What is an allegory? Many of us have heard the term used when describing literature or film, but how do we know what it means? For writers, bringing allegory into their work is an excellent opportunity to add layers of meaning. 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.
Tools For Screenwriters
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 in The Scarlet Letter, and the social order in 1984.
We’re going to focus on how allegories are used in cinema. 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
- Can add to a story's theme
It might be helpful to think of allegories in this regard: a well-known type of allegory is a fable. Fables are symbolic stories that use anthropomorphism in animals and inanimate objects to convey complex metaphors. Parables are similar to fables due to their brevity and focus on didacticism, but only involve human characters.
Both fables and parables are types of allegories — simply symbolic, metaphorical stories that have an instructional purpose.
What is an Allegory?
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 impact on philosophy and culture:
Over the past 2,400 years, the term allegory has changed slightly in meaning, but Plato’s supposition of its importance has not.
Let's continue our allegory definition with the difference between allegory and metaphor.
Allegory Examples in Literature and Movies
Allegory vs metaphor
It can be a little tricky differentiating metaphor from allegories because the latter term directly involves the former. So, how do we do it? Let’s take a look at Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer to see how a masterclass filmmaker pulls it off.
Snowpiercer follows the story of Curtis (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:
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. This video shows how Bong Joon-ho uses the camera to convey metaphors.
What can we infer from the way Bong 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 and a connection to where 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 motif, 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.
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.
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 then 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:
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 on 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.
All of this comes together to bind themes and metaphors together to create an allegory of deconstructionist anarchy. In anarchy, everything is thrust into chaos, much like it is by the end of Fight Club. The film also 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 really see how an allegory can be told with filmmaking.
What is an Allegory Used For?
Different 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 types is put to use.
What type of allegory is this story? Since it involves two animals, it’s a fable not a parable. The more important question is: what’s the purpose of this 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. 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.
The Exterminating Angel is a parabolic 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 on class-structure and imprisonment.
How screenwriters use metaphor
Allegories are comprised of symbols and metaphors — i.e., things that represent other than what they literally are. In this next article, we break down how metaphor works just as well as allegory and how it can be used by screenwriters for maximum effect.