Sometimes, literary devices cross over into the film and TV world. It makes sense, that all entertainment comes from storytelling, and these devices are at the root of that art form. In the world of filmmaking and storytelling, allegory is a powerful tool that filmmakers use to convey complex ideas, themes, and messages.

For that, we have allegory.

What exactly is an allegory, and how can it enhance your storytelling?

In this article, we'll explore the definition of allegory and provide you with some compelling examples from the world of cinema to help you better understand this literary and cinematic device.

Let's get started.

"What is an Allegory?": A Literary Guide for English Students and

Allegory Definition

Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, stoping bullets in 'The Matrix''The Matrix'

Credit: Warner Bros.

An allegory is a storytelling technique in which characters, events, and elements within a narrative represents abstract concepts, moral values, or hidden meanings.

In essence, an allegory is a symbolic narrative that operates on two levels: the surface level of the story's plot and characters, and a deeper, often philosophical or moral level that conveys a broader message or commentary.

Why Do Filmmakers Use Allegory?

Two people holding hands in 'The Leftovers'

'The Leftovers'

Credit: HBO

The allegorical approach allows filmmakers to explore complex ideas, critique society, or offer commentary on universal themes without explicitly stating them.

Rather than have a straightforward expression of an idea, filmmakers will instead use symbolism and metaphor to invite viewers to think critically and interpret the story's deeper layers.

As storytellers, we have to think about what we can add to support the themes of this story. Is there dialogue, visuals, or set pieces that can help push the allegory to the audience and grant them understanding?

How Can You Use Allegory in Your Own Work?

Lacie, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, taking a picture of her coffee with her phone in the 'Black Mirror' episode "Nosedive"

'Black Mirror'

Credit: Netflix

Using allegory in your creative work, whether it's writing, filmmaking, art, or any other form of storytelling, can add depth and complexity to your narrative.

But how do you do it?

Here are some aspects you should work on and track.

  • Identify the Theme: Start by identifying the theme, moral, or message you want to convey through your work. This could be a social issue, a philosophical concept, a moral dilemma, or any other abstract idea you wish to explore.
  • Create a Dual Narrative: Develop two parallel narratives within your work. The first narrative will be the surface story with its own characters, plot, and conflicts. The second narrative will operate on a deeper level, representing the abstract theme or message you've identified.
  • Choose Symbolic Elements: Select characters, objects, settings, or events that can serve as symbols for the abstract concepts you're exploring. These symbols should have a clear connection to the deeper message you want to convey. Integrate the symbolic elements seamlessly into your narrative. They should be an integral part of the story and not feel forced. Use metaphor, imagery, and symbolism to invite your audience to make connections between the surface and deeper narratives.
  • Layered Character Development: Develop your characters with depth. Each character can represent different aspects of the theme or message you're exploring. Their journeys and conflicts can mirror the complexities of the allegory.
  • Build Tension: Create tension and conflict in both the surface and allegorical narratives. This keeps the audience engaged while also allowing them to explore the deeper layers of your work.
  • Subtlety and Ambiguity: Avoid explaining the allegory explicitly. Leave room for interpretation and allow your audience to draw their own conclusions. Subtlety and ambiguity can enhance the impact of your allegory.
  • Seek Feedback: Share your work with others and gather feedback. Ask them if they were able to discern the deeper allegorical meaning and if it resonated with them. Constructive feedback can help you refine your allegory. After receiving feedback, reflect on your work and consider revisions.
  • Study Existing Allegories: Lots of inspiration already exists in the public domain. Analyze and study existing works that use allegory effectively. This can provide insights into how to craft your own allegorical narratives.

Remember that using allegory requires a delicate balance between the surface narrative and the deeper meaning. When executed well, allegory can engage your audience on multiple levels and leave a lasting impact by encouraging them to contemplate the broader themes and ideas you've embedded in your work.

Allegory Examples in Film and TV

Allegory is a powerful storytelling technique used in both film and television to convey deeper meanings and explore complex themes.

Here are some notable examples of allegory in both mediums:

Allegories in Film

  • The Shawshank Redemption (1994): This film, based on Stephen King's novella, serves as an allegory for hope and redemption. Andy Dufresne's imprisonment and eventual escape symbolize the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003): J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy series, adapted into film by Peter Jackson, is rich with allegory. The One Ring represents the corrupting influence of power, and the struggle against evil reflects the battle between good and evil in the world.
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): This sci-fi romance film explores the intricacies of memory and relationships. It serves as an allegory for the way people deal with painful memories and the idea that erasing them might not be the best solution.
  • Wall-E (2008): Pixar's animated masterpiece "Wall-E" is an allegory for environmentalism and the consequences of over-consumption. It portrays a dystopian future where Earth has become uninhabitable due to pollution and waste.
  • District 9 (2009): Neill Blomkamp's science fiction film is an allegory for apartheid in South Africa. It uses a scenario where aliens are segregated and discriminated against to comment on racial segregation and prejudice.

Allegories in Television

  • The Twilight Zone (1959-1964):Rod Serling's anthology series is known for its allegorical storytelling. Many episodes, such as "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," use science fiction and fantasy to comment on social issues and human behavior.
  • Black Mirror (2011-present):Created by Charlie Brooker, Black Mirror is a modern anthology series that explores the dark side of technology and society. Each episode serves as an allegory for contemporary issues related to the digital age.
  • The Handmaid's Tale (2017-present): Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, adapted into a TV series, serves as an allegory for the subjugation of women and the erosion of civil liberties in a theocratic society.
  • Westworld (2016-2022):This science fiction series explores themes of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and the consequences of playing god. It serves as an allegory for the ethical and philosophical implications of creating sentient beings.
  • The Leftovers (2014-2017): Based on Tom Perrotta's novel, this series explores the aftermath of a mysterious global event where a significant portion of the population disappears. It serves as an allegory for grief, loss, and the search for meaning in the face of tragedy.

These examples in film and television demonstrate how allegory can be used effectively to convey deeper messages and provoke contemplation.

Allegory is a potent storytelling device that allows filmmakers to delve into profound themes, spark discussions, and offer social and philosophical commentary within their narratives. By crafting stories that operate on multiple levels, they invite audiences to think critically, interpret symbolism, and engage with the deeper layers of their work.

So, the next time you watch a film, keep an eye out for the hidden meanings and allegorical elements that may be lurking beneath the surface. And when you sit down to write, consider allegories in your work.