My wife and I just saw Big Fish and loved it. We spent hours talking about the metaphors you used, especially what Spectre represented. How do you decide whether to hit people over the head with it or leave it up for interpretation? And are you okay with people coming up with different interpretations?

–Pete Safran

Like pornography and irony, metaphors are hard to define, but easy to spot: “The ship plowed the sea,” or “She was a bobcat in the sack.” Ships don’t plow, and bobcats don’t sleep in beds, but in both cases the author’s intention is clear. Essentially, a metaphor uses the meaning of one term (the “meta” part) to carry over (the “phor” part) to an otherwise unrelated situation. Basically, a metaphor is a comparison — something “like” something else — but without using the word “like,” which would make it a simile.

Still with me?

In terms of Big Fish, metaphor doesn’t feel like quite the right word to describe Spectre. While there are lots of things Spectre is “like” — Heaven, Hell, the Afterlife, a ghost town, Utopia, Oz, Shangri-La — any comparisons the viewer draws are based on how he interprets the imagery and events of the scene. For instance, everyone is dressed in shimmering whites and yellows (which seems Heavenly), but the river is full of leeches and alluring sirens (not Heavenly). The town’s mayor welcomes Edward with a clipboard and finds Edward’s name (which feels like the Afterlife), but people grow old (which doesn’t).

So if you try to force just one interpretation onto Spectre, you’re going to be disappointed. And in fact, Spectre is supposed to be a lot of different things at once. It’s the mythical town that Edward was hoping to find, but he found it too quickly. It’s a poor Southern town subject to liens and bankruptcy, which only Edward can save. It’s the location of Edward’s sexual awakening (the girl in the river) and his near-affair (with Jenny Hill). If anything, it’s a beautiful trap that Edward stumbles into twice.

Interestingly, the original inspiration for Spectre was quite a lot darker. In Daniel Wallace’s novel, this section is the road out of Ashland, and features a dog that bites your fingers off. For the movie, Spectre became its own place, and the dog got moved to the circus scene.

Am I okay with people coming up with their own interpretations? Well, I have to be. Unless I want a character to explicitly state what a story element represents, there will always be different interpretations. And the point of the film is that finding the actual, hard truth behind things is often a fool’s errand. The issue of whether Edward Bloom ever visited Spectre in his youth is ultimately less important than what he said, and why.