My favorite part of watching films and TV shows is picking out the hidden things the filmmakers have layered in for us to pick up on. Film and TV are visual mediums and thus, lend themselves to tangible symbols that drive home the theme of the story.

Symbolism is a powerful device used across various forms of art, including literature, paintings, and music. In the world of film and television, symbolism has the potential to make a significant impact on the audience's understanding and interpretation of the story.

Today, we're going to define symbolism in film and TV and dig into some examples of it across both mediums.

Let's dive in.

Symbolism Definition

Symbolism is the art of using symbols to represent abstract ideas or concepts. Symbols can be objects, characters, colors, sounds, settings, or even specific camera angles and editing techniques.

By using symbolism, writers, and directors can convey complex ideas and emotions without explicitly stating them, allowing the audience to make connections between seemingly unrelated elements in the story.

What Is the Purpose of Symbolism in Film and TV?

Have you ever wanted to just explain your story to the reader or watcher? Symbols allow you to bridge the gap without being too "on the nose" or too verbose.

The primary purpose of using symbolism in film and television is to add depth and complexity to the story, as well as to engage the audience's imagination.

You want them so absorbed in your work that the symbols are speaking to them in a language only they can understand.

Symbolism can help to express a character's inner thoughts and feelings, emphasize themes and motifs, and create a sense of atmosphere or mood. By incorporating symbolism into their work, screenwriters and filmmakers can create more visually and emotionally impactful stories that resonate with audiences on a deeper level.

The_hunger_games_three_finger_salute'The Hunger Games'Credit: Lionsgate

Types of Symbolism in Film and Television

How do we get more symbols into our work?

There are several ways in which symbolism can be utilized in film and television, including through the use of objects, characters, colors, music, and plot elements. The following sections will discuss examples of each type of symbolism and explain how they can be effectively used in screenwriting and filmmaking.

Object Symbolism

Objects can serve as powerful symbols in film and television, representing complex ideas and emotions. For example, in the Oscar-winning film Parasite, the "scholar's stone" that the impoverished Kim family receives as a gift initially symbolizes their hope for wealth and prosperity. However, as the story unfolds and the family's fortunes take a dark turn, the stone comes to symbolize their desperation and the destructive consequences of their greed.

Another example can be found in Christopher Nolan's Inception, where the spinning top serves as a symbol of the protagonist's struggle to distinguish between reality and the dream world. The top's uncertain fate at the end of the film leaves the audience questioning the true nature of the world they have just witnessed.

The spinning top in 'Inception''Inception'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Character Symbolism

Characters themselves can serve as symbols in film and television, representing abstract ideas or concepts. For example, in the Batman film The Dark Knight, the Joker (Heath Ledger) is often seen as a symbol of chaos and anarchy, as well as a commentary on modern terrorism. Similarly, Batman can be seen as a symbol of vigilante justice and the struggle to maintain order in a corrupt society. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

In the film Pan's Labyrinth, the fantastical creatures encountered by the young protagonist, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), serve as symbols of her desire to escape the harsh realities of her life and the oppressive regime she lives under. These creatures help to illuminate the themes of innocence, imagination, and the power of storytelling.

Pan's Labyrinth high low fantasy Fandor video essay no film school justin morrow'Pan's Labyrinth'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Color Symbolism

We absolutely love dissecting color here at No Film School. The use of color in film and television can have significant symbolic effects. For example, the blue, white, and red colors of Captain America's costume in the Avengers films represent the values of the United States, such as freedom, power, and resilience. But then we see that bucked against in Captain American: The Winter Soldier, where his loyalties to the state are tested, and his costume is more muted.

Similarly, the color red is often associated with passion, violence, or danger, and can be used to heighten tension or emphasize emotional moments in a story.

In the film American Beauty, the recurring motif of red roses serves as a symbol of the protagonist's repressed desires and the illusion of suburban perfection. The roses appear in various forms throughout the film, highlighting the contrast between the characters' outward appearances and their inner turmoil.

