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Recognizing and Analyzing Symbolism in Film

The use of metaphors and symbolism in film has long been popular in establishing various impressions among the audience or to create a variety of potential outcomes and meanings, but recognizing and analyzing symbolism in film can be challenging, particularly if you’re not aware that the symbolism is present. As we look to define symbolism in film and examine its uses we’ll also address analysis of various forms of symbolism in films and how filmmakers incorporate symbolic meanings into films and videos through a variety of different techniques and tactics.

What is Symbolism in Film?

Symbolism is a literary device that involves the use of various elements or objects with particular meaning in a way in which they represent something different. The use of symbolism is common in literature and in filmmaking. Although some symbolism is relatively simple to understand, such as the fact that a heart equals love, but many symbols that are used in films are not as cut and dry. 

Symbols often vary by culture, making it challenging for other cultures to fully understand what exactly is meant by the symbols that are incorporated into the film. Other symbolism is based on values, norms, or individual eras. It’s quite common for filmmakers to employ symbolism that has universal meaning, but we also frequently see the use of symbols that represent a particular circumstance or time. 

Types of Symbolism in Film

There are a variety of different types of symbolism that are used in film. Symbolic meanings that occur in films can range from the use of objects, colors, characters, or sounds to create connections or deeper meanings beyond the surface such that things are not always what they may seem. For instance, symbolism may even come out in a particular camera angle or special effect that is used. 

Often times, an object that is symbolic of a particular abstract idea or element will represent something else entirely different from what it is. For example, A filmmaker might use a particular doll to represent a character, but it could also be symbolic of innocence. Likewise, symbolism is also often used to implore a particular theme or to make an inference of some other type.

Cinematic symbolism is likely to occur in the following manners:

  • Colors – for example, the use of red white and blue to signify patriotism or freedom.
  • Music – for example the use of The Imperial March which symbolizes Darth Vadar’s entry signifying danger, evil, or unlimited power.
  • Characters – for example The Joker from the Batman film representing a symbol of terrorism and chaos.
  • Objects – for example various objects are used in films to symbolize wealth, power, money, or a variety of other elements.
  • Plot – for example, a film may have an entire plot that appears to be about one thing but in reality it’s about something else. Such was considered in the Japanimation film Akira which appeared to be about the power that humans tried to control but was actually about atomic bombs.

How to Recognize Symbolism in Film

Learning how to recognize symbolism in film can be particularly challenging. Naturally, since symbols are often hidden and have hidden meaning, they can be tricky to uncover, particularly if the filmmaker hasn’t made any particular reference to the symbolism that has been made within the story. Careful analysis of symbolism in films is also likely to come with some ambiguity. 

For instance, one might find that a particular element or object in a story or film was symbolic of something, whereas someone else makes a completely different symbolic connection. It’s very common for symbolism, in films and videos, to come with some level of ambiguity in which it becomes particularly challenging to fully devise where the meaning or representation comes from exactly.

Figuring out how to recognize and analyze symbolism in film is an important technique that takes some practice and a lot of internal thought process. Begin by watching the film in its entirety. Next, watch the film again and consider the following:

  • Colors
  • Objects
  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Music

Think about the possible symbolism that is present within these various elements of the film and what they could mean. Think also about the time upon which the film was produced and the era. Were there particularly important events occurring during that time that might be reflected in the film? Were there times of oppression that might be symbolized in the film?

Low Temp Video Shoot / Camera Crew

To analyze the symbolism of a film, you’re going to carefully examine all of these important elements and carefully consider how the details could have hidden meanings or metaphorical elements that are unknown. The film technique and underlying elements of the film that are front and center could potentially have deeper meaning than what is on the surface. 

It’s like that once you begin to hone in on certain elements of symbolism in a film you’ll soon find that there are many other hidden elements or symbols within it that you missed the first time around. For this reason, you’re going to want to watch the film several times over in order to define the various symbolic meanings that are found throughout. Think about the message that the filmmaker is trying to deliver through the technique, camera operation, storytelling, and other events within the film as well as the individual objects and elements of the story. 

So, what is symbolism? It’s a literary device that is used to create deeper meaning in the stories that are told through film and video often resulting in a significantly deeper explanation for a film’s story than what appears on the surface. Symbolism in film is frequently used by filmmakers to impose their ideals, thoughts, and underlying opinions on the audience.