15 Common Themes in Film and Literature


A Theme according to the google dictionary is - the subject of a talk, a piece of writing, a person's thoughts, or an exhibition; a topic. There are many additional definitions. When we apply this definition of theme to film and literature we get:


A theme is an underlying message, idea, or concept that motivates characters to behave the way they do.


An author may start a work with a theme in mind or may write to a theme unconsciously. A theme can also be seen as the moral of the story. There are large themes and smaller themes. Any story will have one main theme with many smaller themes as well, often forming a jigsaw puzzle of concepts, morals, and ideas. Sometimes a work may have more than one major theme. Works such as “Lord of the Rings”, and “Stars Wars” have themes coming out their ears. Let’s take a look at some of the larger themes.



Conflict in all its forms is seen here. Human vs. Self/Nature/Society/ etc.… are all smaller themes that fit into this category. Any work of this kind will always be about change, weather it is to resolve the conflict or make it worse. Poor choices and great choices can be seen here, on topics of how to deal with, resolve, create, and prevent conflict. Films such as “The Bourne Identity” or “Hitch” are great examples of conflict. A literature example is “Catch-22”.


  • Good Vs. Evil

Nearly every movie ever has this theme somewhere in the plot line. This theme brings up the age old philosophical question about what the right thing to do is. What is a just cause? Works with this theme challenge ideas or concepts about right, and wrong. When this theme is a major theme there will be two very easily discernable opinions’ that drive character goals in the work. This theme also often highlights the idea of building or destroying a society. Often a villain will be on the side of destruction and starting anew, while the good wants to preserve what’s already there and build. Film examples include, “Bullet Proof Monk”, and “Batman the Dark Night Rises. An example in literature is “Divergent”.


  • The Battle

In works with this as a theme there is always a central battle that takes place. The battle does not need to be over right or wrong, good or bad though it often is. This theme centers on the idea of battles. It is usually easy for the audience to pick a side they want to win. An example in film is, “Battleship”, and an example in literature is “Atonement”.


  • The Nobel Sacrifice

This theme is all about the greater good. It is the idea that by giving up something good you can receive something great. Works of this kind will always build up a characters value and then for the greater good, will sacrifice it. Whether it be a life, or possession. Sometimes others will nobly sacrifice themselves for a person. This theme will always bring to the forefront a question of true worth. An example in film is “Saving Private Ryan”, or Disney’s “The Haunted Mansion”, and an example in literature is “The New Testament”.


  • Overcoming Adversity

Have you ever faced an obstacle and overcome it? That is what this theme is meant to remind you of. In works of this kind a character is faced with obstacles and adversity of all sorts in large proportions. The adversity can be, losing a job, being bullied, being rejected over and over, failing, getting sick, etc… You name the struggle and bets are on that there is a movie about it. But in the end the main character always reaches their goal or dream. As a viewer you are taken through the transforming process the main character must go through. An example in film is “The Blind Side” and an example in literature is “Unbroken: A World War 2 Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption”.

  • The Power Of Friendship

A sure fire way to make something more fun is to get your friends together and then do it! The theme focuses on the bonds that make friends, and then tests these bonds, or shows the benefits of them. From a shoulder to cry on, to counseling, the benefits are many, but can they endure bad business decisions, lost loved ones, or just general disagreement? That is what this theme explores. An example in film is “The Sandlot” and an example in literature is “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire”.

  • Love Conquers All

If you have a problem then love can fix it! At least that’s the idea. In many works of this nature love may not be apparent at the start and may grow into the solution, or it may test characters to see if their love is real by facing them with trials. Works of this kind explore different kinds of love, ranging from falling in love passionately to companionship love. An example in film is, “Beauty and the Beast”, and an example in literature is “Ugly Love”.  

  • The Quest

Ever gone on a long journey, or maybe just a long hike with a clear goal in mind? Its seems the longer and farther you go the more you get to experience and think about why you’re doing what you are, and the more that happens the more you learn, thus the theme of the quest. Going on a journey or quest yields experience, lessons, and often new relationships as is easily demonstrated by films such as “The Lord of the Rings”, or “Star Wars”. Though these works have many other themes there can be no doubt that the theme of the quest is amongst the large ones. Series are often good indicators of this theme. An example in literature is “The Lightning Thief ”.

  • Yin & Yang/Maintaining Balance

Having a great day? Don’t worry, something will go wrong. At least according to yin and yang it will, because good is balanced by evil. Works with this as the theme have a character so focused on something that they think is “good” to the point where they become unbalanced, allowing all the bad to come overcome them. If you want to keep your relationship you will have to work for it, balancing your life to keep that relationship intact, weather that is a job, person, or hobby. An example in film is “Inside Out”. An example in literature is “Evil Genius”. “Evil Genius” is a series in which yin and yang are a main theme as the books come together.

  • Coming Of Age

Great you’re old enough! Now you must deal with relationships, bills, children, the IRS, school payments, all kinds of debt, credit cards, and even the dreaded in-law’s! This theme is when a character must now face a problem, or situation that their situation protected them from before. In the film “Brother Bear” a young man is dejected when he comes of age in his tribe, but does not feel he is respected. With the expectation of him to fulfill more jobs without additional recognition the young man goes through an experience that teaches him the true meaning of responsibly leading life. He “came of age” physically” but it took time for it to happen spiritually. A great book with this theme is “Where the Wild Things Are”.

  • Spiritual Enlightenment

You are spiritual being having a human experience, but to know this you must be spiritual enlightened. Works with this theme always have a character that gains awareness of things around them. Their actions rationally change as a result of the newly obtained knowledge. This theme is all over the T.V. series “Avatar the Last Air Bender” as a young avatar must learn of the world he is expected to protect, he find spiritual enlightenment to be the key. Spiritual enlightenment always results in internal peace within the character. Whatever the problem is, the main character can face it in peace because of their enlightenment. A book with this theme is the “Book of Mormon”.

  • Realizing Leadership

There is leadership in you, but to find it you must lead! That is the theme of realizing leadership. In some cases the main character is a follower who thinks they should be the leader, and through many experiences realizes leadership in others. Tension moments where a character must take charge are a staple of this theme. A great film with this as the theme is “Enders Game”. It also is a great book.

  • The Hero

Super heroes or just normal hero’s both fit into this theme. Here an extraordinary person accomplishes an even more extraordinary feat, often working towards a vision for society. The hero always faces an enemy while trying to live a normal life on the side. Spider Man, Super Man, Bat Man, Wonder Woman, are all hero’s with their own books or films. Some real life heroes are Gandhi, or Martin Luther Kind Jr. They also have many films and books about them.

  • Death

Death in all its aspects are presented here, after death, impending death, obsession with death, the idea of how to deal with death, grieving, and more are all part of this theme. An example in film is, “Pay it Forward”, and an example in literature is “The Lovely Bones”.


  • Revenge

Revenge can motivate and drive men to do horrible things. Any work with the theme of revenge will be a work about resolve and journey. The tension and desire for revenge is usually solved by the end, but does not have to be. It can end with the tragic results of unresolved revenge, often leaving the main character desolate, or it can be a happy where the main character can find peace. An example in film is, “Mean Girls”, and an example in literature is “Hamlet”.



Whelp, there ya go, 15 themes that are in just about every film or book, and often serve as the overarching moral of the story. If you have any questions or a suggestion to add, please leave them in the comments below! Next time you watch a movie be sure to see how the theme drives the whole story along.