What is Visual Metaphor in Film?

Science has it that the human mind tends to lean more towards visuals. It processes up to 60,000 times faster what it sees than what it reads. It’s no wonder filmmakers are tapping into the power of visual metaphors to captivate audiences. 

In fact, ads these days are full of them in order to create strong reactions from viewers. 

But what are visual metaphors?

We’ll illustrate with a few examples from popular movies.

Before we get to that though let’s start with a few fundamentals. 

A metaphor is a manner of figuratively putting an idea across without necessarily saying or implying it directly. It passes a hidden meaning without revealing what is meant outright.

In this article, I espoused the importance of using subtext in screenplays. Audiences despise  cliche plots and on-the-nose dialogue. They can smell that a mile away.

Instead, you need to challenge your viewers. Show them something they’ve never seen before. Challenge their biases and preconceptions about the world, the universe and morality.

Our perception of the world and ingrained beliefs allow us to understand visual metaphors.

A visual metaphor is a creative way of doing that through images using association, analogy, among other means.  It can also be done with the application of color theory.

Filmmakers use visual metaphors in cinema to question reality, attack stereotypes, and incite the audience to question what they accept as the norm. It is a powerful tool that creatives use to get past the red tapes of censorship and connect with viewers.  

In simpler terms, visual metaphors are used to pass messages to audiences in a disguised manner. The communicated information may not be obvious at first glance. 

It takes a little bit of figuring out to understand what the writer was really trying to say. 

Examples of visual metaphors in cinema

Visual metaphors in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

The Harry Potter films are a treasure trove of visual metaphors.

J.K. Rowling, the creative mind behind the award-winning books that inspired the movie franchise, is heralded as the “queen of symbolism.” 

The Mirror of Erised and the protagonist’s glaring scar on his forehead, are the tip of the iceberg of visual metaphors. 

All these elements are useful to the storyline. One would think nothing of them beyond what they mean or are needed for the story. However, a deeper look reveals there’s much more than meets the eye.

Let’s start with Harry’s Scar.

Lord Voldemort, the main antagonist of the franchise, tried to kill Harry when he was a baby. The failed attempt resulted in a scar, shaped like a little lightning bolt, at the top of his face. 

The killing curse he used on baby Harry didn’t work because of his mother’s love and sacrifice. Some interpretations allude to the fact that his scar references Zeus, the leader of the Olympian gods. The mark makes Harry stand out, clearly setting him apart from the rest. 

Like Zeus, Harry grows into a leadership role throughout the movies. 

The scar is also a constant reminder of a parent’s love and the lengths one would go to for their children.  

If someone gazes upon the Mirror of Erised they see their hearts most desperate and deepest desire. According to the words of Dumbledore. Harry, an orphan, sees his parents standing beside him. 

As he explains what it does, the wizard further adds that the mirror offers neither truth or knowledge. He cautions young Harry that many have wasted away in its fantasies.

The mirror is a symbolism of the dangers of intense desire, and, in Harry’s case, how one can get stuck in the past. How we can get lost in it until we forget to live.

Godzilla, The Hiroshima Metaphor

Gojira first appeared on the big screen in 1954 to a Japanese audience. At a time when monster movies like King Kong were conquering cinemas in the US, Godzilla seemed like a cinematic reply to the growing niche.

But that was not the case. It is believed that the world’s most famous dinosaur (or overgrown lizard?) is actually a powerful metaphor for the catastrophic events of close to 8 decades ago.

In 1945, August 6th, Hiroshima woke up to a nuclear apocalypse. An atomic bomb brought devastating destruction to the city, claiming lives and cityscape in a never-seen-before chapter of warfare.

Countless died, a flourishing town was blasted back to its foundations, and the country was in a state of panic and desperation. The sight of the city afterward was harrowing beyond words.

Less than ten years after, in stepped Godzilla, a monster film about a kaiju with an atomic breath. It could harness nuclear power from within and channel it out as a radioactive beam.

The monster levels an entire city, leaving infernos and immense destruction in its wake. Many believe the 1954 Godzilla was a metaphor for the attacking forces and their unrivaled nuclear power. 

Godzilla was unstoppable. He was chaos incarnate. Just like the invading forces. The gigantic monster and the havoc it wrecks was the Japanese perspective of the nuclear holocaust.

Visual metaphors in the Truman Show

The Truman Show is about the scripted life of Truman Burbank. Unaware that the world around him is staged and broadcasted as a TV show to a global audience, Truman leads a life he believes to be his own. 

The 1998 epic is filled with visual metaphors across the course of its plotline. One that stands out most is the exit door at the end.


When Truman realizes what’s going on, he wants out. A stairway connects his movie world with the outside one that he desires. As he reaches the top and the exit door, the director asks if he really wishes to leave. 

The latter argues that he has nothing to fear in the fictional world, while the real one is rife with actual danger. Truman poses for a moment to consider, says his signature goodbye line on the show, and walks out the door amid great cheers from the viewers.

The door signifies a choice for the character: he can continue living in bliss, a life where everything is fake. Or he can take his chances and experience the authenticity of the world in its unadulterated form. Sometimes, it can seem easier to continue on a comfortable path.

Change can be unpredictable and frightening. The door is a visual metaphor for that. It symbolizes that the power to embrace change lies within all of us. We only need to be brave enough to open that door.

It’s all about perception

Several years ago there was an internet sensation about the color of a dress.

Picture Source: Slate

Some people saw the dress as white and gold, while others saw the dress as black and blue. Debating the colors seems so trivial, yet it sparked a viral conversation on the Internet on who’s right and who’s wrong.

As this Slate article points out, the color of the dress depends on the lighting. It played on people’s perceptions. People who saw the dress in shadow perceived the yellowish color. Others perceived the artificial light and saw it as a blue dress.

In summation, it was a matter of perception and then interpretation.

This phenomena can be applied to how people view metaphors. Audiences will interpret images in their own way.

They use their imaginations to make meaning out of visual images. It’s this very reason montages are often used to convey meaning, plot and character development.

A good visual metaphor challenges a viewer’s perception of the world. It gets them excited. It gets them tweeting about it and debating about it endlessly.

Take for example the Sopranos ending. There were many visual clues used in the final scene and fans continued to debate about it long after the series finale.

At the end of the day, filmmakers and screenwriters are paid to entertain. And it’s this very reason visual metaphors will continue to be a staple in making movies in Hollywood.

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