Updated: Dec 25, 2022
Recall the story, The Three Little Pigs, published by James Halliwell-Phillips in 1890, about three little pigs menaced by a heavy-breathing wolf. The story’s lesson is how dedication and hard work pay off.
Notice that the words dedication and hard work are not found in the story. This is because the tale lets the readers get the message on their own. This is true for most stories written worldwide since the beginning of time.
In the novel, The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway), none of the story’s themes are mentioned in the story. For example, none of the following words are in the novel:
Bear hardship without complaint
Providence does not define a man
A man goes down swinging, no matter his age
Persevere regardless of the tribulations which befall
Why is this? It’s because readers want to perceive the tale’s themes on their own.
A story’s message is like a server working in a fine restaurant. He stays close to the diners, but just out of view. In terms of movies, what keeps viewers watching is their desire to find out what the story is about, to learn what is really going on.
Therefore, it’s a tragedy when a story’s theme becomes the story itself and overwhelms the plot like a pack of wolves brooding over their day’s catch. This is a no-no in the fiction industry because viewers and readers want to participate in an act of discovery. Skillful storytellers don’t let the audience catch on with the theme or moral until about two-thirds through the tale.
In the movie Rebecca (1940), the chief antagonist of the story isn’t introduced until a third into the movie. The protagonist (Mrs. de Winter) doesn’t fully realize what she’s gotten herself into until about two-thirds of the story.
When the story’s message is thrown at the viewer’s face up front, the experience is spoiled. What purpose does the viewer have left to keep watching?
I was entertained by the movie Bright (2017) because of its creativity. But I would have liked it more if the overt anti-racism message had become apparent gradually throughout the story instead of being handed out at the movie’s onset. Not because anti-racism isn’t a noble message, but because from a storytelling standpoint, it’s more deeply impactful and memorable if it’s left to the viewers to figure out.
Nearly all stories are about something, which is okay. But when you’re eating a batch of french fries that is more salt than potato, the experience becomes unpalatable.
In the extreme, bitter and emotionally dominant lecture-rich movies are unpleasant to watch. This isn’t because their themes aren’t important, but because watching movies is supposed to be voluntary. Even if the film’s message is poignant, the audience should want to stay seated in the theater.
I have given a name to movies where the moviemakers forgot that they were paid to tell a story, and instead devoted most of the screen time to the theme, leaving the remaining bits to be fought over by plot, scene, and character development. I call these kinds of movies Tantrum movies.
I hope this new genre name catches on. This way viewers can know ahead of time that they’re about to experience a story found somewhere within a heavy, two-hour bitter lecture.
Leave them wanting more
Years ago, I played in several bands and orchestras. One of the considerations the music leaders kept in mind when selecting musical numbers was:
Leave the audience wanting more.
The idea was to complete the last musical number before the audience had had enough. This way on the drive home they’d already be anticipating the next show.
Imagine giving your teenager a lecture, and having him walk away thinking, “When do I get the next one?”
In life generally, it would do you well to express your points without making your listeners want to run away screaming. If you can keep your fans listening to you, you’re on your way to becoming a master entertainer.
Good examples of how to do it
There are movies with dominant social issue themes that keep their messages measured enough to allow the viewing experience to be enjoyable. Here are a few of them. There are many more, but these are the ones I can think of at the moment.
Planet of the Apes (1968) -- Anti-war/racism
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) -- Greed
Logan’s Run (1976) -- Old age
Trading Places (1983) -- Greed
Good Will Hunting (1997) -- Intelligence vs. emotional wisdom and friendship
Matchstick Men (1983) -- Greed/theft/fatherhood
Minority Report (2002) -- Government over-surveillance
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) – Redemption
Up (2009) -- Old age
Bright (2017) -- Racism
Broken Memories (2017) -- Alzheimer’s/dementia
Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. I’ve listed below a number of Tantrum movies that seem to have as their primary goal the need to make their viewers feel like really bad people. These movies are just unpleasant to watch, like witnessing a poor mother in a grocery store standing next to her child who’s on the floor pounding his fists and screaming about something:
The China Syndrome (1979) -- Anti-nuclear power
Apocalypse Now (1979) -- Anti-war
Casualties of War (1989) -- Anti-war
The Da Vinci Code (2003) -- Anti-religion
Flightplan (2005) -- Racism
V for Vendetta (2005) -- Anti-government
Flawless (2007) -- Anti-greed/sexism
The Happening (2008) -- Pollution
Eagle Eye (2008) -- Government over-surveillance
Avatar (2009) -- Racism/anti-human
In Time (2011) -- Rich vs. poor
Upside Down (2012) -- Rich vs. poor
Now You See Me (2013) -- Greed/anti-banking system
Elysium (2013) -- Rich vs. poor
Winchester (2018) -- Anti-gun
Winchester is especially egregious because every character in the movie tries as often as he or she can throughout the story to tell the audience how awful, senseless, pointless, and evil guns are.
"Okay," I tell the movie screen, "I get it. You hate guns.
Now, can we please get back to the story?"
Hollywood also likes to make anti-gun (or anti-military) movies where the chief villain in the end is defeated by a gun. (Examples: Winchester (2018) and Kong: Skull Island (2017)) Really, Hollywood? If you hate guns, why make movies where a gun saves the day in the end?
The movie Flawless preaches continually about sexism and how evil corporations take what isn't theirs. Then at the end of the movie, the story heralds her as saintly after she steals the company's diamonds and gives them to people around the world who she feels deserve them instead of to those the company took advantage of to get those diamonds. In other words, the movie praises her for being generous with other people's money. What a creep.
There are important and difficult issues that should be talked about. I’m happy to do all I can to help alleviate them, but not during what's supposed to be an enjoyable experience, unless they're presented tastefully and entertainingly.
Single social-issue movies that aren’t quite too bitter
To be as uplifting as possible, here are some would-be Tantrum movies that don’t quite make the heinous threshold of being truly bitter because they provide some entertainment.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) -- Racism
The Truman Show (1998) – Media/voyeurism/Anti-God
Fight Club (1999) -- Consumerism
Idiocracy (2006) -- Stupidity
Eden Log (2007) -- Anti-corporation/haves vs. have-nots
WALL-E (2008) -- Anti-pollution/anti-consumerism
Snowpiercer (2013) -- Anti-capitalism
Given that nearly every successful story provides a message for society, go ahead and include one or more in your stories. But let them be like elegant spices dancing lightly on the tongue. Your readers will understand what you’re getting at. Have enough confidence in them and yourself to let them absorb your message at their own pace.
I do have one remaining question
Recall the story, Little Red Riding Hood. Incredibly, that tale is a thousand years old and is one of the most well-known stories in western literature. What I want to know is: What point does the story try to make? Perhaps the theme in that story should have been given a little bigger push.