What is an allegory? An allegory is an important part of a symbolic story. Many of us have heard the term used when describing literature or film, but how do we know what it means? We’re going to get to the bottom of those questions by looking at examples from Fight Club, Snowpiercer, and more, but first, let’s define allegory through exploring its etymology.
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What Does Allegory Mean in Cinema?
How to Define Allegory in Film
Allegories are used in storytelling to communicate something symbolic; whether it be moralistic or political. Some allegory examples in literature include the self-titled Animal Farm allegory, the setting of Metamorphosis, and the social order in 1984.
We’re going to focus on how allegories are used in cinema and literature. But before we jump into our examples let’s start with an allegory definition.
What is an allegory?
An allegory is a storytelling technique used to convey something symbolic to the audience. Unlike metaphors, which serve to symbolize something on a one-to-one basis, allegories are used in a more grand sense. A whole story can be an allegory, and be made up of many metaphors.
Characteristics of an Allegory:
- Contains beginning and end
- Has a message or moral
- Adds to a theme of the story
It might be helpful to think of allegories in this regard: a well known type of allegory is a fable.
A fable is a symbolic story that uses anthropomorphism in animals/inanimate objects to convey complex metaphors.
A parable is similar to a fable because of its brief and it focuses on didacticism – but its difference lies in how it only involves human characters.
Both fables and parables are types of allegories – simply symbolic, metaphorical stories that have an instructional purpose.
What is an Allegory and Where did it Originate?
Allegory Examples in Movies & Lit.
Now that we’ve reviewed the allegory definition, let’s take a look at some allegory examples in movies and literature.
ALLEGORY EXAMPLES IN MOVIES
- Avatar – an allegory for imperialist oppression; and how it destroys indigenous cultures and the environment.
- Metropolis – an allegory for class warfare; and the worsening divide created by industrialism.
- The Truman Show – an allegory for reality TV obsession; and how real people are dehumanized by consumer audiences.
- La Strada – an allegory for the road of life; and how in the end, we’re all swept back to the seashore.
- The Seventh Seal – an allegory for religious judgement; and the eternal battle between life and death.
- Fight Club – an allegory for consumerism; and how social expectations corrupt our sense of self.
ALLEGORY IN LITERATURE EXAMPLES
Note: some of the most famous “allegory in literature” examples are technically fables because they include anthropomorphized animals. That being said, the actionable difference in the allegory novel definition is minute; so we’re going to include the Animal Farm allegory and other examples here.
- Animal Farm – a fable/allegory for revolution; and how the pursuit of power is often feigned for idealism.
- The Lorax – a fable/allegory for deforestation; or the destruction of ecology for financial profit.
- The Trial – an allegory for bureaucracy; and how “the system” keeps “the man” down.
- The Crucible – an allegory for persecution; and how groups with power seek to disarm groups without power.
- Lord of the Flies allegory for social structure; and how humans conceal their savage ways.
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – a religious allegory for the betrayal of Christ.
What is an Allegory and Where did it Originate?
A Quick History of the Term Allegory
The word allegory was popularized in the Ancient Greek world by the philosopher Plato, who used the term to propose his famous Allegory of the Cave. This next video does a great job of touching on the word’s etymology and the cave theory’s pervading impact on philosophy and culture:
What’s an Allegory? • Plato’s Cave Theory
Check out more on Plato’s famous theory in our article on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Over the past 2,400 years, the term allegory has changed slightly in meaning, but Plato’s supposition of its importance has not.
Allegory Examples in Literature and Movies
Allegory vs. Metaphor
It can be a little tricky differentiating metaphors from allegories because the latter term directly involves the former. So how do we do it?
Well, we start with what makes them the same: allegories and metaphors are both symbolic techniques, which is a fancy way to say they both use non-literalism. What is non-literalism? Non-literalism (or figuratism) is anytime we are meant to derive meaning from something other than what an object appears to be. For example: a gravestone symbolizes death – but we only know that because of social learning. If aliens came to our planet, they probably wouldn’t connote that symbolic meaning.
In a visual sense, metaphors serve to symbolize things on a 1-to-1 basis. For example (spoilers beware for the 1941 classic Citizen Kane): Rosebud is a metaphor for forlorn desire. Allegories on the other hand serve to symbolize things in a grander sense. If Rosebud is a metaphor for forlorn desire, then the burning of Rosebud is an allegory for the loss of forlorn desire.
Let’s take a look at Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer to see how another masterclass filmmaker pulls it off.
Snowpiercer follows the story of Curtis Everret (Chris Evans) and the revolt he leads aboard the train of the same name. The train is divided into sections based on class; Curtis is in the impoverished section all the way in the back. So it’s fair to say that the train itself is a metaphor for a social caste. The setting quite literally separates people into wealth-based sections which results in varying standards of living and rampant discrimination.
