’s growth and transformation, often including reflections on their past or present experiences.
  5. Survival – This theme involves a character’s struggle to overcome life-or-death situations, both physical and emotional, often involving elements of adventure or suspense.
  6. Betrayal – Betrayal is a common theme that explores the pain and consequences of broken trust, often highlighting the fragility of human relationships and giving way to tension.

Comparing Themes in Literature and Film

While both literature and film are full of symbolic metaphor and creative expression, there are differences to consider when looking at each medium.

While literature allows us to impose our own interpretations on the written word, films bring the story to life and add a visual interpretation of events.

In literature, characters can often be explored more thoroughly, and background stories can be told with more detail. Film, on the other hand, gives the audience the opportunity to experience powerful visuals accompanied by auditory elements such as music and sound effects.

However, many of the core themes that are seen in novels and short stories remain the same when transferred to the silver screen. From love stories to tales of woe, how we understand characters and underlying meanings is often consistent across mediums despite slight variations in storytelling techniques.

The Importance of Theme in Writing

From Aristotle’s Poetics to the works of William Shakespeare, we’ve seen time and again just how important theme is for a successful piece of creative writing.

Theme gives writers the opportunity to add depth and meaning to their work, providing a layer beyond storytelling that both engages and enlightens readers.

Not only does it create a richer experience for those who are taking in your story, but it can also help to bridge the gap between writer and reader by allowing them to explore common feelings, ideas, or emotions together.

For example, the author may choose to explore not only personal or narrative issues but also moral concepts, societal dynamics, and metaphorical realities as well.

The Importance of Theme in Filmmaking

Motivating? Inspiring? Heartwarming?

Cinematic themes can help create a powerful emotional connection between the director and the viewers through thought-provoking stories and meaningful messages.

While the story, acting, visual effects, and other components of filmmaking can entertain us, it’s ultimately the underlying theme that helps to provide further context and resonates with our human experience.

We can easily identify with characters as they struggle against obstacles to reach their goals, learn valuable lessons that leave an imprint on our hearts, or become more aware of societal issues.

This holds true for all genres of film — no matter if it’s a poignant drama, lighthearted rom-com, or sci-fi action flick — embedding prominent themes within stories can significantly enhance the viewing experience by elevating beyond mere entertainment.

Examples of Works with Strong Themes

Let’s take a look at a few examples of books and films with a strong central theme.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic and is often studied for its strong themes of racial inequality, justice, and family.

Lee masterfully illustrates the effects of racist attitudes on individuals and their families, as seen through a young girl’s perspective.

Her first-hand experiences with discrimination compel her to understand the complexities of adult life and stand up for what is right.

Furthermore, this vital work also addresses issues of social influence and power within communities, showing how easily hatred can be furthered unless people actively stand against it.

This story has resonated with many readers throughout the years due to its timeless central ideas.

“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, is widely regarded as one of the most iconic works of American literature.

Through his complex and intricate narrative, Fitzgerald presents a thought-provoking exploration of the pursuit of the American dream amid a backdrop of social pressures and cultural norms.

On its surface, the novel tells the story of two lovers in 1920s New York, but at its core, it is full of deep themes such as obsessions with wealth and prestige, dissatisfaction with modernity, and unrequited love.

This unique blend of passion and commentary on an ever-changing society makes it stand out among other works and firmly solidifies it as a classic whose themes still resonate today.

“The Shawshank Redemption” directed by Frank Darabont

Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most beloved films of all time and for a good reason.

The movie offers a wide range of major and minor themes that draw viewers into its captivating story – such as never giving up hope, the power of friendship, courage, corruption, power, resilience, and even existentialism.

Through the excellent pacing and performances, the combination of classic storytelling and powerful themes allows viewers to become deeply engaged with the poignant and uplifting narrative.

“The Godfather” directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is an iconic film renowned for its strong themes – a battle between personal loyalty and ambition versus family legacy and ethics.

This movie pulls in viewers through the complex characters, gripping storyline, and lush visuals, making it both riveting and thought-provoking at the same time.

Experiencing this film is like watching a Shakespearean tragedy unfold before you, as loyalty and ambition are pitted against each other in a gripping fashion throughout the piece.

“Blade Runner” directed by Ridley Scott

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, is a unique sci-fi thriller that demonstrates powerful themes of mortality, identity, social hierarchy, and humanity by exploring the consequences of advancing technology.

