Some of the most successful and best-loved films of all time have been based on books. Whether they began as novels, nonfiction, or even an unpublishable short story sent out as a Christmas card, (Can you guess which classic movie counts this as its roots? Read on!) they found an audience both on the page and on the screen.
“According to data from Box Office Mojo with dollar amounts unadjusted for inflation, nearly a quarter of the top 200 worldwide grossing films have been directly adapted from literature, excluding comic book or picture book translations.”
Books are uniquely positioned to capture movie audiences. What is the universal secret to the success of books chosen by Hollywood to be adapted to films?
These books “spoke to audiences.”
Interesting phrase, but what does that mean? They communicated something that resonated, that had a visceral impact, that held meaning for a great many people.
The story element that most powerfully attracts and engages audiences is theme.
Theme adds impact and resonance.
Theme broadens your audience.
Theme enriches and elevates your story.
Theme makes your story linger in our minds.
Theme can convince agents, managers, and executives that you possess one of the most sought-after qualities—a writer with a voice.
You have something to say. Theme helps you to be heard.
Here’s how to capture the enticing force of theme that lures readers to your story, as well as drawing interest from the film and television industry.
What is Theme?
By definition, theme is “An idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.”
Often when writers are asked what their story is about, the first thing they think of is plot—what happens.
But what your story is about at its heart—what the story means—that’s theme.
At first, theme may seem like an unfamiliar or abstract concept, but trust me, it’s not.
Aesop lived in Greece during the 5th Century BCE. Despite being a slave, he created more than 600 fables. Each had a “moral”—the lesson intended to be learned through the story. It is believed that Aesop earned his freedom through storytelling and went on to become an advisor to a king. Talk about an example of the power of storytelling. Wow!
Fables have been part of our culture for 2500 years because their morals provide useful and universal life lessons that resonate with a wide audience.
Even if you believe you don’t understand theme, I bet you’re familiar with these fables and can easily identify their “moral,” aka theme.
The Tortoise and the Hare…
Slow and steady wins the race. Never give up—keep going!
The Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing…
Appearances can be deceiving. Don’t judge a book by its cover!
The Fox and The Grapes…
It is easy to despise what you cannot get. The origin of the term “sour grapes.”
The Lion and the Mouse…
No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
Many fables have endured for so long that they sparked cultural idioms, such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf. We all know what it means to “cry wolf,” and that being a habitual liar means, ultimately, one will not be believed, even when telling the truth.
Ah-ha! You DO understand theme!
It is the “moral of the story.”
Themes are adages—ideas that are universal truths—they are never truly debated or disagreed with. “Yes, money CAN buy happiness,” argued no one ever.
Each story has one predominant theme. The single, most important thing the story strives to convey.
Themes are messages about life and how it should be lived.
“Love is more important than money.”
“Just be yourself.”
“There’s no place like home.”
Themes are you as an artist saying to us, as an audience, “This is what I believe is important in life.” It’s what you want to say to the world about what you know about the human condition—even if you’re not using human characters to say it. (See Aesop!) Theme is what the hero learns along their journey.
Theme is what your story is about. Not the plot, but the message, the meaning, what you, the writer, believe we, your audience, need to hear.
Powerful Themes Turn Books Into Movies
Historically, books have given us great movies across all genres, from Gone With The Wind to Gone Girl. If you don’t believe me, check out what is probably the biggest and most popular book club of all time—Oprah Winfrey’s. A quick glance at her list of the most addictive books for the last 25 years—33 titles—shows that almost all of them became movies! Not because they conformed to what you might think of as traditional popcorn movie fodder. In fact, they span a wide range of genres, time periods, and subjects, and include both fiction and nonfiction. But because of their resonant messages. Theme is the ingredient that makes these books what Oprah calls “addictive.”
Remember that Christmas card short story-turned-movie I mentioned earlier? Have you guessed the film?
