Karen E. Dill-Shackleford Ph.D.

How Fantasy Becomes Reality

Film Appreciation

How our Favorite Films Help Us Understand What's Meaningful in Life

Posted Jul 17, 2014

"Let Me Entertain You" from the musical Gypsy

Let me entertain you
Let me make you smile
Let me do a few tricks
Some old and then some new tricks
I'm very versatile

And if you're real good
I'll make you feel good
I'd want your spirit to climb
So let me entertain you
We'll have a real good time

Q: Why do we go to the movies?

A: To be entertained!

Comedies make us laugh. Horror films are gratuitously scary. Sometimes going to the movies is like going to an amusement park. The experience is stimulating, but fleeting. But is that all there is to the movies? Media psychologists are starting to understand how some movies can mean more to us.

Meaningful Movies?

While escaping the humdrum with some laughs or shrieks is a perfectly legitimate use of the cinema, it’s not the only way we enjoy video entertainment. Media psychology experts Mary Beth Oliver and Anne Bartsch are helping us understand what’s going on with our cognitive and emotional experiences of films that matter to us.

These scholars agree that sometimes film viewing is a shallow, albeit emotional experience. But other times the emotions and thinking that occur in response to a film are deeper and more nuanced. For example, because meaningful experiences often bring mixed emotions (such as suffering and redemption), films that evoke deep meaning also often evoke mixed emotions. 

Take a moment to think of some of your favorite moments in film. Think in particular of moments where you had the feeling of transcendence or the feeling that what you were watching was important or even life-changing.

For me, one of those moments is a climactic scene from the Shawshank Redemption, starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Pictured here is one of the pivotal scenes of the film: an image that exemplifies the joy of freedom and hope incarnate.

Shawshank Redemption

Feeling Tim Robbins' sense of freedom

Though it wasn’t a success at the box office, according to IMDB, Shawshank is regularly ranked by fans as the greatest film of all times (http://www.amovieaweek.com/shawshank.html). It’s certainly one of my favorite films of all times, and I can tell you why as an example of how we make meaning from the movies.

Some oft-quoted lines from the Shawshank Redemption are: “Fear can hold you prisoner; hope can set you free,” and “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”

Oliver and Bartsch tell us that there’s a difference between enjoying a film and appreciating one. I might enjoy a silly comedy without the need for a meaningful storyline. But to appreciate a film, according to the psychological definition, I must find meaning in it and find it thought-provoking, like I do with the Shawshank Redemption. Meaning, Oliver and Bartsch tell us, is likely derived from our sense of values and virtues. For example, the Aristotelian virutues of kindness, courage, justice, and truth.

While you may think that watching morality plays does not sound like a good time, human beings, as social creatures, are naturally drawn to discovering what really matters in life and what it means to live life well. Because we are wired to learn from story better than from raw data or moral admonitions, stories about what matters most to people are highly enticing.

This is one reason that films that show us what’s really valuable about life become like treasures to us. They are favorite stories that excite the feeling that “this matters.” They call us to be our higher selves and to remember who we essentially are or who we want to be.

I leave you with a scene from one of the most beloved films of all times, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. This is a film that takes us on a journey with a man who’s faced difficult decisions and is at the end of his rope. He thinks he’s been a miserable failure and needs help to see that his life has meaning and why. One of the reasons it’s a such a treasured bit of cinema is that it calls us to consider what constitutes a wonderful life, not only for George Bailey, but for ourselves. This is one of the gifts of great cinema. 



Bartsch, A., & Beth Oliver, M. (2011). Making Sense of Entertainment. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 23(1), 12–17. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000026

Oliver, M. B., & Bartsch, A. (2011). Appreciation of Entertainment. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 23(1), 29–33. doi:10.1027/1864-1105/a000029