by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Many of the most impactful symbols in stories are ancient in origin. Using animals, plants, and trees to represent ideas, feelings, and seasons in the human experience is a practice that dates back to the earliest stories we have record of. There are perhaps no other elements used more often in these early stories than the celestial bodies people saw when they stared into the sky.
Here are ways the sun, moon, and stars have been used in storytelling and what they have been used to represent.
Early peoples from a variety of different regions worshipped the sun and saw it as a representation of God, if not God him/her/itself. They created myths about the sun, giving it the name Ra or Apollo or Amaterasu, depending on their mythological tradition. It has symbolized ultimate power, the ability to bring forth life (as with plants), and knowledge or revelation, as it brings light. It has also symbolized the inevitable retribution for egos run amok, as with Icarus.
In the upcoming Adrift, the sun symbolizes the hope for survival, breaking through the clouds after a storm. In Sunshine, the death of the sun symbolizes the slow extinction of human consciousness. In Nosferatu, the sun represents the destruction of evil, a trope that would be used in countless vampire films that followed. Seeing the sun disappear in the sky via a solar eclipse has also been mightily used across genres in films like Fantasia where it was used dramatically through animation, The Watcher in the Woods where it was used to create horror, and in Little Shop of Horrors where it was used for comedic effect.
Where Apollo was represented by the sun in ancient mythology, his sister, Artemis, was represented by the moon, an equally meaningful feminine symbol for humanity. One of the earliest and most iconic images in all of film is from Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, where the moon symbolized humankind’s most dramatic external goal, an idea that would become more nuanced yet still present in modern films like Moon and Apollo 13.
The moon symbolized power and revenge when Gru decided to steal it right out of the sky in Despicable Me. It symbolized beauty as it washes over the skin of black men in Moonlight. A full moon brings out the worst in many characters, especially in films like American Werewolf in London. Elliot and E.T. ride past the moon, a symbol of the wonder they are both experiencing. The moon almost always symbolizes bad things just around the corner in the horror genre, but more than one Disney character has shared a romantic moment silhouetted by that giant light in the night sky.
Similar to the moon, the stars can invoke the mystery or mysterious hope of the human experience, in the midst of darkness. The final moments of the first season of True Detective take place as the two main characters look up at the stars and offer one of the more powerful exchanges about the meaning of light and darkness that television has ever seen. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone enjoy a fanciful dance through the stars, symbolizing both the multitude of artists trying to make it in Los Angeles and the hope that one might do just that in La La Land.
WALL-E stares up at the stars, which symbolize that which is beyond what he knows – a trope used in stories ranging from Star Trek to Pinocchio. Falling stars have their own meaning as symbols in film. And sometimes, stars simply embody the desires of a character that wishes on them. They also often represent a final destination or home for characters after death, as with the final tearful moments of The Iron Giant.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.