How Theme in Fiction Gets to the Heart of Your Characters

This is a reprint from 10 years ago, looking at one of my absolutely favorite movies. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to do so, watching with a writer’s eye. You will learn a lot about great theme and excellent plot structure.

Okay, got your popcorn? Today we’re going to look at the movie K-Pax. Why do I love this movie so much? Because aside from the fact it tells a great story with heart and has a terrific  and creative plot, it has very rich themes that anchor this movie and make it so very special.

Although the story seems to be about some guy who claims to come from a faraway planet, it is not a sci-fi flick (similar to Signs, which also is really not about aliens at all).

No, It’s Not about Aliens

If you haven’t seen K-Pax at least five times, you are really missing something. It is the consummate story of freedom from fear in all its aspects. Prot, from K-Pax, is truly messianic in the way he leads others to healing–not by a miraculous touch, though, but by showing each one their fear and the reality that they don’t need to be afraid. Howie, Ernie, Bess–all the characters on the nut ward–are terrified of something–of dying, of dirt, of smells, of being touched. And Prot gets them to understand why they are afraid and why they don’t need to be. The healing and wholeness follows.

In one place, Prot is explaining to the psychiatrist, Dr. Mark Powell, about his home world and how they don’t need jails and punishment, or laws to regulate behavior. Powell asks, “Well then, how does one know what is right and wrong on K-Pax?”

Prot gives an astute answer: “Every being in the universe knows what’s right and wrong, Dr. Powell.”

Powell: “What? No crime, brutality, no violence on K-Pax?”

Prot answers, “You humans. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how you’ve made it this far.”

It’s Not about Prot Either

What’s the theme in K-Pax? It’s not about whether Prot comes from another planet or not–that’s just the background of the real story. The protagonist of this film is Dr. Mark Powell, and his problem is his disconnect to his family. Throughout the movie, we witness the dynamics of his family–his alienation from his son, his distance from his wife, even his disconnect from his “family” of patients.

As he uncovers the truth about Prot and the story behind Robert Porter and the horrific loss of family he underwent, we watch Mark come to the shocking realization that family is more precious than anything. He knows that Prot chose him, and wonders why. But we, the audience, know exactly why.

Dr. Powell undergoes a tremendous transformation, and we cheer him on. Of course, there are other beautiful themes in the movie. My heart aches just thinking about Bess and how Prot noticed this invisible woman in the nut ward.

There is so much messianic theme in this movie in metaphor. Prot tells Ernie to watch for the bluebird of happiness–that is his task–which Dr. Powell scoffs at. Yet, the actual physical bluebird shows up outside the window. To Howie, this is all he needs. It may only be a bird to Dr. Powell, but to Howie it is a confirmation of his faith and a gift to his integrity.

Big themes.

This week, watch K-Pax if you haven’t seen it, or if you want to watch it with new sight. Pay attention to the themes as they come out and see how they are presented in the dialog and actions of the characters.

Just another side note here–notice how the director created another theme (more of a motif) by the use of light. I would also consider it a theme as the metaphor of light (enlightenment, pureness, clarity, the light of truth being uncovered) works thematically on many level in this movie.  In almost every scene with Prot, there is some unusual treatment of light. This is because Prot claims to have come to earth on a beam of light. It’s a brilliant infusion of a secondary theme that adds richness to the movie.

Think of some movies with great themes and let’s talk about them in the comments!


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