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Messaging in Television & Film: Themes & Examples

Instructor: Nathan Hurwitz

Dr. Nathan Hurwitz is a tenured Associate Professor in Theatre and has three books in print, two textbooks and a coffee table book.

This lesson looks at the messages and themes in films and television shows. There is always a message, whether stated directly or implied, and this lesson looks at how these messages work, and how they have changed through the years.

A Historical Overview of Themes and Messages Encoded in Television and Film

In Hollywood, an idealistic screenwriter presented a movie mogul with the message of his script, only to be told, ''If you have a message, call Western Union.'' This story suggests that movies are pure entertainment, and using them to offer a social message only assures their failure. However, there is no form of popular culture, including movies and television, that is not driven by themes and messages.

Television and film can only appeal to audiences if they speak to their values and beliefs. Some messages in film and television are explicit, and some are implicit.

Publicity photograph of The Wizard of Oz
Publicity photograph of The Wizard of Oz

Explicit messages are stated directly with no pretense of hiding them. One example of an explicit message is what Dorothy learns at the end of The Wizard of Oz; if she ever goes searching for her heart's desire again, she will never look beyond her own back yard, because if it's not there, she never lost it in the first place.

Implicit messages are always present, although they are implied rather than stated directly. The implied message in Jurassic Park is that people should not presume that they can control nature. This message is as old as Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein.

Silent Films

Movies have traditionally offered messages that show the audience rules for leading a good and moral life.

Silent film star Charlie Chaplin in The Kid
Silent film star Charlie Chaplin in The Kid

Comedian Charlie Chaplin's silent movies contained the message that the ''little man'' can overcome the harshness and meanness of life. Audiences embraced the message that a good heart and integrity can overcome obstacles. Many other silent films offered similar messages, assuring audiences that holding to goodness in the face of an often bleak world was not only possible but laudable.

Messages of World War II Films

The events of the world shape the needs of society. Those needs, in turn, determine the messages put forward in popular media.

Actor Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
Actor Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

By the time World War II was underway, films were being produced that inspired working together. This became one of the most popular messages in movies of the 1940s. Movies like Sergeant York, Sullivan's Travels, and The Grapes of Wrath carry this message explicitly. This message is implicit in the movies of Humphrey Bogart, who plays the loner who has to make a sacrifice for the larger community in films like The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, and Casablanca.

Maintaining the Status Quo in the 1950s

The 1950s was an era of conformity in films and television shows that maintained the status quo at every turn. The messages presented by most early television tended to urge viewers to Leave It to Beaver, or Make Room for Daddy. Such programming offered reassuring messages without questioning or probing too deeply.

Social Upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s Call for New Messages

In the 1960s, however, people rebelled against the 1950s constraints and social norms. The civil rights movement, women's liberation, the hippie movement, and the youth outcry against the Vietnam War all defined the 1960s, a period of rebellion against the social conformity that was reflected in movies and on television.

The 1968 Academy Awards marked the beginning of a new era in Hollywood movies. Most nominations were for films that depicted a downtrodden or disenfranchised hero throwing off the shackles of society and tradition. Movies like In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner ushered in an era in which Hollywood films told people to rebel and be true to their own beliefs in the face of social norms.

The cast of All in the Family
The cast of All In The Family

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