by Jennie Jarvis
In his book Write Screenplays That Sell The Ackerman Way, Hal Ackerman argues that Theme is the enemy of a screenwriter. “Theme leads to predictability,” he states, and while I don’t know if I would accept this statement as a blanket rule for all film writing, I understand where he is going when he says this. Over my years running screenwriting competitions and serving as a story consultant, I have seen many writers that place their theme ahead of their story. In those instances, the message that the writer wants to convey weighs down the narrative, and it often feels like the story is preaching to the reader/viewer instead of properly conveying the message. Since the message practically drips from the screenplay, the end of the story becomes obvious. Love conquers all, says The Princess Bride? Then, of course, Wesley and Buttercup will get together. That’s not to say that The Princess Bride is a perfect example of a heavy-handed theme. It’s a GREAT film, but it’s the best that I can suggest since the really heavy handed theme-driven screenplays aren’t made into films. They remain on the shelves and are never put into production.
So, what does this mean? Should a screenwriter always avoid incorporating a theme into their scripts? What if the writer wants to tell a story in which a theme is present?
Well, screenwriters, I just saw a film that should be used as a textbook for how to incorporate theme into a screenplay – and it’s called Gravity.
This intense film directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron has been sold as a thriller since the trailers first appeared in theaters several months ago. The story follows Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), two astronauts whose world is thrown off kilter (literally) when satellite debris destroys their space shuttle. This happens in the first 20 minutes of the film, and the remaining 70 minutes are all about trying to save their own lives. As you can imagine, it’s an engaging and powerful film that serves as a realistic sci-fi horror story. The visuals are stunning, the effects are sensational and, despite a few cheap obviously-shot-for-3D shots, the cinematography is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s a Newtonian physics fueled spectacle that is well worth the cost of admission.
But would you believe that it’s also about faith?
The film incorporates its theme of believing in something More in such subtle ways that it’s almost invisible. I honestly don’t remember the use of the word God used once in the entire film (except maybe in the context of “God damn”), and yet the viewer leaves the theater feeling transformed and renewed in their belief in life. So how did Cuaron and his co-writer Jonas Cuaron do it? How did they incorporate their theme without making it feel heavy handed and without making the end of the film predictable?
For me, it all came down to one simple thing – integration.
Often, when a theme is too heavy handed, there is a character that becomes the voice of theme: someone will give a long winded monologue or will otherwise tell the protagonist what message the audience is supposed to learn. But that doesn’t exist in this film. The theme was sprinkled in small details throughout the entire film and didn’t just appear in one large clump or via one particular character. Some of the details that conveyed the theme were rather obvious (i.e. Stone asking for someone to pray for her soul), but many of the most effective ones were so subtle they were easy to miss, including a small Buddha on the mantelpiece of an escape pod.
My favorite example of a subtle, yet effective integration of theme came in a conversation between Stone and Kowalsky. They are floating in space, and their communication system is down; they can talk to each other but they can’t communicate with Mission Control down on Earth. Regardless of this fact, Kowalsky keeps reporting to Houston (i.e. “Houston on the blind, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski are the sole survivors of the SDS-157”). Stone reprimands Kowalsky for this, saying that there is no point. No one is listening. Kowalski tells her that they don’t know that for a fact. They keep talking because, if someone is listening, they might be able to help. Later in the film, Stone fears tat she will die and considers praying but then claims that no one ever taught her how to pray. However, her colleague has already taught her without her realizing it. You just talk and keep talking. Even if no one responds, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. By the end of the film, regardless of how bleak things seem, she begins talking, even though no one is there to respond. This is a brilliant way of encouraging the idea of faith without blatantly beating it over the audience’s heads.
I’ve known that Cuaron was a brilliant director for years, but seeing how he visually incorporated the theme in this film was impressive. He used the spectacle of this film in order to reinforce the message that he wanted to tell – something that all film writers should strive to achieve in their own work. Film is, after all, a visual medium, and so any message that needs to be told should use as many visuals as possible. In Gravity, there are multiple visual representations about the power of connection, including the tethers between the astronauts and the ships they encounter, as well as visual representations of the power of something More (whether you call it God, Allah, the Universe, whatever). Cuaron presents these stunning visuals, including breathtaking shots of Earth from above the atmosphere that are so incredibly beautiful, it’s hard not to be left feeling awed. Cuaron also wows us with scenes of destruction. Seeing how massive structures can be ripped to shreds like paper is humbling, reminding us how small we really are in this Universe.
Ultimately, whether Cuaron set out to write a theme-driven film or not, even Hal Ackerman can’t accuse Gravity of being heavy handed or predictable. The theme is incorporated with such brilliance that any screenwriter that wants to tell a deeper meaning with their stories should take note.
And seriously, this is a good film. Go support it at the box office!