Symbolism in Film. Meaning, Definition & Examples.


Definition: Symbolism is a literary and artistic technique where symbols are used to represent ideas or qualities beyond their literal meaning. These symbols, often objects, characters, or colors, convey deeper meanings and emotions, allowing for a more complex and nuanced interpretation of the work.

Symbolism in movies is used to convey deeper meanings, emotions, and insights without explicitly stating them.

Symbolism involves the use of symbols to represent ideas beyond their literal meaning.

The Many ways Symbolism appears in Movies (with examples)

Symbolism is used in movies in many different ways. Below you can see some of the most common approaches to integrating symbolism along with examples:

Color Symbolism

Color can be used to symbolize emotions, ideas, or character traits.

Example: In “Schindler’s List” (1993), the use of color is predominantly black and white, but a little girl is seen in a red coat.

The red coat symbolizes innocence amidst the horror of the Holocaust and also serves to draw the viewer’s attention to the individual tragedy within the mass suffering.

Nature and Weather

Nature elements like rain, fog, or seasons, and weather conditions can symbolize characters’ emotional states or foreshadow events.

Example: In “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), when Andy Dufresne escapes from prison, it is pouring rain. The rain symbolizes purification and rebirth as he washes away his past and emerges free.

Objects or Props

Specific items in films can hold symbolic meaning related to the theme or characters.

Example: In “Inception” (2010), the spinning top is a significant symbol. It represents the main character’s (Cobb’s) struggle with distinguishing reality from dreams, serving as his personal totem to test if he’s dreaming.


Animals can symbolize various themes such as freedom, loyalty, or danger.

Example: In “The Godfather” (1972), the horse’s head placed in a movie producer’s bed symbolizes the Mafia’s power and their willingness to use violence to achieve their aims. The horse itself, a prized possession, symbolizes wealth and status.

Architecture and Setting

The location, buildings, or setting can symbolize the emotional state or the societal status of characters.

Example: In “Parasite” (2019), the contrast between the Park family’s luxurious, spacious house on a hill and the Kim family’s cramped, semi-basement home symbolizes the stark class divide and social inequality.

Light and Shadow

Light and darkness direct the viewers where to look. But the use of lighting can also symbolize good and evil, reality and illusion, or convey a particular mood.

Example: In “Citizen Kane” (1941) Orson Welles masterfully uses light and shadow to symbolize the isolation and complexity of Charles Foster Kane. The use of shadows, especially in scenes depicting Kane’s vast but empty mansion, Xanadu, symbolizes his isolation and loneliness despite his wealth.

Sound and Music

Sound effects and musical scores can symbolize unspoken thoughts, looming danger, or a character’s internal state.

Example: In “Jaws” (1975), the iconic two-note musical motif symbolizes the impending danger of the shark attack. The simplicity and repetitiveness of the sound create a sense of dread and foreboding.


Character names can have symbolic meanings, reflecting their personality, fate, or thematic significance.

Example: In “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), the character Atticus Finch symbolizes moral integrity and justice. His name, Atticus, is associated with a historical figure known for his wisdom and morality, while Finch, a small bird, could symbolize his role as a protector of the innocent.


Numbers can hold symbolic significance, often related to cultural, religious, or thematic elements.

Example: In “The Matrix” (1999), the number 101 is symbolic; Neo’s apartment is number 101, which can be interpreted as a nod to George Orwell’s “1984,” where Room 101 is the place of ultimate torture. It symbolizes Neo’s torturous journey towards the truth.

These examples show how symbolism in movies can add layers of meaning, enrich the narrative, and create subtext.

How Symbolism is used to create Subtext in Film (with examples)

symbolism and subtext in film. An illustration of an iceberg with text above water and subtext below the surface indicating that there's much more to a text and movie than meets the eye.

Symbolism can be used to create subtext in a movie, and it is a common technique employed by filmmakers to add depth and layers of meaning to their storytelling.

For instance, in a movie, a recurring motif of a wilting flower might symbolize the decline of a character’s hope or the deterioration of a relationship.

Similarly, the use of color can serve as symbolism; for example, red might symbolize love, danger, or anger, depending on the context within the narrative.

The setting can also act as a symbol; a decaying urban landscape might symbolize the decay of societal values or the internal turmoil of a character.

Read more about the meaning of subtext in film.

Here are a few examples from movies:

The Shawshank Redemption (1994): Jake the Crow

The bird named Jake represents hope and freedom within the confines of Shawshank Prison.

For Brooks, the elderly prisoner, Jake symbolizes the possibility of a life beyond bars, albeit one he ultimately can’t adjust to.

For Red, the bird reflects the idea of renewal and the potential for a new life outside the prison walls. As he says in the denouement:

“Sometimes it makes me sad though, Andy being gone, I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged; their feathers are just too bright […]”

– Red (Morgan Freeman)

Fight Club (1999): Soap made from Stolen Human Fat and Starbucks coffee cups

Soap symbolizes both purification and the cleansing of society’s materialistic values.

Tyler Durden’s creation of soap made from human fat stolen from liposuction clinics is a dark commentary on consumer culture—turning society’s excess into a tool for its destruction.

This dual symbolism reflects the film’s rebirth themes and consumerism critique.

Also, Starbucks cups symbolize the main characters’ constant insomnia and rampant consumerism.

Jurassic Park (1993): The seatbelt metaphor for life finds a way

In one of the opening scenes, when Dr. Grant is given a seatbelt, we learn that it has two “female” connections, making it unable to click together properly.

Instead of being an issue for him, Dr. Grant ties the seatbelt together, which harkens back to an earlier speech by Dr. Malcolm, in which he said that “life will find a way.”

This all ties into then the main problem of the movie, where the dinosaurs in the park manage to breed and escape because of a mistake made during the cloning process when frog DNA was added.

American Beauty (1999): Red Roses

The red rose symbolizes beauty, desire, and the attempt to maintain appearances.

It appears throughout the film, notably in scenes involving Carolyn, Lester’s wife, who is obsessed with the appearance of their family’s life.

The roses also appear in Lester’s fantasies about Angela, symbolizing his desire for youth and escape from his mundane existence.

The pervasive presence of roses underscores the film’s exploration of the superficial pursuit of beauty in American suburbia.

The Godfather (1972): Oranges

Oranges are an unusual but significant symbol throughout the film, often appearing before a death or a violent scene.

This recurring motif begins with Vito Corleone buying oranges just before an assassination attempt.

The presence of oranges in scenes that precede violence serves as a foreboding sign, adding tension and a layer of symbolism related to the fragility of life amidst power struggles.

The connection between Metaphors and Symbolism

metaphors and symbolism in film. An old broken clock symbolizing the decay through time. Illustrative image.

Not all metaphors are used as symbols. However, metaphors can symbolically convey deeper meanings beyond their literal interpretation.

When a metaphor is used symbolically, the symbolic image or concept represents something beyond itself.

For example, a journey might be described as a physical journey from one place to another and as a metaphor for personal growth, change, or self-discovery.

In this sense, the journey (metaphor) symbolizes the process of transformation or the path of life (symbolism).

Read more about the different types of methaphors in movies (with examples).


Symbolism in the film allows screenwriters, directors, and cinematographers to create subtext and use metaphors to weave deeper meaning into the narrative and visuals.

Symbolism transforms ordinary objects, colors, and settings into significant elements, enriching the story and character arcs.

Through symbolism, you can communicate themes and emotions subtly, inviting your audience to interpret and connect with the film on both a personal and intellectual level.

Up Next: How to Create Subtext in Movies.


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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