It’s A Wonderful Life
This movie began as a Christmas card. Based on The Greatest Gift, a short story—just 4100 words—written by Philip Van Doren Stern. Stern worked on the short story for four years, but was unable to find a publisher. He sent 200 copies to friends as Christmas presents in 1943, then privately published it in 1945. Frank Capra read The Greatest Gift and immediately saw its film potential.
I ask my Big Ideas Seminar students to list their three favorite “Forever Films,” ones that they could (and do) watch again and again, as part of an exercise to help them connect with the themes that personally resonate with them. Infusing your writing with personal themes creates powerful stories that grab industry interest. Over the years, I’ve heard a wide range of answers, but it is no coincidence that one film comes up fairly often; sometimes named by several students in a single group.
Why is It’s A Wonderful Life such a popular choice?
Not because it is a cherished holiday classic that has aired on television, year after year, for decades.
Not because it is one of the most acclaimed films ever made.
Not because many people feel that no Christmas is complete without it.
The powerful draw of the movie is in its message.
The plot is about a man who dreamt of escaping his small town for big adventures and accomplishments but stayed there, out of obligation to family, friends and community. Suddenly, through no fault of his own, his business is doomed to fail. Despondent, he plans to commit suicide, when an angel who has yet to earn his wings arrives. When the man says, “I wish I’d never been born,” the angel grants his wish. The man witnesses the dark alternate reality that would have happened to his family, his friends, and his town if he was never there. He realizes that what he felt was an insignificant life played an important role in the lives of others and in the entire town. He begs the angel to live again and his world is restored. In the end, family and friends rally round to help save his business and he realizes the true richness and success of his life.
The theme that resonates here is: “You are important. You are special. You matter.” Even if your life hasn’t gone as you planned, if you have not accumulated great wealth, traveled far and wide, or achieved your dreams, you are a success—in more ways than you even realize. Without you, the world wouldn’t be the same.
Who wouldn’t want to hear this message? Who can’t relate to the feeling that our lives have not gone just as we imagined? If feels good to hear that, regardless of external measures of success, “You are important, you are special, you matter.”
The message is uplifting and reaches a universal audience. It speaks to something almost everyone can relate to, a fundamental aspect of being human. It reassures us that other people feel that way too. That it’s okay to have these feelings. That things can get better.
Director Frank Capra described the film's theme as "the individual's belief in himself." Self-belief can enable us to survive the most trying times and surmount great obstacles.
It’s A Wonderful Life may have begun as a struggling short story that couldn’t find a publisher, but what it became is more than merely a favorite Christmas movie. It is a story whose resonant theme uplifts anyone who has ever struggled and doubted themselves—a truly satisfying message.
Theme creates stories that have a lasting impact on audiences.
Now the skeptical among you may think, “Well, that’s a feel good movie—of course everyone loves it.”
Fair enough. Let’s talk about another book-to-movie adaptation. A sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian future world. This film also shows up frequently on my students’ Forever Films list:
In the future, a former police officer is hired to hunt down and terminate a fugitive group of replicants—artificially created humans—living undercover in Los Angeles.
While no one would describe the neo-noir opus Blade Runner as a “feel-good movie,” it is the theme, not the amazing special effects, that resonates most powerfully with viewers.
Blade Runner is about empathy; it forces the audience to re-evaluate what it means to be human. Honestly, in my teaching experience I’ve actually seen both It’s A Wonderful Life and Blade Runner on the same list of Forever Films!
Even Die Hard, widely considered one of the great action films of all time—that many people fail to realize is an adaptation of the Roderick Thorp novel Nothing Lasts Forever—has a resonant theme that unifies the story choices: “Love is worth fighting for.”
Theme can help your work get on the “Most Addictive Books” list by elevating stories in any genre.
Theme From The Start
Understanding your theme before you start developing your story is a huge help in the actual act of sitting down and putting words together to make sentences. Theme makes writing easier when you know where you are headed before you take your seat at the keyboard.
Writing is decision-making. Trillions of decisions go into every book. Focused and cohesive decisions make the reading experience more engaging and elevate the storytelling.
