A few months ago, I re-watched the suspense movie Sleeping with the Enemy. The story is about a young house wife (Julia Roberts) who fakes her death in an attempt to flee her nightmarish marriage, only to discover it’s impossible to escape her controlling husband. I still get chills thinking about it.
During one scene, the abusive husband hits Laura and she falls to the floor. She pushes herself up to a sitting position, her long red hair spilling around her shoulders, legs bent to the side. At that moment, she reminds me of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. When Laura tries to stand, after her husband leaves, her legs are shaking so badly, she resembles Ariel after the sea witch turned her into a human, and Ariel takes her first steps into the new world. In Sleeping with the Enemy, this image is symbolic foreshadowing. What her husband doesn’t know is that Laura has been learning to swim, to overcome her fear of the water. She is a mermaid, so to speak. Soon after, she fakes her death in a drowning accident and escapes to a new life. The "mermaid" scene also symbolically foreshadows Laura moving to a new world (like Ariel did). She escapes from the massive, ocean-front property on Cape Cod to a cozy house in small town Cedar Falls, Iowa. Even the style of furniture is a complete opposite between the two places.
That evening, after Laura’s husband hits her, he gives her red roses and red lingerie. They are supposed to represent his “love”, but they really symbolize the physical and emotional abuse (blood, danger) she suffers at his hands.
After Laura escapes her husband, she takes a Greyhound bus to her new destination. As it arrives, we see Laura looking out of the bus window and the reflection of the American flag waving in the breeze. The American flag symbolizes freedom and the home of the brave. It’s the perfect symbol for Laura’s courage and the new life she hopes to establish in Cedar Falls.
Symbolism works both at a conscious and unconscious level. When we read a book or watch a movie, some symbols will jump out at us, especially if the creators have done a good job drawing your attention to it. With other symbols, you won’t stop to analyze it. For example, if the scene takes place in a room with green walls, you won’t be thinking that the director wanted to reveal the subtext of life. But you can guarantee someone behind the scenes purposely picked that color because of what it symbolized, and not because it was her favorite color.
In the first season of Criminal Minds (spoiler alert), there was one episode (Compulsion) in which fire and the number three were important elements in the show. Among other things, fire represents anger and divinity (Symbols, Images, Codes: The Secret Language of Meaning in Film, TV, Games, and Visual Media by Pamela Jaye Smith). The FBI behavioral profilers eventually figure out that the unsub (i.e. the serial arsonist/murderer) was starting fires based on the need to test her victims. If they survived the fire, they were free of the wrath of God. The number three (or rather the triad of the number three) would set off the unsub. The creators could have randomly selected any number, but three (like other numbers) has a symbolic meaning. In Christianity, it represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. As the unsub lined up the three bottles of flammable liquid, before dousing her three victims with them, she made reference to the bottles as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
In the book (and movie) Where the Heart Lies, Billie Letts used a tree to represent life and growth. Pregnant seventeen-year-old Novalee (Natalie Portman) is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Walmart store. With nowhere to go (since her mother ran away with a guy years before), she secretly moves into the store. A woman (Stockard Channing) mistakes her for a young girl she once knew and gives Novalee a Welcome Wagon gift of a buckeye tree. As can be expected, the tree starts to die. Novalee tries to return it to the woman, who suggests they plant it in her garden, but only if Novalee comes by regularly to take care of it. This is the turning point in Novalee’s life (i.e. turning plot point). Ruth Ann’s actions are the first act of kindness Novalee has experienced in a while, and under the mothering of Ruth Ann, Novalee turns her life around. And of course (during the movie), we are reminded of this with regular shots of the growing tree.
In the buckeye tree example, the meaning behind the symbolism was obvious from near the beginning of the movie, and was carried throughout the story. In the Criminal Minds example, it was only obvious at the end of the show, when the behavior analysis unit solved the crimes.
Movies (and TV shows) are a great place to learn about symbolism, since the director, writers, set designers look for ways to insert it. Most of the time, we don’t notice it at a conscious level. It impacts us subconsciously. But when done well, it adds to the emotional satisfaction of the movie. If you apply the same principles to your stories, they will increase the emotional satisfaction your readers will get while reading your stories.
Do you watch for symbolism in movies and books? Do you pay attention to it in your stories?
blog/website. She is represented by Marisa Corvisiero, and finds it weird talking about herself in third person. Her debut New Adult contemporary romance TELL ME WHEN and LET ME KNOW (Carina Press, HQN) are now available.