The film, starring Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, tells the story of a retired blade runner forced to hunt down and terminate four advanced androids called replicants.

With its groundbreaking visuals and captivating plot, this iconic movie remains timeless in its approach to difficult questions about morality and human nature.

“Black Panther” directed by Ryan Coogler

Ryan Coogler’s celebrated film, Black Panther, is full of powerful themes – from the empowerment of African people to questions about colonialism and expansive critiques on race and identity, the movie packs plenty of food for thought.

Moreover, Coogler is not afraid to push boundaries when it comes to how solutions can be found. Ideas like nation-building from the inside rather than militarization or domination become important plot points.

It creates a safe space for viewers to ponder these ideas without fear or reduced understanding due to familiarity with how these issues are “usually” resolved in films.

All things considered, Black Panther stands as an example of modern work that brings forth dynamic themes for viewers to unpack and contemplate.

The Evolution of Theme in Literature and Film

Over the past several decades, literature and film have brought a wide range of themes to the table – from stories about human struggle and hardship to tales of hope and courage.

As society has evolved, so too have its literary and cinematic interests.

What was considered ‘normal’ decades ago may not be as popular today, with modern audiences preferring plots and subplots that involve more complex characters, relationships, and challenges.

For example, many older films portrayed women in a limited number of roles, such as housewife or damsel in distress; however, now we get to see women as powerful leads who shape their own destinies and don’t conform to traditional gender roles.

And while classic tales often focused on coming-of-age stories – often featuring white male adolescents overcoming great adversity – contemporary works are much more inclusive in terms of both race and gender within age groups.

Moving forward into the future of theme in both literature and film, we will likely continue to witness themes that echo today’s events or explore timeless ideas with a modern twist.

Whether it is one person’s triumphant journey or the multifaceted experiences of an entire group converging at once, authors, screenwriters, and filmmakers will continue to shape culture through thought-provoking themes that impact us for generations to come.

What is Theme? [Examples in Film and Literature]

Conclusion: What is Theme?

Theme is a powerful element in film and literature and can serve to enhance the entire story, as well as give deeper meaning and understanding to both the reader/viewer and creator.

A pervasive theme for a movie and book can draw viewers in, pull them into the story, and leave them with a lasting impression.

Films such as The Godfather, Blade Runner, and The Shawshank Redemption are perfect theme examples of how powerful literary devices can be used to convey messages.

We also see this in books like To Kill A Mockingbird, the Harry Potter series, and Animal Farm.

Each of these stories has memorable plots overflowing with rich themes that make them part of timeless classics.

That said, it can be concluded that theme is an essential element in literature, movies, or any visual representation of storytelling – as it’s one way of affecting the emotions of readers and viewers alike.

Don’t just learn about themes – create your own unforgettable ones. Make your stories come alive, enhance your creative process, and take control of your narrative. Join the community of over 3 million creatives worldwide who already use Celtx.

Are you ready to create, innovate, and inspire? Take your storytelling to the next level today. Start your free trial at Celtx now!


What is the Difference Between a Topic and a Theme?

A topic is the subject matter of a piece of writing, while a theme is an underlying message or idea that the author is trying to convey throughout the entire story. In simpler terms, a topic is what the story is about, while a theme is what the story is trying to say about the topic.

Can a Work Have Multiple Themes?

Yes, a written work can have more than one theme. It’s common for authors to explore complex topics from different angles or use multiple themes to convey the overall message of their work.

How Can I Develop a Theme in My Writing or Filmmaking?

To develop your story’s theme, first, determine the main message you want to convey or the central idea you want to explore. Then, use plot, character development, symbolism, and other literary or cinematic elements to illustrate and reinforce the theme throughout your work. Finally, don’t be afraid to revise and refine your work to ensure that the theme is clear and impactful.


  • Neil Chase

    Neil Chase is a story and writing coach, award-winning screenwriter, actor, and author of the horror-western novel, Iron Dogs.  Neil has won over 100 international awards for his writing and filmmaking, including the prestigious FilmMaker’s International Screenwriting Grand Prize Award & the ScreamFest Best Screenplay Award. His directorial-debut feature film, Spin The Wheel, is currently in post-production. Neil believes that all writers have the potential to create great work. His passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are both entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, check out his website for tips and inspiration!

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