King Lear begins with two fathers choosing to trust the wrong child. Lear asks his daughters to proclaim their love for him. He falls for his two older daughters’ obvious flattery and is offended by Cordelia’s honest response, which is essentially, “I love you about as much as daughters are supposed to love fathers.” He disinherits Cordelia and banishes her, which is the first sign that he is going insane. Then, in the subplot, Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, tricks his father into turning on his legitimate son. Edgar, the good son, escapes only by disguising himself as a mad beggar. We have two families, two deceptions, two cases of someone loyal being cast out, and two examples of insanity. As the two plots collide and complications pile up, the story keeps returning to those elements; loyalty, lies, family, misplaced trust, and madness. Nobody states in unambiguous terms what lesson we are supposed to glean from the tragedy, yet the story feels like it has a point.
Watership Down has the same feel. It tells the story of several rabbits running away from their happy home, because one of them has had a vision of its’ imminent destruction. Rabbits as a species are in perpetual danger; from their perspective, nearly everything that moves is a potential predator. As the runaway rabbits seek their own haven, they encounter two other warrens who have found security through some kind of dark deal. One consents to be hunted selectively by a human, because that human keeps all other predators out. The other is ruled by what we would call a sadistic dictator. The protagonists reject both options, instead using their myths of El-ahrairah, the clever rabbit chief, as a model. With cooperation, innovation and a little trickery, they create their own warren, which is both safe and free. Is the book about how to be a great leader, or the relationship between our art, our culture and our quality of life, or an illustration of the idea that to trade freedom for security is to lose both? It’s all of the above, and none of the above. The book is clearly telling you something about fear, society, security and mythology, as the structure of the story hinges on all of those things, but how you put that into a lesson relevant to your own life is entirely up to you.
As I’ve written before, discussed themes make their themes obvious by having the characters debate them, while obscured themes make elements of the story ambiguous, which forces the reader to think about what the story might mean and choose their own theme. Neither type, however, can be well written unless they are built on a foundation of silent themes, while a silent theme can be effective without the window dressing of discussed or obscured themes. Silent themes are simply a well-written story’s habit of returning to a collection of emotions and ideas, particularly when a major character is introduced or an important development in the plot takes place.
The point of a story, after all, is not to sell you on an idea. If this was the point of stories, they would not be an art form, but a clever way of lecturing people. There would be no point in calling a story propaganda, because all stories would be propaganda. The primary role a theme plays is not to convince the audience but to connect them to the story. We don’t enjoy the story that goes, “I was hungry but I had no food, so I went to the story to buy bread, ham and lettuce, and then I made myself a sandwich.” It is technically a story. It has a beginning, middle and end, it has a conflict and a resolution and a character, but it is boring, because it is so insignificant. We care about stories that are about love or revenge or justice or exploration or one of those other deep, powerful ideas. Ideas, though immaterial, are fundamental to the experience of being human, and so they have the power to connect a story about Ancient Egyptian royalty to the mind of a sysadmin in Atlanta.
Not only do stories without well-constructed silent themes fail to interest us, they also confuse us, because their absence makes stories feel disorderly. The characters cease to feel like they belong in the same story with the rest of the cast, or with the setting, or the even the events. We can struggle to remember a sequence of events that are perfectly logical, but thematically unconnected, but when a series of events are thematically poignant, we can accept plot holes, or even fail to notice them.
The Amazing Spider-Man is an example of a film that lost a lot of its audience because it lacked a strong theme. I don’t mean to pick on that movie, because there are far worse stories out there, but in fact part of why I want to dissect it is because unlike many stories I could discuss, this one really almost had it. It had many good scenes and some great acting, but it still failed to grab widespread interest. Also, director Mark Webb made my job easier by stating his intended theme in an interview. Referring to Dr. Connor, he said, “He’s the literal embodiment of the theme of the movie, which is we all have a missing piece. He has no arm. Peter has no parents, and he fills that void with Spider-Man.”
Peter Parker loses family, Dr. Connors lost his arm, so Webb’s theme is “loss.” Now, that is a fundamental experience, but it’s also so general it lacks a certain poignancy. He might as well say the theme of his movie is that “something bad happened to a couple of my characters.” To make a thematically interesting film he needed more ideas, and if you squint at the movie very hard, you can see the outlines of the story they might have written. You could say that both characters try to go to absurd lengths to recover what they have lost, both claim initially that what they are doing is for the good of society in general but really they are only being self-serving, and that Dr. Connors fails because he doesn’t break out of being self-serving, while Peter transforms his grief into real heroism. That combines loss, resilience, grief and responsibility into a thematically powerful story, but it’s not the story they wrote.
First, Dr. Connors, for all his problems, doesn’t come across as self-serving. He does seem genuinely interested in saving the world, and while I have problems with his attitude, the tone of his early scenes suggests I wasn’t supposed to interpret him as a self-hating ableist, but as a real philanthropist. Next, he isn’t transformed by his pain into a monster; he’s transformed by magical comic book science juice. If he had been motivated to try it on himself for selfish reasons, that theme might have worked, but context makes his motivations seem entirely altruistic, and the emergence of the Lizard feels like dumb bad luck. Also, being a scientist who is paid to come up with cool scientific ways to cure diseases is not an “extreme length” in the same way that “dresses up like a spider and hunts criminals” is. One of those is something that normal people do, if we define normal to include people who are intelligent and well-educated and successful in getting a job in their field, and the other is pretty definitely not. The biggest problem with all of these differences is that they aren’t even opposite. If they contrasted each other, it would be almost as good as if they mirrored each other, but they way they’re portrayed Dr. Connors and Peter aren’t night and day. They’re like carrot seeds and applesauce; just similar enough and just different enough that they truly have nothing to do with each other. On top of that, no other character experiences profound loss, with the exception of Aunt May, who loses Uncle Ben but is such a minor character she almost counts as part of the setting, so the whole idea of “everyone has a missing piece” never went from the director’s mind to the actual film.
So that’s one way to fail to have a good silent theme; pick up one idea once or twice and then drop it for the rest of the story. Stories can also have the opposite problem. They can lean so heavily on the same expression of the same idea that the story feels internally repetitive, as if the author is ripping off their own work while they are still writing it. The last several seasons of Supernatural have had this problem. Sam and Dean have had the same conversation about how the other is dealing with the stress and trauma of being a hunter so often that when the conversation starts you can finish it for them. Just because you need to constantly revisit a theme throughout a story, that doesn’t mean you should repeat yourself. Each return should look at a new facet of it, or represent the next step in a progression of thoughts, or combine it with another of the story’s themes, or somehow express it in a new way. As in most things, craftsmanship is in the balancing of these two extremes, and finding the spot that is right for your personal work of art.
One of the things that is both fun and frustrating about this exploration is that the more I think about this subject, the more thoughts I have. I don’t feel like I’m finishing this post so much as giving up on it, on the grounds that if I wrote down everything I am thinking I would have a post so massive absolutely nobody would read it. To anyone who has read this far, thank you, very much. Next month I’m going to get back to my Screwtape Letters series and try to, if not wrap it up, at least put a serious dent in what is left over.