“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love)
The old Hollywood adage is “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” The thought there is people don’t want “message films”—they simply want to be entertained. Yet as I’ve explored over the years, one of the things that sets many fine movies apart is they’re about something. Call that something theme, call it a message, or give it some other name, but it’s the thing that resonates with people long after they’ve been entertained.
Movies as diverse as On the Waterfront, Toy Story 3, An Officer and a Gentleman, Erin Brockovich, The Verdict, The Maxtrix, Spiderman, The Shawshank Redemption, The Wizard of Oz, Driving Miss Daisy and It’s a Wonderful Life are all movies about something.
Many of John Grisham’s books and movies deal with some sort of injustice. And in the following lightly edited and abridged exchange from The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast Grisham talks about that delicate balance between having something to say and writing something that’s entertaining.
John Grisham: I’m still grateful for what’s happened to me. I don’t take it for granted. I keep my feet on the ground. And I just try to help people and treat them fairly. And write the best fiction I can write year after year. My dreams have all been fulfilled, which is kind of sad. There’s nothing left to dream for—but I never dreamed I’d be here. And so I’ve very content where I am and very grateful.
Brian Koppelman: So what’s the reason you write now?
John Grisham: Some books and some issues really tick me off and I want to go after people. I want to expose something. I want to shed some light on an issue that maybe we hadn’t thought about. For example, the more I read about student debt in this county the more ticked off I get. At what the government has done, what the lenders have done, what some of these schools have done to entice students to come to school there with false claims of big jobs. So these kids finish college and have a mountain of debt—can’t get a job—anyway, it’s not fraudulent, but it’s not really right either. And that’s an issue that the more I read the more I want to explore it. And I can see a novel coming with that background, with that issue.
Brian Koppelman: That’s great.
John Grisham: Stuff like that can keep me awake at night.
Brian: When you see injustices you want to write an entertaining book, but you want to get in there and expose it in some way and make us think about it.
John Grisham: Yeah.
Brian Koppelman: What do you think is the responsibility of your position?
John Grisham: I don’t feel responsibility just because of who I am and how big my megaphone is. Sure I have an audience. But you got to be careful with your audience because they don’t all share my politics. You can’t be intrusive with your politics in popular fiction when you’re trying to entertain people. So I really have to watch that. And I do watch it. I don’t feel a responsibility next year that might change something. My responsibility is to write a book that will entertain.
Brian Koppelman: Even if the thing that fires you up to do it though is something that bothers you. You’ll try to wrap it in a package that’s digestible.
John Grisham: Sure. Oh yeah. Look forward to it. That’s what I want to do every time out.
P.S. For John Grisham and others interested in the student loan debate; Read the interview I did with friend and filmmaker Calvin Johannsen on his doc Broke, Busted & Disgusted.
Sidney Lumet on Theme “The picture had better have some meaning to me.”
Put the Megaphone Down! “You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it.”
Diane Frolov & The Twilight Zone “I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it….” Rod Serling
Michael Arndt on Theme “I read a lot of comedy screenplays and the disappointing thing—the reason most of them don’t work is because they’re not about anything.”
Writing from Theme
Scott W. Smith
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