The Language of Film:

Literary Elements

“for a symbol to be truly a symbol, it must be repeated throughout a work…” 


A symbol is something that is itself and also stands for something else; as the letters a p p l e form a word that stands for a particular objective reality; or as a flag is a piece of colored clothe that stands for a country. All language is symbolic in this sense, and many of the objects that we use in daily life are also.


...a symbol is an image that evokes an objective reality and prompts that reality to suggest another level of meaning. the symbol evokes an object that suggests meaning.


Literary symbols are of two broad types: one includes those embodying universal suggestions of meaning, as flowing water suggests time and eternity, a voyage suggests life. Such symbols are used widely (and sometimes unconsciously) in literature. The other type of symbol acquires its suggestiveness not from qualities inherent in itself but from the way it is used in a given work.... The meaning of practically any general symbol is thus partly a function of its environment. (From A Handbook to Literature, 10th ed. Eds. William Harmon and Hugh Holman. Prentice Hall, New Jersey: 2006.) 


Discussion: Consider the multiple symbolic significations, for example, of the flag as Spike Lee appropriates it in Malcolm X. The image of the fire is also symbolic. To what effect?




A comparison or An analogy identifying one object with another and ascribing to the first object one or more of the qualities of the second... Metaphors may be simple, that is, may occur in the single isolated comparison, or a large metaphor may function as the controlling image of a whole work (A Handbook to Literature).


Ewan McGreggor, as the young Edward Bloom in Tim Burton’s Big Fish. Consider the repetition of metaphorical imagery: the water, the “mermaid” woman, the fish, and the red car.


Discussion: Study the clips below from 25th Hour, paying attention, in particular, to the way Lee draws attention to circular objects in the mise-en-scene. How does the circle function as a kind of sonic metaphor in this film?




Imagery in its literal sense means the collection of images in a literary work. in another sense it is synonomous with trope or figure of speech. Here the trope designates a special usage of words in which there is a change in their basic meanings. Patterns of imagery, often without the conscious knowledge of author or reader, are sometimes taken to be keys to a deeper meaning of a work. a few critics tend to see the image pattern as indeed being the basic meaning of the work and a better key to its interpretation than the explicit statement of the author or the more obvious events of plot or action. (A Handbook to Literature)



A broad term referring to the recognitions of a reality different from appearance. (A Handbook to Literature)



Considerations for Spike Lee’s 25th Hour:


    1. Metaphors & Symbols: In The 25th Hour, consider Lee’s visual images of ground zero and the Tower Light Memorial, a light display lasting a month following the 9/11 tragedy. How do these images invoke a metaphorical context? How does the metaphor reinforce the film’s themes and conflicts?
    2. Allusions: references to outside literary texts or historical events and/or people. David Benioff, screenplay writer for The 25th Hour, claims the mirror montage alludes to a passage from J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The scene is also reminiscent of a scene from Spike Lee’s earlier film, Do the Right Thing. How do these intertextual elements reinforce meaning and theme?
    3. Foreshadowing: hints of events to come (this can be achieved through lighting, sound, music, etc…). Consider, for example, images of the Tower Light memorial in the opening credits of 25th Hour. What do these harrowing images foretell about the main character Monty, and perhaps even the film's major themes and conflicts?
    4. Irony: For example, the final scene, “Left Turn to Where?”, invokes an ironic critique of the American West myth.