Most people agree that fireplaces can evoke pleasing feelings of comfort, relaxation and security. Traditionally regarded as the “heart” of any home, the fireplace is a focal nucleus around which the whole family can safely gather together to share their dreams, in the warmth of a cosy glow.
Given the symbolic potential afforded by such connotations, fireplaces are often used for key scenes in films. Depending on the genre of the film, they can be used to heighten an atmosphere, convey a sense of danger, lull the viewer into a false sense of security, and symbolise romance, passion, security, or closeness between characters.
From Christmas classics to epic fantasies and psychological thrillers, fireplaces have been incorporated into plots for symbolic and cinematic effect since the film industry began. Here are 10 iconic movie scenes which include fireplaces in different ways to achieve specific dramatic effects.
Dark Shadows (2012)
An American fantasy vampire comedy film set in the late 1700s, Dark Shadows is directed by the incomparable Tim Burton and stars Johnny Depp. The plot centres around the wealthy Barnabas Collins, who sets sail from Liverpool to Maine with his family, to establish a new town (Collinsport) and a grand estate, complete with a grand old mansion. The ornate fireplace conceals a secret passageway which leads to an underground room filled with hidden treasures.
Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Many people through the ages have believed that fire can possess magical properties, so it is perhaps no surprise that the fireplaces in this Harry Potter film are used by the wizards as a magical form of transport. By throwing “floo powder” into a fireplace, the wizards were able to send letters and transport themselves to any other fireplace connected to the “Floo Network”.
Citizen Kane (1941)
In this classic film directed by Orson Welles, wide angle shots are used to produce an optical illusion to give the impression of a seemingly gigantic fireplace at Xanadu. Finally forced to sign away control of his empire, Kane — the corrupt central character — has become diminished and is now dwarfed by everything around him.
Home Alone (1990)
This seasonal classic centres around eight year old Kevin, who has accidentally been left behind alone just before Christmas when his parents go away. Whilst alone in the house, Kevin has to protect himself and the house from two determined burglars, and he finds himself concocting ever-elaborate tactics in an attempt to outwit them.
Kevin decorates the tree and the living room for Christmas in an extravagant fashion, to give the impression that the entire family are home for the festive period — and perhaps to give the home a feeling of safety and security for himself, a vulnerable child. The open fireplace is the centrepiece of it all, really summing up the spirit of Christmas, complete with mistletoe and an orderly line of Christmas stockings fastened to the mantel, tall brass lamps, fairy lights, and a wreath of holly on the chimney breast.
How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
In this Christmas fantasy comedy based on the Dr Seuss book of the same name, Jim Carrey plays The Grinch, a misanthropic character who hates everyone and everything. Determined to ruin Christmas for the entire town of Whoville, The Grinch builds a powered sleigh, dresses himself up as Santa and disguises his dog as a reindeer, in order to launch himself down people’s chimneys and into their fireplaces, with the aim of stealing their presents, decorations and food.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
In this science fiction climate-disaster film directed by Roland Emmerich, the students burn books in the New York Public Library’s grand fireplace to prevent freezing to death. Even if we overlook the fact that burning paper and cardboard can be potentially dangerous, many critics of the film have pondered why the characters didn’t burn the copious wooden furniture instead, which would have been much more effective.
This is a good point, but it fails to take into account the action’s value as an undoubtedly intended symbolic plot device. The students’ decision opens up philosophical discussions about which books are too valuable to burn, and which are now seemingly unimportant. For example, they argue about the value of Nietsche’s writings, whereas nobody cares one bit about the tax law books, given the apocalyptic circumstances.
The Haunting (1999)
Based on the 1959 novel, “The Haunting of Hill House“ by Shirley Jackson, The Haunting is a grim supernatural horror film directed by Jan de Bont. The plot centres around the participants of an insomnia study, who are gathered together in an old secluded manor house in Massachusetts.
The guests discover that the manor’s previous owner, Hugh Crain, had tortured and killed orphans in the house, before burning their bodies in the fireplace. When Crain’s ghost traps the occupants inside the house, one of the guests, Luke Sanderson, defaces his portrait. This provokes the ghost, who proceeds to drag Luke to the fireplace, before decapitating him.
One of Hitchcock’s most famous classic thrillers, Vertigo makes metaphorical use of the fireplace in central character Scottie’s apartment in the scene after Madeline jumps into the bay. The scene starts with Scottie stoking the fire, followed by an ominous over-the-shoulder shot which connects the ever-present threat of the fire to Madeline’s presence. During the rest of the scene, the apparently vulnerable Madeline is repeatedly set against the flames of the fire in the background, symbolising the danger and temptation she actually represents.
Run All Night (2015)
In this film, Liam Neeson stars as alcoholic former hitman, Jimmy Conlon, who goes on the run with his estranged adult son after he kills the son of a mafia boss. Down on his luck and short of cash, Jimmy takes on a paid role as Santa at a kids’ party. Everything seems to be going quite well to begin with; however, he soon becomes distracted and disgraces himself by making a pass at the host’s wife, before falling into the roaring fire in the fireplace.
Holiday Inn (1942)
And finally, who can forget the iconic piano scene in this classic seasonal film? Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds delighted the world with their romantic rendition of White Christmas, against the backdrop of a roaring fire in the fireplace. If you’re looking for a scene that sums up the warmth and peaceful spirit of Christmas, then this is surely it. And it definitely wouldn’t have worked so well without that fireplace!