Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Equilibrium with Christian Bale, you might want to watch that before reading this.
I’m not a big fan of allegory. I see the point of it as a teaching tool, but as a storytelling device, I think it fails, and here’s why. In allegory, the point of the story isn’t necessarily the story itself, but the meaning that is behind the story. I realize that there are themes in everything; you can’t get away from them. Unfortunately, allegory goes beyond themes, because it requires that everything, or almost everything, has a thematic analogue. Take The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for example. Aslan is Jesus Christ. The gifts of Father Christmas are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Edmund Pevensie is both Judas Iscariot and the proxy for the grace of God. I could go through the entire book and describe how it’s the Christian Gospel story retold. The Magician’s Nephew is about creation, even including a Garden of Eden scene. The Last Battle is essentially The Book of Revelation.
But that’s all fine, because C.S. Lewis was writing both for children in those books and to spread the Christian message. He was an unabashed apologist, especially if you look at the rest of his writing. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is an even more obvious allegory, with the names being blatant descriptions of what they were supposed to be.
Allegory is great for devotional books, but for a storytelling and world building device, not so much. When you make a story an allegory, you’re not making a world of your own, you’re taking another world, even if it’s this world, and putting it into yours. If you’re honest about it being allegory, that’s fine, but at least be honest about it.
In the Kurt Wimmer movie Equilibrium, we’re treated to a flashy albeit logically impossible martial art called Gun Kata, where the users are able to predict and dodge bullets by using a set of exact movements, and they just have to remain standing still. In itself, that would serve for a nice two hours or so where I don’t have to think and just watch the fight scenes. The problem with it is that it also uses a dystopian environment as a direct allegory of the filmmaker’s apparent view that religion is evil.
In the first scene, John Preston, played by Christian Bale, and his partner Errol Partridge, played by Sean Bean, confiscate books and artwork, simply because those cause emotion. You see, in the world of the movie, emotions are banned and suppressed with a drug called Prozium. A problem occurs when Preston finds Partridge reading a book of poem and legally executes him…because the sentence for emotion is death. This starts a chain of events where Preston starts questioning the law against emotion and rebelling against the totalitarian regime.
Now, where’s the allegory in that? You see, Preston is a cleric. In the movie, that means he’s trained in Gun Kata and able to dodge bullets (without superpowers, mind) and use the gun as the perfect weapon. If he was just a I’d have no problem, but he’s essentially a priest, and the law enforcement agency is the Grammaton Clerics, who are governed by the Tetragrammaton Council. Now, if you didn’t know, Tetragrammaton is from the Greek for “four letters” and is another name for the Judeo-Christian God, based the unpronounceable name of God, YHWH.
There’s at least one point where Preston does some fancy hand movements that mimic the letters in a scene just before going into a fight.
The rest of the movie pretty much hammers home the message. The execution is reminiscent of medieval robes and done by fire. Everything artistic, literary, and musical is banned. There’s even a Big Brother character known as “The Father” who is later revealed to have died years before. Now, if that’s not a stand-in for Nietzsche idea of “God is dead”, then I must be thinking of another Nietzsche. The message is basically slammed in your face, with absolutely no subtlety to it. If it had been more subtle, the message might have been more effective, but the scene where Preston is killing other clerics because the gun-priests want to kill a puppy was just silly.
Even in a good allegory, the message should line up with reality, and although the movie was definitely anti-religion, the points it was making just don’t add up. If Kurt Wimmer had wanted to say that religion removes individuality, which is apparently what he was going for, then there were more subtle ways to do it than saying religion removes emotion. Also, insinuating that priests were puppy-killers who shoot their friends in the face was a bit much too.
Basically, the problem I see with allegory, especially with how Wimmer handled it in Equilibrium, is that it hurts the final product if it’s too obvious. Equilibrium could have been a popcorn movie about a Big Brother regime that removes individuality and focuses on illogical but supremely fun to watch martial arts. If the allegory had been toned down or made more oblique, then I probably wouldn’t have noticed it and thought, “Hey, that was a fun movie.” As it was, the obvious shout-outs to the intended theme was a little jarring.
If you’re going to try to put a message in your book, movie, or other sort of media, do try to make it a little less obvious and jarring. Let your audience focus on the story rather than the message.
I’ll talk about allegory, themes, and messages in stories in later posts, but what books or movies do you think had allegorical themes that were a bit too obvious?
(Correction: A previous version of this post stated “There are a few times when the seal of the Tetragrammaton Clerics actually shows the letters YHWH.” This is based on a faulty memory of the movie. Sorry about that.)