In fiction, theme is what the story is about. So a romance novel will be, on the surface, a story about two characters falling for each other. But looking deeper, the themes will be what the work of fiction has to say about the fictional universe which the story is set in, and to our universe. Love is worth the pain that precedes it; love is where you least expect it; true love conquers all, and so on.
For Jurassic Park the most obvious theme is that dinosaurs are cool, but few films can become as successful as Jurassic Park was if that’s all they have to say. There’s also a key theme that it’s dangerous for humans to think that they can control their new technology – Frankenstein ‘playing god’ theme. It’s a recurring theme in Michael Crichton’s fiction, including Westworld and Prey. Another Jurassic Park theme is the importance of family, in this case the non-traditional ‘family’ that forms between the central characters in the process of protecting each other.
Wall Street is another film with strong themes, in that case about the conflict between two different forms of capitalism. Gordon Gekko represents a parasitic form of vulture capitalism, capturing and breaking apart existing companies for short-term profit. Carl Fox – a union leader in the air industry – favours a kind of capitalism where workers pressure bosses to build more slowly and steadily, to build long-lasting institutions. Bud Fox, as Carl’s son and Gekko’s prodigy, finds himself caught between two father figures with different worldviews. As a result the film – whether deliberately or not – positions the capitalist system as a rough, masculine system, with patriarchal figures guiding the capitalist process.
The Star Wars franchise is broadly about epic conflicts between good and evil, and the importance of facing epic evils rather than turning away for personal survival. (Han Solo, Lando Calrissian and Finn have all faced this temptation.) The Star Trek franchise is more often about finding common ground with a supposed enemy. While Star Trek has epic conflicts with evil adversaries, stories in which the Federation try to find common ground with an enemy – such as Errand of Mercy and The Undiscovered Country – are more typical of the franchise.
I’m going to write a couple of blogposts in the next few days, looking at the use of theme in first the Netflix series Jessica Jones, and then Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. As that will mean breaking down those stories in detail, it’ll necessitate massive spoilers. I’ll probably write more similar posts in the future, which I’ll link to this post, and should appear at the bottom.