American-beauty-2'American Beauty'Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

Music Symbolism

We've covered visuals, but let's jump into other symbols you can find. Music can also serve as a powerful form. In Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope, John Williams' iconic "Imperial March" is used as a leitmotif for the evil Empire and its leaders, such as Darth Vader.

The dark, menacing music becomes synonymous with the characters' malevolence and power, creating a lasting impression on the audience.

In Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge!, the film's soundtrack is composed of modern pop songs that are reinterpreted and incorporated into the story as a form of symbolism. The songs serve to express the characters' emotions and the themes of love, desire, and loss, creating a unique and memorable cinematic experience.

A still from 'Moulin Rouge!''Moulin Rouge!'Credit: 20th Century Fox

Plot Symbolism

In some cases, the plot of a film or television show itself can serve as a symbol or allegory for broader themes and ideas. For instance, the Japanese animated film Akira tells the story of a powerful force that humanity struggles to control, which ultimately results in a catastrophic explosion.

Many viewers have drawn parallels between this plot and the real-life atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, with the film serving as a commentary on the dangers of unchecked power and the potential consequences of scientific advancement.

The same goes with something like Godzilla, which also shows fear of the atomic age mixed with the shadow of these bombings. This is evident in many creature features.

Another example can be found in the film The Matrix, which presents a world where humans are trapped in a simulated reality by machines that feed on their energy. The film's plot can be seen as a metaphor for the way modern society has become increasingly reliant on technology and disconnected from the natural world, raising questions about the true nature of reality and the consequences of our dependence on machines.

Godzilla_0'Godzilla'Credit: Toho

Analyzing Symbolism in Film and Television

To effectively analyze symbolism in film and television, it is helpful to follow a step-by-step process. This includes:

  • Identifying the technique: Recognize the use of symbolism, whether it be through objects, characters, colors, music, or plot elements.
  • Providing an example: Describe when and how the technique is used in the film or television show.
  • Explaining the effect: Discuss the impact of the symbol on the audience and its significance within the story.
  • Linking to an argument: Connect the analysis of the symbol to a broader argument or theme related to the work.

By following this process, you can develop a deeper understanding of the symbolic elements in a film or television show and gain insight into the intentions of the creators and the overall meaning of the story.

The Importance of Symbolism 'The Matrix'Credit: Warner Bros.

The Importance of Symbolism

Symbolism is an essential tool for screenwriters and filmmakers, as it allows them to convey complex ideas and emotions in a visually engaging and thought-provoking manner. By incorporating symbolism into their work, artists can create richer, more layered stories that resonate with audiences on a deeper level.

To effectively use symbolism in screenwriting and filmmaking, it is important to:

  • Show, rather than tell: Use visual symbols to express ideas and emotions, rather than relying on dialogue or exposition.
  • Consider key concepts and themes: Choose symbols that are relevant to the central ideas and themes of your story, and that reinforce the overall narrative.
  • Balance subtlety and clarity: Ensure that your symbols are subtle enough to avoid being overly obvious but clear enough that the audience can understand their meaning and significance.
  • Use a variety of symbols: Incorporate a range of small-scale and large-scale symbols to create a diverse and visually engaging narrative.

By effectively utilizing symbolism in their work, screenwriters and filmmakers can craft more powerful and memorable stories that captivate and challenge their audiences.

Summing Up Symbolism 'The Great Gatsby'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Summing Up Symbolism

Symbolism is a vital aspect of storytelling in film and television, allowing creators to convey complex ideas, emotions, and themes through the use of visual cues and recurring motifs.

By understanding and utilizing symbolism in screenwriting and filmmaking, artists can create richer, more engaging stories that resonate with audiences on a deeper level.

From the use of objects, characters, and colors to the incorporation of music and plot elements, symbolism offers a powerful means of connecting with viewers and enhancing the overall narrative experience.