Birds, Butterflies and Wallpaper: Movie Symbolism

So you want to put some symbolism into your movie? The good news is, it’s easy. You can be as obvious or as obtuse as you like when scattering symbols throughout your film. Here are just a few to get you started.

Animals, Domestic: This includes house pets, as well as horses, though horses are versatile and can also fit in the “wild” category. Nothing brain-straining here: dogs often represent loyalty; cats, quite the opposite.

Animals, Wild: Includes horses and other four-footed ones like deer and coyote. Symbolizes freedom the protagonist longs for, or perhaps the protagonist’s unfettered spirit.

Birds: If a character cares for a wild bird, it usually means the same as a wild animal. Though birds more directly symbolize ambition.

Butterflies: If you are a movie character, and a butterfly (or a flock of them) appears, you aren’t going to make it to the credits. Ditto if you’re near a flower slowly losing its petals. (Examples: “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Patch Adams.”)

Cars: Mobility, freedom, recklessness, adventure.

Darkness: Obscurity, secrecy, evil, death.

Deserted places: Clarity, spirituality, promise of adventure to come.

Domestic chores: Connectivity, caring, friendship. Especially if performed to a montage.

Escalators: Progress, ambition, smooth path to one’s goals.

Ethnic groups: Even with political correctness, this occurs. Example: Native Americans are used to symbolize spirituality, especially when juxtapositioned next to a Caucasian movie star.

Feathers (see Birds)

Fire: Destruction, danger, vitality.

Flowers: Birth, death, marriage, divorce, lust, sex, forgiveness.

Highways: The paths taken (and not taken) in our lives.

Houses: Community, unity, shelter from the storm.

Islands: Isolation, new beginnings.

Prisons: Metaphorical blindness or immobility of some kind by the protagonist.

Skyline: Endless promise; or signifies bad weather/fortune ahead.

Sports: Metaphor for how the protagonist is living his/her life.

Swimming Pools: Meanings can vary. Characters who wind up at the bottom of a pool, even alive, may symbolize inertia, or metaphorical drowning in the rest of the their life.

Trains: See Cars. Often appear at the very beginning of movies with lots of smoke billowing out. Easy way to cue the viewer that they are going on an adventure.

Trash: If shot blowing in the wind, represents hidden beauty and grace in what others find unattractive.

Trees: Birth, youth, aging, death.

Wallpaper: Symbolizes the state of the protagonist’s mind. Also shows that the protagonist will heal, if he/she is willing to peel away layers of the psyche. May also symbolize mental illness, an unraveling of the protagonist’s stability.

Weather: Good weather and bad weather also help the viewer cue in to what kind of events are going to unfold. Typically, bad stuff happens when it’s pouring or snowing out, unless the director is being ironic. Most movies set in suburbia open with a nice sunny day, usually at a time of year when all the leaves are green, the birds are chirping, etc.

Wilderness: See Deserted places and Islands.


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