Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, and The Golden Theme: How to make your writing appeal to the highest common denominator.
He is an award winning screenwriter who has taught his craft at several major studios, including Pixar, Disneyand Industrial Light & Magic. His award-winning short filmWhite Face has been shown all over the USA. I had the privilege of asking him some questions back in January. That interview will be published here shortly. Today we’re focusing on a question I asked him about Theme and everybody’s favourite movie, The Godfather. Is the theme of that movie, Family is all? Instead of simply answering my question, he went one better and answered a question I’ve been asking for years: How can you know what is the theme of any given movie? _______________________________________________________________________
The way to find a story’s theme is to look for clues as to what the story is proving. Think of the three acts this way:
Act One: The Proposal
The proposal is where the theme of the piece is first introduced in some way. For instance you might introduce a pacifist character who believes there is never a cause for violence. Or you may have a character who strongly disbelieves in anything supernatural. In The Godfather we are introduced right away to the idea of Justice-versus-Revenge. It’s the very first thing that happens in the film. We learn that even in this world of gangsters and crime, there is a sense of what is just. Marlon Brando, the Godfather, tells us explicitly the difference between justice and revenge when a man, whose daughter was nearly raped and was beaten so bad that she was hospitalized, asks the Godfather to kill the men who did this. The Godfather refuses to kill the men because the girl did not die—that would not be justice, he says. But he will hurt these men as much as the girl was hurt.That is not justice. Your daughter is still alive.
Then we are introduced to the rest of the gangster family—the Corleone family. We meet Michael Corleone, one of the sons. He is not part of the family business. He must be squeaky clean for the story to work, so when we meet him, he is in uniform—he is a war hero—and he is with his girlfriend, who is beyond squeaky clean.
Michael tells her a story about his father and a violent threat he made to get a man to sign a contract. Michael says, “My father assured him that either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.” The girlfriend almost can’t believe what she’s heard. Then Michael says, “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.”
That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.
So we know who Michael is, we know who his family is, we know the rules for this world, and we have an idea that this piece will explore the idea of Justice-versus-Revenge. And we know that this family is close—they love each other.
More things happen in Act One of this film, but you get the idea.
Act Two: The Argument or Proof
In Act Two, you set out to explore the thematic premise of the first act. You argue—prove or disprove—that theme. The very first thing we learned in the story isthat revenge is not good. That’s one aspect of the theme. But there is also Michael’s statement, “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me.” Now Michael must be forced, by the story, to confront that idea. Is it him?
Michael’s father is shot in a gang hit. He does not die, though he is badly hurt and is hospitalized. Michael goes to see his father and finds out that some men are coming to finish him off. To save his father’s life, he moves his bed into another room to hide him from the would-be killers.
Just lie here, Pop. I’ll take care of you now. I’m with you now.
This is the beginning of Michael becoming more like the rest of his family. It starts off innocently enough. Most of us would do the same thing. This is his father and he loves him.
Then, at the hospital, Michael is roughed up pretty good by a dirty cop who works with the rival gangsters.
Take a hold of him. Stand him up. Stand ’im up straight.
Michael is angry and decides he wants to kill these guys who did this to his father. Notice, how like the girl in the opening of the story, the Godfather is alive, but badly hurt and hospitalized. These two characters are in the very same condition. But what does Michael do—seek justice? No, he seeks revenge. He kills the men responsible and sets off a violent gang war.
… a guarantee: No more attempts on my father’s life.
He flees to Sicily to avoid being killed himself, but the retaliatory violence reaches him even there and kills his young wife.
There was something wrong in seeking revenge rather than justice—it brought even more violence.
Act Three: Conclusion
This is where we see what the other acts have added up to. What the third act of this film asks about Michael is, Who is he now? Does he learn the lesson that revenge isn’t worth it, or not?
No, he doesn’t. He orders a ruthless killing spree of his enemies.
Do you renounce Satan? I do renounce him.
In the end, Michael is corrupted. His statement, “That’s my family, Kay, it’s not me,” is no longer true.
So you ask yourself, what does the story prove? Does it prove Family is all? I don’t think it does.
You can express a theme in many ways, even with the same story. The purpose of drama is to prove a point through the use of emotion, so sometimes themes can be hard to put into exact words. But a few ways to state this theme might be:
- It is better to seek justice than revenge.
- Revenge corrupts.
- Revenge brings pain to the avenger.
Or, if you word it in character terms, you might say something like:
- Anyone can be corrupted.
- No one knows what he is capable of becoming, given the right circumstances.
I’m sure there are more ways to word it, but whatever you think the theme is, it has to be something that the characters and events prove, through the movement of the story.