Symbols and Motifs in Film

Symbols and Motifs in Film

A countdown of four Symbols and Motifs in film and what they can represent. These tools can add subtle meaning to plot, giving the story line deeper significance.

1. A Child’s doll

 Usually found by an opposing side after a battle, a child’s doll epitomises the destruction of innocence and unfairness of war. Found in Mulan, Oz: The Great and Powerful and many others, the discovery of this terrible injustice always motivates the hero into action to save the day.ajbassasasas

2. Mirrors

Used in countless films as a cinematic technique or an indication of character development. The use of a mirror has many purposes, including:

  • A tool for self reflection in the face of challenging moral decisionsKxnax
  • To indicate a character’s mental deterioration and descent into madness- think Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
  • Vanity (duh), Most famous is The Evil Queen’s catchphrase in Snow White, but even James Bond has to check he’s looking fresh.kk
  • A tool to build suspense in horror films (Hitchcock’s Vertigo, also Evil aksnasDead 2) and for interesting shootouts in The Lady From Shanghai and The Man with the Golden Gun.
  • Comedy- The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup where Groucho must pretend to be Harpo’s reflection- Classic slapstick.
  • The pep talk, involves convincing self of worth in face of challenging circumstances, includes Cool Runnings, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

For a mashup of Film’s greatest mirror scenes, see here:

2. Birds

Let’s dissect the three possible meanings of birds in film:

  • Freedom and Escapehvv

Children’s film often highlight the connection between freedom and birds such as in Aladdin, where a trapped Jasmin releases her birds from her aviary and watches them fly away.

  • Insanity / Evil

birdspaintingsHitchcock is a big fan of Birds in film, as explained in this article: “If Psycho uses birds to hint at fear and death, then The Birds is the physical manifestation of these ideas”. While The Birds depicts the sadistic violence and terror of the animal attacks, Psycho links birds to psychopathy by illustrating Norman bates’ obsession with them, through his collection of stuffed birds. The presence of birds can often be an indicator of evilness, particularly in Pirate stories like Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan and Treasure Island.

  • Power

Be it the Eagles The Lord of the Rings or Fawkes in Harry Potter, there’s something about birds that conveys power and importance.

4. Trees

ferngully1treeTrees are obvious representations of Nature and thus the destruction of trees reflect the decline of the Natural world due to the evils of deforestation and urbanity. This is conveyed clearly through the terrifying “children’s” film FernGully: The Last Rainforest.


Trees can be catalysts in story lines, and so too can the personification of them. As discussed here, Disney uses trees as character/motifs in films like Pocahontas, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. The personification of the forest in Disney’s first feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made way for the apple-throwing creatures of The Wizard of Oz.

Additionally, a common cinematic technique is a time lapse of the changing of the seasons, conveyed through the life cycle of a Tree (eg Womping Willow). This depiction of time passing can be seen in New Moon in the Twilight Series during Bella’s depression.

These symbols and motifs are just some of the many that exist that contribute to the deep and intricate nature of visual storytelling.

Did I miss any?

Jo Bradley


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s