What Is Hollywood Symbolism and 10 Examples of It
For decades, writers, directors, and filmmakers have used symbolism in Hollywood cinema. Symbolism in art goes back centuries, appearing in literature since the dawn of time. It offers a deep meaning hidden in the film adding to the complex nature of the story. Here’s a look at Hollywood symbolism and 10 great examples of it.
What Is Symbolism?
Symbolism is the artistic use of images, objects, or things to add deeper meaning to the character or story without calling attention to it. Not to be confused with motifs, symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols to mean something else, such as loss, death, or greed. For instance, birds often represent freedom, while roses symbolize love. Motifs are repeating story elements that are less subtle and support the movie’s theme. On the other hand, cinema symbolism subtly repeats throughout the film.
What Is Hollywood Symbolism and 10 Examples of It
1. The Godfather – Orange
Often considered the greatest movie of all time, The Godfather follows the powerful mafia family, the Corleones, as they strive for power in the New York mafia. Throughout the classic film, oranges foreshadow impending doom and a character’s death. For instance, Vito Corleone buys oranges moments before being shot in the streets. Later, he’s playing with his grandson in an orange grove when he suddenly has a heart attack and dies.
Oranges appear both obviously and subtly in the entire trilogy. Usually representing immortality, oranges in The Godfather symbolize the Corleone family’s eventual demise.
2. Get Out – Deer
In Jordan Peele’s Get Out, young African American man Chris Washington (portrayed by Daniel Kaluuya) meets his white girlfriend’s family for the first time and uncovers a shocking truth. Throughout the plot, deer represents the powerful taking advantage of the innocent.
This symbolism first appears when Chris and Rose Armitage hit a deer on their way to visit her family. In the scene, the dying deer represents Chris’s helpless mother, who died in a hit-and-run. It also hints that Chris’s life is in danger because of Rose.
Later, the deer represents the Armitage’s feelings on race relations. They complain that the deer are taking over and want them eliminated. Finally, there is a deer’s head is mounted on the wall as Chris struggles to escape during the climax. It symbolizes Chris’s vulnerability as a victim and trophy for the Armitage family.
3. The Lord of the Rings – The Ring
Lord of the Rings tells the story of Frodo Baggins and his quest to destroy the one Ring to rule them all. The Ring is possibly cinema’s greatest piece of symbolism. The Ring represents pure evil and the desire for more power. The Ring’s evil nature can turn even the most modest and kindest souls into monstrous creatures obsessed with power, such as Gollum.
Likewise, the Ring symbolizes greed as several characters wish to keep it for themselves. The Ring also appears to represent addictions as many characters physically and mentally struggle with letting it go.
4. The Shining – Mirrors
In the classic horror The Shining, Jack Torrance and his family move into the Overlook Hotel. However, Torrance slowly goes insane when a snowstorm traps them in the supernatural hotel. Director Stanley Kubrick buried hidden meanings and symbolism throughout the movie. The most notable use of symbolism involves mirrors representing the truth.
One question revolves around whether Torrance is experiencing a haunting or is just insane. For instance, when Torrance talks to a ghost, he’s in front of a mirror or a reflective surface. Of course, the best example of the mirrors revealing the truth is the reflection of “redrum” as “murder.”
5. Joker – Clowns
The critically acclaimed Joker revolves around a failed clown Arthur Fleck who dreams of becoming a world-famous stand-up comedian. Instead, Fleck descends into madness and inspires a violent uprising. Based on the DC comics character, Joker uses clowns as symbolism in the movie. Clowns are a famous symbol since they often represent laughter, silliness, and happiness. Therefore, exploring the darkness and sadness behind a clown is intriguing.
In Joker, Fleck first appears applying clown makeup in the mirror. He’s still the fun-loving entertainer, but wickedness is about to emerge. The clown persona becomes a mask for Fleck to hide behind. Soon, Fleck loses his grip on reality, transforming into the evil Joker. At this point, clowns represent chaos and rebelling against the powerful.
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6. Moonlight – Water
Moonlight follows Chiron through three different stages of his life as he searches for his identity and struggles with his sexuality. Set in Miami, the critically acclaimed film uses water as a vital symbol of Chiron’s journey of self-discovery.
As a child, local drug dealer and father figure Juan taught a young Chiron how to swim. It’s a sweet moment displaying their bond and a significant moment in Chiron’s life. Furthermore, his first sexual experience with Kevin occurs near a beach with the sound of waves crashing in the background. In this case, water represents danger and freedom.
7. Jaws – The Shark
In the groundbreaking 1975 classic Jaws, a local sheriff joins forces with a shark hunter and marine biologist to kill a bloodthirsty, man-eating great white shark. It’s the old tale of man versus nature. In addition to being one of cinema’s greatest villains, the shark is also the strongest symbol in the movie.
In the 70s, communism was a primary concern among most Americans. Therefore, the evil shark represents communism’s threat to capitalism. Set on the 4th of July, the shark is an unseen evil beneath the water threatening the town’s way of life. Furthermore, the shark’s presence has hurt the town’s economy, while the Mayor will let nothing get in the way of making money.
8. Parasite – The Stone
The Academy Award-winning Parasite follows the Kim family’s scheme to pose as unrelated individuals and penetrate the household of the wealthy Park family. The dark comedy thriller is full of brilliant symbolism, notably the stone. The stone represents luck or the absence of luck while examining class inequality. It also illustrates the clear division and inequality between the two families.
The stone first appears when gifted to the Kim family as representing wealth and good fortune. However, once they begin working for the Park family, it symbolizes the Kim family’s envy and longing to be wealthy. Unfortunately, their luck starts to run out.
9. Inception – The Spinning Top
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception revolves around criminal Dom Cobb as he leads a team to infiltrate a person’s subconscious through their dreams. Cobb’s totem, the spinning top, is a prominent object throughout the movie. The top symbolizes the divide between fantasy and reality and helps Cobb determine whether he’s in a dream or awake.
The top also represents Cobb’s guilt over his wife’s tragic death. Ultimately, Cobb walks away from the spinning top, which could mean he’s finally letting go of his wife’s death. Also, it symbolizes that he either let go of the dream or reality to be with his kids.
10. American Beauty – Roses
While roses usually mean love and romance. They take on a drastically different meaning in the 1999 Best Picture winner American Beauty. The plot revolves around Lester Burham, who starts going through a midlife crisis and becomes infatuated with his teenage daughter’s best friend, Angela.
Roses are an important symbol of sexual desires and suppressing romantic feelings. Roses represent Lester and his wife Carolyn’s uneventful sex life. After discussing their boring love life, the next scene starts with Caroyln snipping a rose, symbolizing the lack of passion. Famously, when Lester thinks of Angela, the roses are free-falling, representing his sexual freedom. Furthermore, it denotes his lust and attraction for Angela.
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