Modern Times, Metaphor and Visual Storytelling

By Susan Kouguell · August 26, 2014

At the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times was shown accompanied by a live orchestra, the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana.  I had not seen the film for many years and was particularly struck by the visual storytelling and the use of metaphor; two points I detail in my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays!

Use visual storytelling to establish the setting and mood. Opening with a significant image will also help to grab the reader’s attention. The reader must be able to step into the world that you have created and have a complete understanding of it.

The first four shots of Modern Times:

1)    Title card: “Modern Times” A story of industry, of individual enterprise – humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness”

2)    An image of the second hand of a large-faced clock moving forward

3)    A herd of sheep rushing forward

4)    A mass of rushing workers ascending subway stairs.

In these four shots the audience is informed what the story is about from the opening title card, and the three separate shots that follow – the clock, the sheep, and rushing workers. All of this vital information is conveyed in less than 30 seconds.

Characters’ intentions, agendas, beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and so on, can be conveyed through the careful use of metaphors. In visual storytelling, metaphors can be used to illustrate the theme or themes of your script, a plot point, or a character’s action or behavior.

In Modern Times, the sheep serve as a metaphor of the rushing workers; they are the masses – the humanity. 

In a more contemporary example, let’s look at Little Miss Sunshine, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, screenplay by Michael Arndt. The 1960's Volkswagen van in which the Hoover family travels to the children’s beauty pageant, is a metaphor for the 60's era of rebellion and freedom, and signifies the various family members’ desires and actions. The only way to get the van running is for the family to push it and then jump inside while it’s moving. This van-pushing routine symbolizes the family needing to work together in order to reconcile their differences. The open road, the pageant, and Richard’s get-rich schemes, are metaphors of the American dream.

In Frank S. Nugent’s 1936 review of Modern Times in the New York Times, Nugent writes:

“We should prefer to describe "Modern Times" as the story of the little clown, temporarily caught up in the cogs of an industry geared to mass production, spun through a three-ring circus and out into a world as remote from industrial and class problems as a comedy can make it.”

Over 78 years later, Modern Times reflects today’s times with issues of societal struggles and economic hardships. Modern Times is indeed a timely film.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker Susan Kouguell is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and industry executives worldwide. (  Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked with Louis Malle on And the Pursuit of Happiness, was a story analyst and story editor for many studios, wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies. Susan wrote THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER: How to Sell Your Screenplay (and Yourself) Without Selling Out! and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises, available at $1.00 off on and using DISCOUNT CODE: G22GAZPD.  On Kindle: (discount code does not apply). Follow Susan at Su-City Pictures, LLC Facebook fan page and SKouguell on Twitter, and read more articles on her blog:

Photo Credit: Locarno International Film Festival