Well-made films provide hints indicating what is to come and what the theme of the movie may be, even in the earliest scenes. Pay attention to the tone of the film defined through lighting, shooting techniques, setting and plot, as often these elements correspond with the theme and can illuminate it.
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Watch the film closely without distractions. Take notes on key characters and significant events, as well as subtleties that you believe to be important.
Contemplate the title of the movie. A title usually emphasizes something important about the theme. For example, in the Pixar film "Up," the title not only symbolizes the physical lifting of an old man's house by helium balloons, but also incorporates a sense of hope and new beginnings, which is a prominent theme throughout the film.
Pay attention to repetition, especially concerning patterns and symbols. In the dramatic horror film "Dragonfly," symbols of dragonflies are repeated consistently and are often coupled with imagery indicating death and rebirth. Repeated symbols or concepts that indicate the theme of a narrative are called motifs. Paying attention to motifs can enlighten the viewer to the movie's theme of the mysteries of mortality.
Focus on detail. Well-made movies rarely include details that are not laden with meaning that often indicate the theme. For example, in the movie "The Shining," the character played by Jack Nicholson displays subtle indications of impatience and bad temper before his insane behavior becomes fully evident; in this case attention to detail early in the film can reveal the theme of psychological turmoil and madness.
Be aware of allusions. Allusions are references to mythology, religion or history that are referenced in a piece of media to invoke the meaning of these cultural touchstones. For example, in the film series "The Lord of the Rings," Biblical allusions invoke an epic theme of adhering to a noble morality despite great opposition, which draws on the cultural significance of stories from the Bible without making "The Lord of the Rings" overtly religious.
Examine your notes at the end of the film and look for congruities. You may notice that the title corresponds with an allusion you noted or that a repeated symbol is also found in a myth invoked in the film. Reflecting on these commonalities will help you determine the theme of a film with confidence.
Tips & Warnings
- Watch the film a second time if necessary. Sometimes it takes multiple viewings to identify a film's theme.
- "Film Analysis"; R.L. Rutsky and Jeffrey Gieger; 2005
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