The Importance of Theme in Writing a Screenplay Adaptation

I’m currently teaching a one-week course on an important writing subject: Theme. The writers participating in the class and I have gotten off to a rocking start including a question raised about the unique challenge of writing a screenplay adaptation based on an actual historical figure. Here is my response to that question:

Adapting real-life characters, especially if you’re doing a traditional biopic or what is more common nowadays, a ‘snapshot’ biopic, where the narrative focuses on a specific period of time and uses that as a lens to interpret a character’s life (e.g., Lincoln), is tough work. Why? Human lives are typically pretty messy and don’t often lay out in three-act structure with a central theme. We, as writers, have to supply those elements. Best way to do that, obviously, is working with the person as a character, immersing ourselves in their lives, and looking for story material to rise to the surface.

As part of that process, zeroing in on the story’s central theme can be critical in shaping the narrative. So in terms of your story, I would drill down on some fundamental questions re the Protagonist figure:

* What do they want (Conscious Goal)?

* What do they need (Unconscious Goal)? This one is huge as it indicates what I call their Narrative Imperative, their Fate, if you will.

If you invert your perspective and look at everything that happens in the plot as supporting the psychological journey of the Protagonist, all that ‘stuff’ serves to answer two related questions:

* “Who are you? What will you become?” Every movie asks those questions of key characters, most importantly, the Protagonist. At a base level, that is the whole point of the story.

Joseph Campbell said this exact thing: The point of the Hero’s Journey is transformation. At the beginning, the Heroine is just making do (not living an ‘authentic’ life) and they need to change. Through their Separation — Initiation — Return process of their journey, they come home (literally and/or figuratively) a transformed individual. So another question:

* Why does this story have to happen to this character at this time?

You are choosing this precise moment in the Protagonist’s life to type FADE IN. Why? What is it about this specific journey that they are required to embark on it?

So you may very well have to shape the details and contour of your central character’s life-story to make it a movie. As they say in Hollywood, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the story.”

What is the central theme of your story? It’s a critical question to ask… and answer. This is especially so in relation to biopic adaptations. Here’s a good example: What Aaron Sorkin did in the movie The Social Network. Again my comments from the Core: Theme class:

I recall watching The Social Network for the first time when I whispered to my oldest son, “This feels like a Shakespeare play.” I was referring to themes in the story — the mad ‘king,’ lust for power, betrayal. Later I read this interview with Sorkin in which he said the following:

“My feelings about the internet are actually irrelevant to anyone’s enjoyment of the movie. But what made me overcome it was that I didn’t think it was a movie about Facebook. I thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself… Themes of friendship and loyalty, and of class and jealously and power. These things that Shakespeare would write about it, or Paddy Chayefsky would write about. But luckily for me, none of those people were available so I got to write about it.”

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Consider Sorkin’s list above:

* Friendship: That theme is in play primarily between Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin, but also Zuckerberg and Erica (albeit a friendship with an abrupt end), Zuckerberg and Sean Parker (however Zuckerberg discovers he’s bonded with a Trickster), and the general camaraderie of that initial Facebook team.

* Loyalty: Most prominently with Zuckerberg and Saverin, but also Zuckerberg and Erica, Parker and his relationship with Zuckerberg, Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins. Essentially Zuckerberg demonstrates loyalty to development and growth of Facebook, but none to any person other than Parker who in the end commits an act of disloyalty by getting busted and generating negative press for Facebook.

* Class: Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins, Zuckerberg and the Harvard administration, Zuckerberg and the Harvard elite, Zuckerberg (buoyed by his success with Facebook) and all his legal inquisitors. Arguably it is Zuckerberg’s sense of second-class status (in part) that fuels his desire to succeed.

* Jealousy: Zuckerberg vs. Harvard elite (Mr. Outside looking In), the Winklevoss twins vs. Zuckerberg (for his success with Facebook), Zuckerberg vs. the world (his sense that everyone basically is jealous of what he has created with Facebook).

* Power: Every major character in the movie is either in power, wanting to gain more power, out of power and wanting in, or using whatever power they have to impact someone else (e.g., Erica uses her emotional power to dump Zuckerberg, so he responds by using his intellectual power to create a blog and demean Erica publicly).

But in my view the most important theme and central emotional meaning of the movie is this: Zuckerberg becomes a billionaire by creating a social network platform based on the premise of people wanting to make connections… while he himself is unable to make any sort of genuine human connection. This point is driven home by the movie’s brilliant final scene which you can see here.

Here is Zuckerberg, stripped of all the noise, all the people, all the fury, revealed for what he is: The Tragic King. He has built a mighty kingdom. And yet has no real friends, reduced to reaching out to a girl we’ve seen all of four times in the movie. Indeed this theme was so important to Sorkin, you have to figure that was one of, if not the primary reason why he erased Zuckerberg’s real-life girlfriend of several years from the movie. If the cinematic Zuckerberg had a girlfriend like the real Zuckerberg, it would have eviscerated this central story theme.

All to the strains of John Lennon singing “Baby, You’re A Rich Man.”

Pure awesomeness and one of the best denouements in recent cinema.

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Lots of themes in The Social Network, but that central one — a man whose greatest invention is based on the very idea of connectivity when he himself, as portrayed in the movie, is unable to achieve authentic connection with other humans — is the narrative touchstone in every single scene in the movie.

That’s what I’m talking about. If you’re writing a biopic, drill down into your Protagonist, and zero in on what is at the core of that character, Want and especially Need. You can bet your story’s central theme lies there.

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