Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just won’t go away.
Biologically, butterflies are a clade of insects within the order Lepidoptera. Like a number of other insects, they have a four-stage life cycle: adults lay eggs that hatch into larvae (caterpillars) and then pupate into an almost coffin-like chrysalis before dramatically bursting forth into their final, winged adult form. They are generally active during the day, which is why they tend to have more colorful wings than their often maligned, usually nocturnal kin, moths.
But when it comes to their presence in storytelling, butterflies represent far more than the sum of their biological parts. Different cultures have imbued butterflies with a wide range of symbolic meanings. Viewing butterflies as meaningful in some sort of way, however, is practically universal. The ancient Greeks paved the way for Western culture’s reverence towards butterflies by referring to the insect and the human soul with the same term: psyche.
Moving eastward, the hugely popular Chinese folktale of star-crossed lovers Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, who are kept apart but reunited in death as a pair of butterflies, has the creatures representing the human soul, but in a way fundamentally linked to relationships and romantic love, instead of being individualistic. The tale dates back to at least the 10th century and has spawned countless variations over the ages.
In the Americas, the Aztecs had the sinister goddess Ītzpāpālōtl, who takes the form of an obsidian butterfly. The list goes on.
Symbolic butterflies are prominent across storytelling and visual art forms, but one thing unique to movies is the way in which butterflies of significance appear overwhelmingly blue in color. While there are some blue-winged species out there — most notably the blue Morpho, a cinematic favorite and also the butterfly emoji — they are actually quite rare. You’re unlikely to encounter a truly blue butterfly in person without going to a butterfly conservatory.
Of course, movies have featured butterflies of every color of the rainbow, but the bright blue ones are disproportionately represented relative to their scarcity in the natural world.
Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride opens with protagonist Victor sketching a blue butterfly and ends with the titular character finding peace with her murderer finally brought to justice and transforming into a kaleidoscope of butterflies –again, all blue.
A character also bursts into blue butterflies in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, albeit under far more nightmarish circumstances. In Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, the fantasy version of Charles Darwin spends the entire film searching for the rare “Americana exotica,” a fictional species of blue butterfly also featured prominently on the poster.
All of this begs the question: why?
The first and most technical reason has to do with color theory. Complementary colors — hues opposite each other on the color wheel — contrast each other in ways often regarded as optimal for appealing image composition, a rule of thumb that film has appreciated since the introduction of color but has reached whole new levels ever since the introduction of digital intermediates revolutionized the color grading process.
As more than a few commentators have already pointed out, cinema loves no pair of complementary colors more than blue and orange. Human skin color ranges from pale yellow-pink to dark brown, which all fall within the basic realm of orange. As such, when a scene involves a character interacting directly with butterflies, blue becomes the front-runner for butterfly color by default, and looking at the consistent blue/teal-orange aesthetic across various examples of blue butterflies in film suggests this is far from a lucky accident.
The second has to do with biology. Blue is a popular color — according to some polling, it’s the winner of the popular vote for favorite color overall — but when it comes to living things, true blue is actually extremely rare. Even plants and animals with blue in their common names (blue whale, blueberry) are more accurately described as grey or indigo in color.
The most naturally occurring color in animals — think the pink of flamingos — comes from pigments sourced from their diet. But this almost never happens with blue. The vibrant blue of peacock feathers or the wings of a blue Morpho is the result of something called structural color, in which tiny prism structures reflect light in such a way that the surface appears blue to the eye. It’s physics instead of chemistry; if you ground up blue Morpho wings, you wouldn’t get a vivid pigment, just some greyish dust because you destroyed the prisms responsible for the color.
While structural coloration is responsible for a range of hues across a range of creatures, it’s almost universally responsible for vivid blues seen in animals. In other words, seeing a truly blue animal is special and rare, so it’s quite fitting that the color tends to appear in the most thematically significant creatures.
A similar trend can be seen with regards to the narrative use of blue flowers, as there are no naturally occurring blue pigments to be found there either (although manipulating anthocyanin can give plants a blue-ish color — or a true blue via genetic engineering); blue flowers are quite prominent in fantasy, such as the blue roses in A Song of Ice and Fire, and for fictional plants with special powers, like the blue poppies in Batman Begins.
Butterflies carry millennia of symbolic heft from cultures spanning the globe in their delicate wings, but a lot of the appeal for cinematic storytellers just comes from the fundamental nature of what they are. Conventional film-writing wisdom reveres the character arc, the notion that a protagonist comes out at the end of the story fundamentally changed from the way they came in. Biological metamorphosis is hardly unique to butterflies, but their particular trajectory from lowly caterpillar to tomb-like chrysalid and finally majestic butterfly makes them the closest natural counterpart to the three-act structure and the Hero’s journey that one could ever hope to find — especially when they come out of that struggle with brilliant blue wings for emphasis.