This next video shows us how the setting of the train was set-up in Snowpiercer, spoilers beware:
Allegory Examples in Movies • Snowpiercer Train
So if the train is a metaphor for a discriminatory social caste, then what’s the allegory of the film? Well that can be inferred by the events of the story. Curtis is a symbolic figure of the lower-class, almost messianic in nature. His journey from the back of the train to the front is allegorical – layered in metaphors, symbolism, and subtext. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that these devices are used.The next video from Every Frame a Painting shows us how Snowpiecer director Bong Joon-ho uses the camera to convey metaphors.
Allegory Movies • Snowpiercer: Left or Right
What can we infer from the way Joon-ho frames the choices Curtis has to make? Well as the video explains, the “right” choice is a metaphor for moving forward, moving up the social caste. The “left” choice is a metaphor for looking back, expressing a connection to the place he came from.
Another major way in which Snowpiercer communicates allegory is through its production design. As we advance with Curtis up the train, we see the set dressing and wardrobing of characters transform from dirty and drab to elegant and colorful. These production decisions are often very exaggerated, which helps us to see their purpose.
Interestingly, the climax of Snowpiercer brings us back to a set that’s just as grey as the slums in the beginning, perhaps to suggest a cyclical theme, similar to that of a train that does loops around the world.
This theme aids the allegory of a social revolt’s role in bringing about the demise of class structure. So what’s an allegory used for in Snowpiercer? To show us social revolt in a non-literal way.
What is an Allegory Used For?
Breaking Down Other Types of Allegory Examples
As we alluded to earlier, both fables and parables have been used for centuries to convey metaphors in storytelling. Although these types of allegories are more prevalent in literature, they’re still sometimes used in film.
Let’s take a look at a scene from the classic Orson Welles film Mr. Arkadin to see how one of these allegory types is put to use.
Scorpion and the Frog Allegory Movies • Mr. Arkadin (Confidential Report)
What type of allegory is the “scorpion and the frog?” Since it involves two animals, it’s a fable not a parable. The more important question is: what’s the purpose of the allegory? Well, quite simply, it adds to the film’s theme of character permanence; that a person is innately “who they are” and is incapable of change. The fable of the scorpion and the frog supports this theme through metaphors. Oh, and the shot composition also makes great use of the Dutch Angle.
Now, let’s break down the use of a parable in film. This next scene shows us how filmmakers can use plot, setting, and production design to create a parable.
Allegory Movies • The Exterminating Angel Trailer
The Exterminating Angel is a story of social elites trapped inside a world of their own design. Remember, allegories are not literal. The characters in the film are not literally trapped in their own world, instead, they’re trapped in a swanky mansion.
But through plot and dialogue, we’re able to infer that this story is an allegory of class-structure.
How to Build an Allegory in Film
One film that’s chock-full of symbolic metaphors is Fight Club. From beginning to end, we see symbols that address issues of individualism, collectivism, consumerism, masochism, and all sorts of other -isms. An allegory is used to bind these -isms together.
We imported the Fight Club screenplay into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software to take a look at how writer Jim Uhls uses dialogue to communicate these issues. As you’re reading, think about how dialogue is used to speak to a greater symbolic point.
What’s an Allegory? • Fight Club Screenplay
The scene begins with a statement on masochism, with Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) saying “a woman could always cut off your penis while you’re sleeping and toss it out of a moving car” so as to ironically say “it could always be worse.”
Then the Narrator (Edward Norton) breaks into a diatribe on consumerism, saying “I had it all... I had a wardrobe that was getting very respectable. I was close to being complete.”
Durden disputes the Narrator’s idea of consumerism, saying “We are consumers, we are byproducts of a lifestyle obsession.”
Check out how this rejectionist perspective is visualized by David Fincher:
Fight Club • Insomnia Allegory Novel Definition
The Narrator is completely debilitated by his obsession with consumerism. Ultimately, he becomes enslaved to this obsession, which partly incites the creation of his alter-ego Tyler Durden.
Now, with these issues visualized and verbalized, Fight Club is ready to allegorize them into an instructional story.
Fight Club is very much about the destruction of consumerism, epitomized by violent acts committed against the wealthy. It’s also about an idealization of collectivism. The Narrator is a character who feels isolated, excluded, and out of favor with society. That is until he starts “fight club” and finds the fraternity he was so desperately looking for. But when “fight club” is contorted to Project Mayhem, he reverts back to his primal, outsider tendencies. Let’s take a look at how this realization comes together in the film: Here we see the Narrator race to stop the mayhem he helped create.
Fight Club • Project Mayhem
All of this comes together to bind themes and metaphors to create an allegory of deconstructionist anarchy. In anarchy, everything is thrust into chaos. Fight Club deconstructs themes of consumerism and collectivism with metaphors conveyed in dialogue, production design, and camera tricks.It’s all deeply involved, but by studying the essential aspects of Fight Club, we see how an allegory is told with the elements of filmmaking.
What is a Metaphor?
Allegories are comprised of symbols and metaphors -- AKA things that represent other than what they literally are. In this next article, we break down what a metaphor is and how it’s used by screenwriters for expert effect.