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Film Studies Research Guide: Themes, Subjects & Characters

A guide to conducting research in Film Studies at Yale University, including key resources and crucial search strategies.

Movie Themes, Subjects and Characters

What's Here

In general (if not always), films are about some theme or topic, and fictional films involve characters and types of characters. There are several complications in researching this topic, in part because sometimes there's a distinction between how the Library describes films vs how it describes books about those films ... and sometimes there doesn't seem to be. Please read the explanations below carefully.


Finding Films on Particular Topics, Themes or Characters


Indexes of Topics in Films

These three sources are very useful, but they are of course limited by their publication dates and the number of films they cover.


American Film Scripts Online

AFSO identifies screenplays' subject(s) and genre, and lets you search by these criteria. Note that AFSO only includes American films. See Screenplays/Filmscripts for more information.

Encyclopedia of film themes, settings and series. Richard B. Armstrong and Mary Willems Armstrong. Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland, 2001.

This encyclopedia is especially useful for obtaining examples of films with themes like amnesia, deafness, genies, ice skating, mirrors, photographers, sewers, and windmills.

The Ultimate Movie Thesaurus. Christopher Case. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996.

Consists of two major sections.  The first is a list of films by title, providing a one-sentence synopsis, its genre(s), and its topics or themes. The second section lists the genres and topics, and the films that provide examples.

Using Orbis to Find Films on Particular Topics, Themes or Characters

Films on a specific character, character type or group are typically in the form [Character]--Drama or [Character] films. The "--Drama" subheading is the proper one, but the reason there may be two forms is that often these are considered a genre (although sometimes the subject heading is applied by mistake). See also Genres, Styles & Categories.

  • In many cases you will need to search both forms.
  • "Drama" covers fiction movies, plays and TV shows, including fictionalized accounts of real people or events. To some extent you can limit to films by using the strategies described on the Films & Videos page.
  • These headings may be used for both fiction and non-fiction (documentary) films. For instance, there may be a non-fiction film about the rise of the vampire movie genre.

Films on a theme or event usually have a subject heading taking the form [Topic]--Drama, but there are also related genres (e.g., War films).


Films that are part of a series (or implied series) may receive [Series name] films. A series is usually treated as though it's a genre.


NOTE: Catalogers are not required to apply any headings of this type to films. You may need to supplement searches for films on a particular topic by looking at filmographies and similar sources.


Characters, Character Types and Groups

Topics and Themes

Series (these are usually treated as a genre)

Two Forms (try both)

Works About a Topic, Theme or Character as Represented in Films

Critical works, including documentaries, about a topic as seen in motion pictures. (Sometimes these headings are also applied to fiction films.  This is usually an error, but it's appropriate for a film like Hollywood Shuffle, which is in fact about African-American actors in Hollywood.)

  • Note that nearly all of these have the form [Topic] in motion pictures, but that's not true for war movies and topics treated as genres. See also Genres, Styles, Categories and Series. The phrase "in motion pictures" often covers films that aren't specifically about some topic etc., but happens to include it.
  • The lists below are far from exhaustive, but they should indicate the many possibilities.

Social Issues as Shown in Films


Sex and Gender as Shown in Films


Social Groups and Character Types as Shown in Films

Characters in Films (usually treated as a genre)

Activities and Events as Shown in Films

Places, Organizations and Objects as Shown in Films

Ideas, Forms and Styles in Films

Selected Reference Resources

Be sure to look at the Bibliographies & Filmographies page for more resources on how particular social groups are portrayed!


The American Indian in film. Hilger, Michael. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1986.

The bent lens: a world guide to gay & lesbian film. Edited by Claire Jackson and Peter Tapp. St Kilda, Vic.: Australian Catalogue Company, 1997.

Blacks in black and white: a source book on Black films. Sampson, Henry T. Edition: 2nd ed. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, c1995.

The Columbia companion to American history on film: how the movies have portrayed the American past. Ed. Peter C. Rollins.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

The encyclopedia of ethnic groups in Hollywood. James Robert Parish. Facts on File, Inc. : New York, NY, 2003.

Encyclopedic dictionary of women in early American films, 1895-1930. Denise Lowe. New York: Haworth Press, 2005.


Director, Film Study Center