A redemption theme is a story paradigm for fiction that centers around a fundamental moral arc within the main character from bad to good. At the start of the story the character will be less than whole and deeply flawed in a way that reverberates throughout the character’s choices and actions. By the end of the story the character will have undergone a “trial by fire” that results in a Phoenix experience of rising from the ashes, a totally new, more powerful and more whole person.
One of the best examples of a redemption theme is Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, based on the book, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. The 1993 biographical film is based on Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman who used Jewish slave labor during WWII to make products for the German military. Schindler starts out an opportunistic man with little concern for the genocide occurring around him, but is eventually transformed by the violence he sees. Schindler uses his factories to save the lives of over 1000 Polish Jews, lamenting as the war ends that he didn’t save enough people and could have done more.
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Romantic comedies very often incorporate a redemption theme, though less dramatically portrayed. In a romantic plot, love is the redeemer that changes the characters’ lives for the better.
In the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts plays Vivian Ward, a street prostitute, opposite Richard Gere as Edward Lewis, a rich corporate raider. Richard stops for directions in his Lotus, which Vivian initially mistakes for an offer of work. Paid for her trouble, she jumps in the car to show him the way. Richard decides he could use her as an escort on some business meetings, and Vivian tastes the good life, getting many lessons in manners and social graces along the way. Richard, through falling in love with Vivian, begins to see that his cutthroat style of doing business is not how he wants to live his life. Through their relationship, Vivian transforms into a respectable member of society, and Richard, into a fulfilled and kinder businessman.
Russell Crowe and Christian Bale star in 2007’s The 3:10 To Yuma. Crowe plays Ben Wade, ruthless leader of a gang of murderous thieves, with Bale as Dan Evans, a crippled family man who’s about to lose his farm. Evans takes on the job of getting Wade on a train to be tried for his crimes in order to earn enough money to save his farm. In the process Evans redeems himself in his own eyes, and in the eyes of his young son. Wade’s character also arcs as we see his jealousy of the simple family life Evans has, and his desire for Evans to succeed. The redemption theme plays on several different levels between Wade, Evans, and Evans’ son, whose character also arcs in relation to his father.
The redemption theme as applied to drama can be a very powerful tool for moving an audience. In romantic comedies the theme leaves us believing love can overcome all obstacles. It is human nature to hope that we can each be redeemed, so it’s not surprising to see such successful movies built around this deeply moving paradigm.