Using theme as your “decider,” from big choices to small ones, is a powerful tool. It empowers you to infuse theme into every aspect of your story, creating a rich and resonant reading experience.
Here’s the kicker: To accomplish this, you must know your theme before you begin writing. You might think that you will see where the story takes you, and eventually, IT WILL COME.
This Field of Dreams-inspired philosophy—another successful movie adapted from the book Shoeless Joe by W. P. Kinsella—isn’t a writing plan. It’s a theme from someone else’s story: “It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
Discovering your story’s theme, and finding it before you are deep into the writing process is the best way I know of to avoid spending 40 years wandering around in a writing desert, and possibly never getting to the Promised Land. Perhaps you will stumble upon a pretty oasis, but that’s not reaching your final destination. Do you really want to meander endlessly, or do you want your story to get out there and reach people who want to hear it?
The best way to discover your theme is to outline. Whatever technique or template works for you, I urge you to use it. You may believe that outlining is solely about structure and “what happens next.” But outlining is about arc—the journey your hero takes from beginning to end of the story, and how those events change them. That change illustrates the theme.
My outlining template is designed to help you think about theme from the outset, force you to stay focused on it, and highlight the critical intersections of plot and character arc that work to convey the theme.
Theme From the Inside Out
You can’t create stories that powerfully impact and resonate with audiences until you explore what moves you.
It’s time to dig deep.
Writer know thyself.
When you clearly grasp the strong central ideas that inform you as a human being, shape your vision as an artist, express your point of view on our lives and our world, you can choose story ideas that explore these concepts. You will be writing something unique to you, that can also speak to an audience.
It will impact your writing experience. The story will feel meaningful to you and working on it will be fulfilling. You will be less likely to suffer from Writer’s Block. Hitting the keyboard and getting down to work is easier. You will be driven and eager to finish. In the end, your passion for the story will shine through. This is a significant step in progressing from craftof writing to the artof storytelling.
This self-awareness is one of the first crucial steps on the journey from being a writer who is writing what they think will sell, or writing their version of what writers they admire do—to developing your own unique voice. This is what every agent, manager, and executive in the business is hoping to find—a writer with a voice.
The Power Of Knowing Your Theme
Being able to articulate your theme is a huge boost in getting attention for your manuscript.
Understanding the message of your story—what it is about at its heart—is a powerful tool at every juncture of the life of your story, from conceiving and shaping the concept, through writing and rewriting your manuscript, to bringing it to the marketplace through creating loglines, querying, and pitching. You can find my consultations for these marketing tools here.
In my industry experience, I have found that being able to articulate the theme, whether in a studio pitch meeting or trying to attract talent, was a powerful and effective tool in drawing people to the material.
I recently emailed an A-List director about a spec script I am preparing to take out to the film industry as a producer. It was late on a Friday afternoon. Bad timing, but I got a positive response within an hour. Beyond the fact that this director is unfailingly polite, and that our relationship dates back to the beginning of his career, I like to think that it is because my query included why he would want to look at the story.
I told him the genre and the tone, included a logline that conveyed the concept and revealed the hook—the query fundamentals. Then I added one more brief paragraph. It began, “At its heart, this is about…”
By articulating the theme, I told him why this script might speak to him and be worth his time and attention.
Digging Into Your Themes
Take a minute to think of your three “Forever Films” or “Forever Books.” Ones that you could—and do—watch or read again and again. For you, they are “comfort food.” There may be many things you love about them, but now think about their themes. I’ll betcha’ when you hit on that theme, it is something that resonates with you personally. That message speaks to you, that draws you into the story, that is delicious to you, and that makes you eager to experience the story again and again.
What most surprises my students is that when we examine their three Forever Films we discover that—no matter how vastly different they appear to be in genre—I can show them how thematically, they are the same.
Still struggling to find the theme that speaks to you? Here are my top three helpful hints to gaining this all-important insight and elevate your writing.
Share something in the comments… I’d love to know your Forever Films or Forever Books and the theme that speaks to you on a deep level.