Storytellers have been using literary allusion for thousands of years – Sophocles, for example, used Greek mythological allusion in Antigone way back in 441 BC. But while the device is a crucial element of literature and drama, it’s not always easy to recognize types of allusion or understand how they are used. Exactly what is an allusion?
This article will illuminate the purpose of allusion, then illustrate allusion examples in movies — including historical allusion and literary allusion. Examples include emphasizing themes, engaging readers and viewers, and connecting a script to the larger world.
Tools For Screenwriters
What does allusion mean?
There are many literary devices available to screenwriters, including symbolism, metaphor, and paradox. Another equally useful device, allusion, creates connections between the real and the fictional; between the audience and other works of art.
After we provide an allusion definition, we will look at some iconic allusion examples in movies that you probably missed completely. With a firm grasp of this literary device, you can bring this same connectivity to your own work.
What is an Allusion?
An allusion is an implied or indirect reference to something, used either in general discussion, or within a text — a novel, play, movie, song, TV show, video game, or even a T-shirt. For example, a T-shirt emblazoned with, “Did I do that?” is alluding to a famous quote from the popular '90s sitcom, Family Matters. Anyone familiar with the show will understand the allusion meaning, as will many people who have simply heard the quote alluded to in other popular culture contexts.
Types of Allusion:
- Historical allusion
- Literary allusion
- Mythological allusion
- Pop cultural allusion
- Biblical allusion
Writers have been making these kinds of references in drama and literature for millennia. Among some of the most prominent practitioners include Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Jane Austen, and Herman Melville.
How to Be Allusive
What is the purpose of allusion?
What is an allusion but an opportunity to add layers of meaning to your script? It is almost a language in itself — a kind of shorthand — that writers use for a number of reasons, including to:
- Make connections and to establish meaning quickly.
- Pay homage to an influence or source of inspiration.
- Establish context within a story world.
- Achieve thematic resonance with other works.
- Give readers and viewers the pleasure of making connections and figuring out story meaning without having it spelled out.
These references have become more prevalent in media and popular culture as media content consumers demand texts that allude more and more densely to other works. The texts within any given IP (Star Wars, for example) often allude to each other not only for the purposes listed above, but also to flatter fans of the IP by acknowledging their expertise, and in doing so forge a connection with them.
Context and Meaning
Establish context with allusion
Most movies make historical allusions because they are set in the real world. They allude to familiar people, places, things, and events as a way to provide context and a sense of realism. Some movies, however, are more pointed in their historical allusion, pointing to history as a way of commenting on it.
Citizen Kane, for example, chronicles the life of Charles Foster Kane, a fictionalized version of the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst as a way to criticize Hearst’s life and business practices. Early on, the film includes a fake newsreel about Kane that is allusive to many events in the life of Hearst.
Allusion examples include Heart’s castle in California; his huge art collection; the San Francisco earthquake and fire; women’s suffrage; and prohibition. There is also a literary allusion to Samuel Colridge. We brought the Citizen Kane screenplay into StudioBinder's screenwriting software so we could look at the scene as written.
True to form, most of these allusion examples are not directly explained. The screenwriter assumes that the viewer will be familiar with them.
Types of Allusion
Use allusion as commentary
The original Star Trek television series often alluded to Cold War events of the 1960s as a way of commenting on them, specifically to condemn war. The final film adapted from the original series, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, is particularly allusive.
It continues the tradition of Star Trek Cold War references like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It also makes many literary allusions, particularly to works by Shakespeare (e.g., “the undiscovered country” is a line from Hamlet).
This scene contains allusions to the Cold War; Hitler; Hamlet; Henry IV, Part II; Brave New World; and even a nod to another film: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).
The screenwriters’ purpose in creating these allusion examples is to connect the Star Trek story world to our own as a way of commenting on it. The writers also mean to show that the characters in Star Trek live in a world that actively remembers its past.
Allude to literature in your script
As seen in the examples above, literary allusion is very common in movies. Many films are adapted from literature, either closely — such as Gone with the Wind (1939) — or indirectly, via a contemporary remake.
The teen comedy Clueless (1995), for example, is one long literary allusion. It depends almost entirely on its source material — Jane Austen’s 1815 novel Emma — for meaning, and alludes to the novel and its characters in almost every scene.
Shakespeare, meanwhile, has been alluded to in thousands of films, in addition to Star Trek VI. Here are 10 more Shakespeare allusion examples in movies, including The Bad Sleep Well (1960), Forbidden Planet (1954), and Strange Brew (1983).
Screenwriters should be in command of many other traditionally literary concepts and devices. Follow the links to become more familiar with the role of subtext, irony, and deus ex machina in screenwriting.
Allusions in Movies
Write cinematic allusions
Finally, movies often allude to other movies for the reasons we discussed above, especially to pay homage to an influence or source of inspiration, and to echo them thematically. Logan (2017), for example, alludes to the classic Western Shane (1953).
As a fan of Shane, as well as of the Western genre, Logan director and co-writer James Mangold wanted to pay homage to the film. The films’ endings even mirror each other, as Laura quotes Shane.
Mangold has alluded to Shane throughout Logan, both directly, with clips from the film and quoted dialogue; and indirectly, by alluding to Western tropes and themes.
In particular, the writer/director wanted Logan to allude to Shane’s themes about the caustic nature of violence on the soul.
Make your references subtle
Shane is alluded to directly in Logan, but often cinematic references to other movies are deliberately subtle, allowing viewers the pleasure of discovering the connection on their own. An example comes at the end of Blade Runner 2049, when the “Replicant” Agent K is dying on the snow-covered steps outside the memory lab.
This is meant to allude to the climactic death scene from the original Blade Runner. Both scenes come after the dying character has achieved an inner peace. The scene from the original also contains several Biblical allusions — to Jesus on the cross, and to Noah’s dove.
The reference in the scene to the original Blade Runner is fairly obvious to anyone who has seen both films. A less obvious reference is to the final scene of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), in which a dying bureaucrat takes his last breaths, perched on a swing in the softly falling snow.
K and the Japanese bureaucrat have made difficult choices they feel have made their lives worthwhile. Both revel in final moments of peace and purpose.