It has been argued that there are anywhere between 3 and 40 main themes in literature that continue to be explored by each successive generation of writers. No one knows for what the real number is–it depends on who you ask–but below is a list, not necessarily inclusive, of the most common ones. There are many variations, and there are often overlaps as well. So, right or wrong, in no particular order, here they are.
The Great Journey
This follows a character or characters through a series of episodic adventures as they travel. It may be a sad story or a happy story, or it may even be comedic. Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Odyssey are good examples. In film, this theme can be seen in Apocalypse Now and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Loss of Innocence
Sometimes called the “coming of age story,” this most commonly introduces an “innocent” character to the evil or complexity of the real/adult world. In literature, we might look at David Copperfied or most of the Nick Adams stories by Ernest Hemingway, like “Indian Camp” and “The End of Something.” In film, we might look at Stand by Me.
The Noble Sacrifice
The sacrifice can be for any reason except self–a loved one, an enemy, a group of people, the whole of humanity, a dog–but the bottom line is that the protagonist sacrifices himself or herself in an effort to save others. In literature, this is demonstrated in the story of Jesus in the New Testament and King Arthur in Mallory’s Morte d’Artur. This theme is used is used in the films Glory, Armageddon, The Green Mile, and in just about any war movie where the hero dies gloriously.
The Great Battle
The Iliad and A Tale of Two Cities are classic examples of this theme. It is about people or groups of people in conflict. It is sometimes a good vs. evil story like 1984 by George Orwell, but not always. The film The War of the Roses, starring Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas, is an example of a battle in which neither character is wholly good or evil. In theatre, we see this theme at work in Westside Story and Les Miserables. We often see this theme in horror or science fiction, like in Alien and Terminator, where the antagonist–a monster/creature/human/alien/computer/etc.– is trying to kill the protagonist, who must fight to stay alive and/or defeat the antagonist. Sub-categories would be person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. society, person vs. technology and etc.
The Fall From Grace
This theme shows us people going where only God should go, doing what only God is meant to do, or attempting to do something that human beings should never do. This is always followed by misfortune, whether it is the direct result of their action or an act of God. We see this in the tales of Coyote’s theft of fire in the Native American tradition, or in the story of the Tower of Babel and the Garden of Eden in The Old Testament. Other examples would be the Prometheus myth, Pandora’s Box, and the story of Icarus. Frankenstein by Mary Shelly is another work exploring this theme, and we have seen it at work in the films Jurassic Park and Westworld.
Love and Friendship
Romeo and Juliet is a classic love story, as is the story of Lancelot and Guenivere. The films You’ve Got Mail and Message in a Bottle are also love stories. The ending may be be happy, sad, or bittersweet, but the main them is romantic love. Also included in this theme is platonic love–friendship–like in the movies Wrestling Ernest Hemingwayand Midnight Cowboy. All Romance novels, whether straight or gay, fit into this category. All “buddy films” like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma and Louise fit into this category.
The Capriciousness of Fate
Greek tragedies fit this category. Often, there is a major reversal of fortune. It could be from good-to-bad or from bad-to-good. Oedipus Rex is a classic work that explores the concept of fate and destiny, having an unhappy ending. Cinderella is also a reversal of fortune story, but has a happy ending. In film, we have seen this theme at work in Pretty Woman. The common element is that there is some force guiding the person’s life over which he or she has no control.
The subject is obvious, but the outcome differs. Sometimes the outcome is good, like in the movies Revenge of the Nerds or Animal House. Sometimes the outcome is bad, as in Macbeth and Moby Dick. Other movies based on this them are Revenge, staring Anthony Quinn and Kevin Costner, and Payback, starring Mel Gibson.
The Big Trick
In this one, someone or some group of people intentionally trick someone else. Rumplestiltskin and Little Red Ridinghood are in this category. Stone Soup is an old story in which several men trick the inhabitants of a village into providing them with food. This theme was evident in Snatch, starring Brad Pitt, and The Sting, staring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.
The Big Mystery
Something unexplained happened and it is the protagonist’s job to find an explanation for it. The story of Sherlock Holmes are good examples, as are the Hardy Boys andNancy Drew mysteries. In film, we have seen it Silence of the Lambs and The Maltese Falcon, and it took a comedic turn in Clue and The Pink Panther. Almost all police and detective dramas work within this form, as do most espionage and spy thrillers. Agatha Christy and Tom Clancy work within this form.