Themes are Not Enough

A recent trend I’ve noticed in media criticism is to appeal to the thematic core of a work rather than the quality of the work. There’s value in examining themes, of course, looking at them gives us a baseline for analyzing techniques, progression and results. But just presenting themes is not in and of itself a merit of a story. Let’s step back and look at an example.

Jordan Peele’s Us is a horror film. It has themes of examining consumerism and corporate attempts to control American life through advertising. It executes on these themes (so I am told) in clunky, odd and poorly explained ways. Now, I’m not a fan of Jordan Peele, horror or Us. In fact, I’ve never seen the movie and I don’t have a particular dog in any fight about the quality of the film or the execution of its premise. I’ve chosen it particularly because I am about as neutral as it is possible to be regarding the story and its themes, and because it is a good example of the phenomenon I’ve noted before.

Discussions about Us all seem to revolve around, on the one hand, the nonsensical nature of the events it portrays (but come on, guys, it’s a horror film, none of them make sense) and on the other hand the weight of its thematic core. Most critics who are down on the film want the thoughts of the characters to make sense, or the mechanics of the world to be straight forward and sensible. Again, this second element mystifies me since it’s a horror movie and things that make sense kind of undercut the horror part but I can definitely agree with characters having sensible, consistent thoughts. So when a critic presents a series of moments in the film that show characters contradicting themselves for no reason, or the behaviors of the characters duplicates defying the limits and boundaries that supposedly define them, I understand where they’re coming from.

On the other hand, when people appeal to the strength of the themes in Us they tend to simply present the theme as relevant to the culture we live in. Again, I understand this. Us is poking at social stratification and consumerism, problems that exist in our culture . However, defenders of the film rarely do more than point out the elements that play up these themes. In particular, they never point out how playing to those themes necessitates, or at least excuses, the flaws in characterization or consistency that critics constantly harp on. They seem to think that the thematic levels Us works on justifies its failures in execution.

This is wrong.

Understanding and appreciating a work’s themes is fine. Conveying those themes is one of the responsibilities of the creator. But it’s far from the only responsibility. In fact, it’s the barest beginning of competent art. The artist also has a responsibility to clear away any and all obstacles that might obscure the message of their work, and that means creating character consistency, clear cause and effect in the narrative and making sure all other elements of good storytelling are in place. You cannot simply set good themes down as a foundation then throw your plot up in the air and hope it all lands fine. That is sloppy and lazy storytelling.

Let me take a small example from a story I have watched, where a thematic element was actually undermined by its execution. In The Dragon Prince Amaya is the general of the Katolian forces and she’s deaf. Thematically her story is about overcoming obstacles, both those presented by her disability and those that stem from her grief at the loss of her family. That’s a solid theme.

The problem I have is that Amaya is deaf. Being deaf creates all kinds of problems for a person in a leadership position, especially one that has such dire, real time constraints getting information across as military leadership. Amaya needs to be looking at her people to communicate with them, something as simple as a heavy fog can make it impossible for her to pass her orders to anyone who isn’t right next to her. And she lives in a world with magic where fog can appear on command. Add in the very important role of sound in providing situational awareness and making responses to danger possible – very important to the average soldier or general alike – and Amaya is badly in need of some kind of seriously unusual justification for her position. Yet she’s never shown with any more resources on hand to overcome her disability than the average deaf person on Earth.

It’s jarring and, frankly, more than a little pandering. And it feels more like Amaya has her position because she’s the Queen’s sister (or the writers wanted it that way) rather than a competent general. It’s bad storytelling stemming from a failure to think through the characters limits and it undercuts the thematic component of Amaya’s character.

Storytelling is hard, and in part it requires a storyteller to blend clear, mathematical cause and effect events with a strong emotional sense in ways that most people cannot quite achieve. Themes are an important part of that emotional sense but when decoupled from the clear cause and effect themes quickly begin to falter. If you’re dealing with both author and critic who are acting in good faith, pointing out when cause and effect lapses isn’t intended to ignore the strength of those themes, but rather to bolster them. When you stop using themes as a shield against criticism and instead look at themes through the lens of criticism you may even find they come in to sharper focus. Don’t be afraid to put the ideas at the heart of your story under that lens.

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