10 Most Successful Movie Themes
Before we can talk about the best themes in film, we have to understand what theme exactly is.
In the dictionary:
Theme – an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.
So, for example, The Notebook has several themes, which films can and do have, but its main theme is, love.
Love is such a big theme that we’ll jump right into our list.
While we are giving you the most successful themes in movies, we are not ranking them on their importance. As you’ll see, most standout films have more than one theme.
If you’ve ever watched a film you’ll have noticed that 100% had loved as one of its themes. Think about it? There’s always a love storyline in any film. Go ahead, try and think of a film that doesn’t have a love storyline?
Can’t do it, can you?
Love, a great theme to write about and needed to be on our list for sure.
Go to Genre – Romance
One of the most popular film genres is horror, and in horror, there is a ton of fear themes. If you’re writing a scary move and don’t incorporate fear, then you haven’t written a horror film at all, you’ve written a boring drama.
Go to Genre – Horror – Thrillers
Good Vs Evil
Do we even have to explain this one? Any superhero film that you have ever seen falls into this theming. Even films like the Lord of the Ring series is all about Good vs. Evil.
But it doesn’t have to just be used in films with massive battles and explosions.
Take a look at a comedy like Due Date. Robert Downey Jr. can be considered the good guy as he’s our main character just trying to get home before his wife gives birth to their first child. Zach Galifianakis can be seen as the evil character, seemingly sabotaging our protagonist throughout the film, until this theme slowly disappears as the two characters become friends.
Go To Genre – Action
We’re all going to die someday. That can be a very scary thing for some and a calming thing to understand for others. Death is a major part of life so its obvious that it would be a major theme used in all sorts of films.
Usually, in high stakes type of films, death is the danger of pushing our characters into action.
A film like Inception, by Christopher Nolan, can have amazing visuals and imaginative plot points, but at the end of the day, one of the major themes in the film is death.
Sometimes this theme can be very obvious when a film is about war, but it can also come as a subtle theme in genres like bio-films.
Death is something that’s never going to away, so don’t expect it to leave our films either.
Who doesn’t like to watch a film about someone getting their comeuppance?
Films like Gladiator, Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2, even Mean Girls, are all about our main protagonist getting revenge (justice) for what has been done wrong to them or someone close to our character’s heart.
This popular theme allows us the viewer (and yes, the screenwriter) to see things come to life that we wish we could do in our own lives but understand such things would most likely have us in jail, for life, with no chance of parole.
Everyone loves to see someone get what they deserve, and that’s why Revenge makes for a great movie theme.
This one, like love, is very straight forward, in fact probably more so.
Obviously, any film that is about war will have themes of war. Films like Saving Private Ryan, Dunkirk, War of the Worlds are all about war. How each film explores that theme are vastly different from each other, but the core theme is there in all of them.
Once again, this is a perfect theme for superhero movies, especially team-ups like The Avengers or Justice League, where our heroes are usually fighting some sort of alien army.
But if you want to be a little more subtle, a movie like Scarface also has some elements of war.
Coming of Age
Not only is this a theme a lot of popular films explore, but its also a popular genre.
The Breakfast Club, Superbad, Stand by Me, Perks of Being a Wallflower, are all films with Coming of Age as one of their themes. The list could literally go on and on.
Coming of age usually covers themes of universal experiences, which make them so popular with audiences. We all know those awkward, angsty, embarrassing, etc events we had to go through while maturing into adulthood, which allows us to connect more closely with our main character.
This is a great theme for biofilms. We don’t make films about famous people simply because they’re famous. We make films about their lives because they are the people that battled adversity, and somehow in the end, reach their goals and accomplished their dreams.
We all want to have that inspiration of seeing someone like us being unstoppable in their journey to a better life, because if we see someone else able to do it maybe – just maybe we’ll be able to as well.
It’s also a great theme to explore as a screenwriter because you’re going into your story already with a clear understanding that you’re going to put your character through the ringer and almost to the edge of death, before giving them their much-earned comeback.
This is a popular theme because it’s obviously once again tied into the superhero genre. We all want to see the good in people, and especially in today’s world, it can feel like there are no more good people left.
Well, films that deal with themes of Hero allow us to see the world in a more optimistic light. The hero film can inspire us to take actual action in our real everyday lives.
The hero theme doesn’t just have to be for superhero films.
A film about Martin Luther King, Jr would have themes of “the hero” too. What’s even better is that that was in fact a real, living, breathing, hero that once lived with us.
Man vs Machine
This is a theme that you see explored all the time in the sci-fi genre. At least once a year, there will be a film released exploring this theme. When done well, they become classics and/or pick up a ton of awards.
Two films that fit that billing, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Ex Machina.
When dealing with this theme, as a screenwriter you might start to fall into some classic Man vs Machine tropes. So, to keep your story fresh, figure out a way you can incorporate another theme to mesh with this main one that we might not have seen before, or at least not very often.
Obvious choices would be to go either to love or fear, but if you’re looking to make an impact on a genre and change the way Man vs Machine stories are seen and told, you might want to connect a theme like Remorse and see what interesting plot points you may be able to come up with.
Go to Genre – Sci-fi
John August, (Aladdin, Big Fish)
Jim Uhls (Fight Club)
Daniel Knauf (HBO Showrunner)
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