Script Symbology

The upcoming column in Script Magazine called Script Symbology is about the study and application of symbols and symbolism to scripts. While there are so-called movie symbologists (Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code comes to mind) to our knowledge there exists no ongoing research, discussion or study of the application of symbols and symbolism to modern scripts.

symbologySuch study, discussion and application are long overdue. In much the way that the mythology theories of Joseph Campbell have found application to screenwriting with spectacular results, symbolism theories might find application with similar results. But so far, this has not happened. Although Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes is well known and used in script structure, his theories of symbols have yet to find systematic application to scripts.

Some leading screenplay gurus do make reference to symbols in their theories on screenplay method and structure. For example, John Truby in The Anatomy of Story has a chapter called “Symbol Web” that is probably one of the best discussions on the application of symbolism to screenplays by weaving them into the “web” of the story. However, Robert McKee in Story gives symbols far less importance in relegating them to a small section called “Image Systems” at the end of his book.

This is not to say that symbols and symbolism have not found application in some of the most successful scripts and films of history. A few famous film symbols come immediately to mind: the Rosebud sled in Citizen Kane; the birds in Hitchcock’s The Birds and the green light in The Great Gatsby.

However, more often than not, powerful symbols in films make just one or two appearances in the film and are not part of any system of symbolism with little connection to overall narrative structure. It is relatively easy to place symbols in films but far more difficult to give them dynamic life and growth through the narrative so they reveal character and illustrate theme as only great symbols can do. And finally, there is an increasing trend to point film symbols away from the demands of the script altogether and towards outside products in order to serve the economics of product placement more than story development.

Before we get too far along, it is important to clarify the subjects of our investigation by defining what is meant by symbols and symbolism. It is not an easy task as their definitions have changed through history.

Symbols

The Webster Dictionary defines a symbol as “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance.” The dictionary adds symbols are “especially a visible sign of something invisible.” For example, a lion stands for the invisible quality of courage. Or, the Rosebud sled (in Citizen Kane) stands for the lost innocence of childhood.

Still, finding a useful contemporary definition of symbols is not an easy task because – as Carl Jung observes – they vary with the spirit of the times. As Jung notes in The Psychology of Transference (1946) “The primordial images undergo ceaseless transformation and yet remain ever the same, but only in a new form can they be understood anew.”

In effect, the outward manifestation of symbols change just as human communication changes. For the ancients, symbols communicated original, natural things mankind observed in the world such as the changing cycles of life. For them, symbols represented the beginnings and endings of seasons, movement in the heavens and the various Gods and Goddesses that controlled life. Later in history, symbols moved away from natural phenomena and came to be associated with cultural creations like religions, politics and nation states. An example of some of the changes from ancient symbols into contemporary symbols is illustrated by Figure A below.

symbol figure a

Figure A:
Change From Ancient Symbols Into Contemporary Symbols

A large change took place in the modern world with the recognition that symbols do not have to find representation exclusively in the outward world of culture but can represent internal states. The internal migration of symbols was originally the province of artists in events like the French symbolist movement of the late nineteenth century. Yet the psychoanalytic movement of the twentieth century showed that symbols were not the exclusive province of art and artists but of everyone in their dreams and unconsciousness. The relationship of symbols to unconsciousness was certainly one of the leading discoveries of Freud and Jung.

Today, this connection of symbols between the inner and outer world has been obscured because the avalanche of external things have had the effect of burying the internal world under it. Like those hoarders we watch on the reality television show, modern cultural has become a hoarder of things and objects.

Of course these “hoarded” symbols appear in scripts and films most often as brands yanked into the story to ensure income from product placement. The days of meaningful symbols in films, represented largely by wartime propaganda films and early Russian, German and French filmmakers is for the most part a thing of the past. In rare instances, modern film symbols attempt to reestablish a connection to the inner world of characters through symbols. For the most part, modern film symbols are little more than objects representing products in the outside world rather than gateways to inside the inside world of characters. Symbols from Madison Avenue and Hollywood are less interested in representing internal characters states than inducing outward product purchases.

Is it possible to recapture the old inward direction of symbols as visible external signs of invisible psychic states and apply these symbols to films? And, if it is possible to do this, is it a worthwhile effort? In effect, will it help scriptwriters create more powerful stories?

We think it is possible to recover this old power of symbols and feel that once this is understood and applied, new types of scripts will be generated that possess power and influence far beyond the current offerings of Hollywood films that use symbols more as sales agents for products than psychic tools for exploring the depths of character.

Symbolism

True symbols do not exist by themselves but rather as elements within a dynamic system possessing laws of movement and change. In this sense, symbols within this system might be seen as planets within a planetary system or elements – like characters, setting and scenes – within the system of a film script.

Understanding the system of symbols in scripts is one of the great challenges of this area we term script symbology. More often than not, scripts and their resulting films are filled with symbols that exist alone and simply come and go mainly for the benefit of product placement rather than story development. The result leads to scripts full of superficial symbols thrown together like passengers on a bus, coming and going without any overall plan. The final script might be filled with symbols yet possessed with little symbolism.

In future columns we will further explore what symbols are and their dynamics within scripts and show how they operate within the system of symbolism. The ancient form of storytelling called mythology has found expression in modern scriptwriting. It is time that the ancient language of images called symbolism also finds expression in modern storytelling.

(Note: The subject of symbols and symbolism is explored in greater length in our book Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication. It can be found in the Books section on our symbolism site at www.symbolism.org.)

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