Definition: An allusion is a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing, or idea of historical, cultural, literary, or political significance. Allusions enrich the narrative, evoke emotions, or invite comparisons in movies, subtly connecting the story to broader themes or familiar concepts without explicit explanation.
Incorporating allusions in movies enhances the narrative, allowing directors to add layers and connections through nods to other creations, cultural elements, or significant historical moments.
However, using too many or too obscure references might confuse viewers who aren’t in the know, possibly affecting their comprehension and appreciation of the movie.
Here are examples of allusion in film:
“The Lion King” (1994)
Allusion: Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
This Disney classic is widely recognized for its allusion to Shakespeare’s tragedy, “Hamlet.”
The story of Simba mirrors the journey of Hamlet, dealing with themes of revenge, the quest for justice, and the struggle for the throne after the murder of the king by a close family member.
See more about themes in movies.
Allusion: Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
This science-fiction epic directed by Christopher Nolan uses the famous poem by Dylan Thomas as an allusion to the human spirit’s resilience and the fight against the dying of the light, which, in the film’s context, is the impending doom of Earth and humanity.
“The Matrix” (1999)
Allusion: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The Wachowskis’ seminal work alludes to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” numerous times, most notably through Morpheus offering Neo the choice between a red pill and a blue pill, mirroring Alice’s choice to venture into an unknown world.
The line, “Follow the white rabbit,” directly references Alice’s journey, symbolizing Neo’s entry into the real world of the Matrix.
Read more on symbolism in movies.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979)
Allusion: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”
Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic directly alludes to Conrad’s novel about the darkness within man and the journey into the unknown.
The film transposes the setting from Africa to Vietnam but retains the core themes of madness, imperialism, and the exploration of the human psyche.
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000)
Allusion: Homer’s “The Odyssey”
This comedy-drama by the Coen Brothers alludes to Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.”
The film follows three escaped convicts searching for treasure but instead finding a series of odd and fantastical occurrences, mirroring the adventures of Odysseus as he tries to return home to Ithaca.
Allusion: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur
Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” alludes to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, with the dream layers acting as the labyrinth and Ariadne (named after the character in the myth who helps Theseus navigate the labyrinth) as the architect who designs the dreamscapes.
The story’s structure is influenced by Joseph Campbell’s notion of the Hero’s Journey, a common template in mythology.
The difference between Allusion and Intertextuality
Now, you might think that allusion sounds awfully similar to intertextuality.
However, they function differently and serve different purposes within analysis:
- Allusion: used primarily to evoke associations and enrich the meaning of a text. The purpose is often to pay homage, critique, or add meaning to a text.
- The reader must recognize the reference to add depth to the reading experience.
- Intertextuality: texts are part of a network of texts, and their meanings are derived from their relationships within this network.
- Operates on the premise that texts are interwoven, and understanding comes from recognizing these connections, whether or not the reader explicitly identifies them.
While allusion and intertextuality share common ground in referencing other texts, they differ in their scope, purpose, and the degree to which the reader must be aware of and understand the referenced material to appreciate the new work.
While allusion in film enriches narratives and deepens viewer engagement by drawing on shared cultural knowledge, it risks alienating audiences unfamiliar with the references.
As a screenwriter or director, you need to be careful in the implementation of allusion to ensure it enhances storytelling without compromising the film’s accessibility and universal appeal.
Up Next: What is Allegory in Film?