A couple of weeks ago, something reminded me (I don’t recall what) of the movie Dead Poets Society. I could not stop thinking about the movie, and finally checked it out from the library. It had been years since I watched it, long before I started writing. Now, as a writer, I found even more meaning in the story.
Also, I suppose, being older, having kids, and many other life experiences have all combined and changed the things that stood out to me in that movie. One small scene in particular popped out this time. Keating had his students do an exercise to teach them about the dangers of conformity. The headmaster, Mr. Nolan, saw the exercise and asked Keating about it—or more correctly, reprimanded him.
Keating responds by saying, “I always thought the purpose of education was to learn to think for yourself.”
Nolan says, “At these boys’ age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline.”
As the movie watchers, we are expected to scoff at that. I’m sure I did when watching years ago. We’re on Keating’s side, right? The whole movie is about nonconformity, after all, not just the one exercise he asks of his class.
I found it interesting that very close to this scene is a clip where a rowing crew cruises by. Something I can’t write off as unintentional. Sculling is a sport that requires complete conformity. Every crew member moves exactly the same—must move exactly the same. What would happen if one of the members decided to row at a different rhythm? There are times where conformity is the only way.
The message of the movie is centered around not conforming. And here I say the contradictory message of necessary conformity is sent simultaneously. How can that be?
Simple. Both are true.
(On a side note–Is agreeing that we should not conform in its own way a form of conformity?)
Anyway, my point actually has nothing to do with conformity. My point is that two opposing ideas can be, and are quite often, true simultaneously.
Fiction is the perfect place to illustrate that, as I’ve shown you in the example from Dead Poets Society. Not every story contains a single message, and many times the messages within a story can contradict each other—or at least seem to.
Another example that comes to mind is Jurassic Park, in which the main message is clearly that scientists shouldn’t muck around in what they don’t understand. That playing God, or at least Mother Nature, isn’t meant for us. Bring back dinosaurs when you don’t know enough about them, they will eat you ;). But it’s also shown that the only way to truly learn about dinosaurs is to bring them back. Science, to be utilized fully, cannot be based on conjecture—it must be based on experience.
I recently took a writing class on Fluency in Story led by CathiLyn Dyck that focused a lot on theme, which is broad-spectrum compared to message. In the above examples, I pointed out multiple messages in each movie. However, those messages fall under a broader theme.
In Dead Poets Society, that theme is not specific to conformity or non-conformity, but, I believe, has to do with the idea that trouble brews when one tries to completely stamp out the other. In Jurassic Park, the message is nearly stated outright when Dr. Ian Malcolm says, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” The theme is broader, more along the lines that the “could” and “should” are both necessary.
Stories like these make us think. They don’t just present a single, linear message. They allow bits of opposing ideas to struggle on-screen, or on-page, and make us grapple with our beliefs.
Christian fiction often, however, seems to miss the boat on this. Theme is something that runs through an entire novel, something that all the elements point to. Think of it as the roof of the story structure. But messages are support beams. If theme is replaced by a single message, you get a one-dimensional structure. Many Christian novels contain only message, mistakenly included as theme, and the result is that the story feels preachy.
Don’t get me wrong. I see nothing wrong with Christian books having messages, even strong ones. The problem is when a book wraps the entire story around that single message. Everything in the story points in one direction, and the reader finds themselves being told what to think.
The overriding messages in Dead Poets Society and Jurassic Park, and many other stories, come through plenty strong, but they never feel preachy because they are presented under the umbrella of theme. There is no wall blocking the story from all other options.
The importance of non-conformity is clear in Dead Poets Society without making all the conformists look like Nazis. We may think certain characters, like the Headmaster and Neil Perry’s overbearing father, take things too far, but they’re not presented as beasts. Both characters, at their hearts, have the best interest of the boys as their motivations. In Jurassic Park, scientific advancement is not portrayed as evil incarnate, nor is John Hammond—he is a loving grandfather who wants to build an amusement park, after all. And the dinosaurs, well, they just want to survive.
Christians shouldn’t be afraid of stories that hint at other ways of thinking. If the main message has merit (and we know it does) and it is presented properly, it will be seen clearly among the other opposing and/or complementary ideas.
Winter by Keven Newsome is a good example of this. It is the story of a Goth girl who is chosen by God to be a prophetess. His message is clear: God chooses the unexpected to do His work. But it falls under an over-arching theme: We can’t judge based on appearance. There is reference to the theme everywhere. Not just in how Winter is judged by other students and teachers because of her Goth appearance, but also how she judges them. Outward appearance vs. heart is something that shows up over and over.
But even though theme runs throughout, Keven doesn’t preach his message with every move. Other, more “expected” characters are also used for God’s plan—Winter isn’t always in the spotlight. And Keven uses the story to point out that not every unexpected person gets to do big things. As one character says, “We’re all freaks. It’s just a matter of perspective.” Winter is chosen as a prophetess because of and despite the fact that she’s a “freak.” But the opposing idea that being a freak doesn’t guarantee you’ll get chosen is also there.
Admittedly, none of this would have occurred to me years ago, the first time I saw Dead Poets Society. And maybe you don’t at all agree about my assessment of the messages and themes of the stories I mentioned. They are, after all, my own personal observations, but please take them in context.
What have you noticed about theme and message? Do you see them as different? Do you find a message easier to swallow when it’s not presented as the sole driving force behind a story? Or is one message enough to support a story?