Ask someone what he enjoyed about a particular story and he might mention a memorable character or a surprising twist in the action. He may bring up an interesting setting or the striking style of its creator. What he’s unlikely to talk about, though, are the narrative’s themes. Perhaps this is due to a cultural disdain for moralizing, for stories that teach too much. But we’d do well to realize that themes can’t be reduced to mere proposition, an illuminating line uttered at a crucial moment. No, storytellers also instruct by making us feel that certain things are good or bad, indeed, by simply asserting that they’re true or false.
Consider Quantum of Solace, the latest addition to the James Bond franchise. It features a eurovillain so sly that he manages to seduce the CIA with promises of petroleum rights. A conscience-driven African American operative has misgivings about the arrangement (good), but his clueless Caucasian counterpart tells him he needs to be quiet and consider his career (bad). Across the ocean, Bond finds himself caught in the same dilemma. The British government is also swayed by the antagonist (bad), because the world’s oil reserves are dwindling, and free societies must do what they can to secure them (true). What no one realizes is that the eurovillain doesn’t care a whit about black gold. A consummate capitalist, he plans to corner Bolivia’s water market and hike the price (bad). After all, global warming is destroying massive tracts of arable land (true). And if peasants must suffer (bad), what is that to him?
Yes, Quantum is primarily interested in bullets and babes, but director Mark Forster had a few weightier things in mind, too. Most storytellers do. Ideas flow naturally when people and plot and place come together. Next time you stretch out on the couch with a fresh hardback or sit down in a darkened theater, consider bringing a pad and pen with you. Jot down how the storyteller wants to tug at your emotions and the things he assumes to be right. The conclusions you reach -- and the narrative’s thematic depth -- could surprise you.
(Picture: CC 2008 by jwinfred)