The Relationship Between Theme and Genre
While it’s common knowledge that a screenplay should have a strong theme enabling it to resonate with the audience, what’s not so often talked about is its relationship with genre.
When considering what your script’s theme — there’s no place like home, for example — it’s also important to recognize the relationship between this message and the genre of your story. This is because the facets that determine a film’s genre also play a part in determining its theme.
Professional writers don’t pluck the themes for their screenplays arbitrarily out of thin air, but rather base them on a tradition of themes born from a particular genre.
They then reveal this theme through the journey the protagonist takes through each act of the screenplay. And the genre determines what kind journey this will be.
Here’s a look at the five major genres and their basic relationship with theme.
Drama: this genre is all about the protagonist coming to terms with the past before being able to move forward. The “ghost” — i.e. the event from the past that is holding them back in the present — is the central thematic dynamic of Dramas.
Comedy: Comedies deal primarily with issues of naivety. Either the protagonist is a naive fool or, as in black comedies, the people surrounding them are. A Romantic Comedy on the other hand, concerns the idea of fighting to make love happen against the odds.
Action/Adventure: This genre is all about sacrifice for the greater good. Stories in this genre exist in a black and white world of good versus evil, and the protagonist will often give their life in order to save others.
Thriller: Thrillers usually revolve around betrayal of some kind. Their themes often explore the notion that the world is not quite as rational and safe as we think it is. A deceitful shape shifter is a major dynamic element.
Horror: Thematically a Horror movie is all about transgression. No matter how evil the antagonist in a Horror, their actions rarely come out of nowhere. It’s the protagonist who has transgressed in some way and unleashed the evil upon themselves.
It’s these genre determining factors which shape theme. For example, a Horror is unlikely to deal with a theme more suited to a Romantic Comedy, such as “love conquers all”.
A good understanding of the genre you’re writing in, therefore, will help you determine relevant and appropriate themes.
The most successful films in each genre all deal with similar themes. Let’s take a look at some examples to see how this works.
Drama: In It’s A Wonderful Life the “ghost” that’s holding George Bailey back from leaving Bedford Falls and seeing the world is a childhood incident. George rescued his brother from drowning which resulted in him going partially deaf. Consequently, as an adult he blames this for foiling his entry into the army and being stuck in his father’s business. George is only able to embrace the theme of “You must learn to experience joy from the smaller things in life if you want to be happy”, once he’s let go of his childhood dreams.
Comedy: In Liar Liar, Fletcher is a fool who naively assumes that he can get through life lying his heart out and suffer no consequences. He thinks being a hotshot lawyer and lying to get what he wants is enough to make him happy, and this attitude results in the breakdown of his relationship with his wife and son. Fletcher’s only able to learn the theme that “It’s better to live an honest life than a dishonest one” after having the power to tell the truth taken away from him.
Action/Adventure: In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the world is divided up into the “good” — Indiana Jones and America vs. the “bad” — Belloq and the Nazis. Indy’s big sacrifice comes when he lowers his grenade launcher upon seeing the Nazis have captured Marion, allowing himself to be captured. An action that he knows will result in his own death — and nearly does. At the end of the movie, though, he and Marion are spared and he learns the theme that “A lack of faith in humanity leads to a greed that’s all consuming and destructive”.
Thriller: In Fargo, the sleepy, snow-covered world of North Dakota is not quite as safe and rational as we think, as betrayal lies just beneath the surface. Jerry betrays his wife, son, father-in-law and work associates. Kidnappers, Carl and Gaear, betray each other. And even sweet-as-pie policewoman, Marge, is tempted to betray her husband. The theme that “Money can’t buy you happiness” is learnt by Jerry, Carl and Gaear the hard way as each of their betrayals unravels.
Horror: In The Shining, the transgression comes not only from Jack Torrance’s previous incarnation as the caretaker back in 1921, but from society’s treatment of Native Americans. The theme of the movie is that “The mistakes of the past are bound to be repeated because human nature is inherently flawed”, and this is what Jack fails to learn and so succumbs to the evil of the Overlook Hotel.
As you work on your theme, pay close attention to the genre you’re working in and the thematic conventions that it implies.
If you’re writing an Action/Adventure, for example, you’re story will be best served by setting up a world that revolves around good vs. evil and with that will come some form of self sacrifice by the protagonist.
If you’re writing a Drama, you’ll want to have something in the protagonist’s past that’s keeping them from being happy in the present, and this should form the basis for your theme.
Theme and genre go hand in hand and, in turn, shape each other, so make sure you consider both in equal measures when crafting your story.
Alex Bloom is the founder of Script Reader Pro — a script reading agency staffed by working Hollywood screenwriters. They also create screenwriting courses, write books about screenwriting and offer non-vague, cliche-free script coverage.