4 Famous Movies With Deceptively Complex Symbolism

I know you're reading this article online. And I know it's in list form and features at least a couple of well-known movies, but this is not a normal Internet article, because today we're talking literary devices. Y'know, those things you ignored in high school English class? Don't be scared. A "literary device" is really just a fancy phrase for a storytelling trick -- things like foreshadowing, metaphor, and unreliable narrators are all just writers' tools.

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This is another writer's tool, but I already wrote that column.

My favorite literary device is a very specific form of symbolism. How specific? Well, I'm pretty sure it doesn't have a name. It's when a symbol transforms to represent redemption. The object that best reflects the protagonist's sin or obstacle is repurposed to represent redemption. Do you follow? No?

Yeah, it's very hard to explain in a vacuum. Examples help, and to make sure you don't leave this article for a list of the best breasts in science fiction, I'll try to illustrate my point with movies instead of books.

So here are four movies that define my favorite, previously unnamed literary device: the "Trans-Redemptive Symbol."

Yep. The Trans-Redemptive Symbol. When you find it, you get to name it!

#4. The Bottle Flask in Children of Men

In 2006, Alfonso Cuaron made my favorite of his films: Children of Men, a science fiction thriller about a world where there are no children. For reasons unknown, the entire world is barren, and civilization faces constant nihilistic rebellion. Only the UK, by imposing martial law, has maintained order.

The First Appearance: Drunken Apathy

Clive Owen plays Theo Faron, a former activist who has become a drunken bureaucrat. Since the death of his son and subsequent divorce, he no longer cares about society. From his first introduction into the film, he carries a flask-shaped liquor bottle.

Booze starts his day because he simply doesn't care anymore. He doesn't want to feel. He doesn't want to be a part of anything. Faron is even indifferent to the reports of the world's youngest person dying at the place where he gets his coffee. And he only wants the coffee so he can add booze to it.

Finally, something to get rid of that char-burnt Starbucks taste.

The Trans-Redemptive Symbol: Compassion and Action

Later in the movie, Theo gets drawn into a resistance movement -- that he must also flee -- as he safeguards the life of perhaps the only pregnant woman on the planet. When that woman goes into labor, Theo must help deliver the child in a filthy room, and does his best to create a sanitary environment. After a quick wash, he pours out his liquor bottle to sterilize his hands.

When Theo did not care about others, the flask-shaped liquor bottle represented drunk indifference, but as he becomes involved, that same object transforms to a symbol of compassion. It represents charity and commitment. One object, with two symbolic meanings.

Booze: perfect for medical procedures.

I should also note that while my descriptions sound somewhat hamfisted, the movie is incredibly subtle. If you watch the embeds, you see the appearance of the flask is obscured in both scenes. Cuaron doesn't hit you over the head with this. Like all good symbolism, it's only articulating whats it represents that makes it sound corny.

#3. Christopher Lloyd's Clipboard in The Dream Team

Hey, remember that Michael Keaton movie The Dream Team? No? Oh. Hmm, wait, pretend you're over 30. Remember that Michael Keaton movie The Dream Team? Yeah, me too. What a fun '80s movie.

Anyway, the movie is about a bunch of mental patients who take a trip to New York City and end up having to solve the murder of their therapist. Keaton has anger management issues, Peter Boyle thinks he's the messiah, and Christopher Lloyd has some sort of obsessive-compulsive disorder where he must control all his activities. He carries a clipboard.

The First Appearance: Obsessive-Compulsive/Controlling Behavior

Please don't correct my diagnosis with some recitation of the DSM-V, but basically, Christopher Lloyd must control and organize all situations. And that behavior is symbolized by the clipboard that he carries everywhere. He carries it even though, at this point in the movie, he is unemployed and dysfunctional. He has no actual responsibilities.

The Trans-Redemptive Symbol: Love and Letting Go

I don't have a clip, but later in the movie, Christopher Lloyd's character visits his wife and daughter, who he's not seen since being institutionalized. His daughter shows him her drawings. They're messy, and Lloyd gives her his clipboard to help her organize them. Yes, the initial impulse is to organize clutter, but in giving away the clipboard, he is giving up his attempts at control. The interaction with a loved one has helped cure him. His illness has been tempered by love.

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