The Fabelmans | Themes and Meaning

In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for The Fabelmans, we talk about themes that help us understand the film. 


  • Gabriel LaBelle – Sammy Fabelman
  • Michelle Williams – Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman
  • Paul Dano – Burt Fabelman
  • Seth Rogen – Bennie Loewy
  • Julia Butters – Regina “Reggie” Fabelman
  • Judd Hirsch – Boris Podgorny
  • Jeannie Berlin – Hadassah Fabelman
  • Robin Bartlett – Tina Schildkraut
  • Keeley Karsten – Natalie Fabelman
  • Sophia Kopera – Lisa Fabelman
  • Sam Rechner – Logan Hall
  • Oakes Fegley – Chad Thomas
  • Chloe East – Monica Sherwood
  • Isabelle Kusman – Claudia Denning
  • Tony Kushner – Writer
  • Steven Spielberg – Writer and director

The themes and meaning of The Fabelmans

Art as a means of self-evaluation

Sigmund Freud, the famous founder of psychoanalysis, wrote a book in 1899 entitled The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he developed the “dream-work theory.” Essentially, this theory distrusts narrative as a form of censorship in dreams: the structure and events of your dream don’t tell the real story. Of much greater value are the images and symbols that populate your dreams, as they reveal your underlying hopes, ambitions, fears, deficiencies.

You can view any piece of art in this light. The shapes and contours of a person’s body in a painting are a reflection of how that painter observed his subjects, and provide insight into how that painter views the world. Take, for instance, Ilya Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan. We know what the picture literally depicts: Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible holds his dead son after hitting him in a fit of anger. But as we stare at the painting, the subtleties reveal the true emotion and meaning of the image. The painting doesn’t depict violence, but its tragic aftermath: the father sits in anguish and cries as he holds his son with clear regret and anguish. In effect, the painting becomes a timeless representation of physical abuse between parent and child, of moral rejection in moments of exasperation, of inescapable remorse and despair that cannot be reversed.

The same goes for the art of storytelling in film. The plot is only the blueprint for a movie’s true meaning. The situations and characters are nothing more than vehicles for ideas expressed and explored by the artist.

Since The Fabelmans is based on Spielberg’s childhood, we can think of the film not as autobiography, but as a means of self-evaluation. The situations we see on screen are not literal representations of Spielberg’s life, as the characters’ names have been changed, as the people of Spielberg’s life are played by actors, as the situations have been altered and dramatized for the sake of entertainment. Instead, the characters and imagery and mise-en-scene of the film serve as symbols of Spielberg’s life as he looks back on his youth.

In this sense, The Fabelmans can be defined as a metafilm—a mode of filmmaking that informs the audience they are watching a movie. We aren’t watching a literal depiction of Spielberg’s life, but a dream-like interpretation of his own life. Even when situations reflect actual events from his life or when characters represent actual people, those specific events and people have been carefully chosen, arranged, and edited together to represent something deeper. You can view the movie as a jigsaw puzzle Spielberg puts together as he examines himself. Altogether, The Fabelmans becomes a representation of his current ideologies and how his youth shaped him and his love of filmmaking.

The power of the camera

As Sammy becomes more and more capable as a director, he increasingly discovers the power of his movie camera. At first, his filmic understanding is limited to entertainment. Before long, he realizes the camera’s ability to expose the humanity of a situation. And by the end of the movie, the camera becomes a timeless means of capturing the tone and tenor of life itself.

When Sammy watches the train crash in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, he is absolutely entranced by the camera’s ability to capture the surreal, the out-of-the-ordinary, the fantastic. At first, that’s all he wants to do with his train set, with his camera: to create something extraordinary you can watch over and over. To him, movies represent an escape from life. And he’s eager to share his art with the world to invoke a similar feeling in others.

Then Sammy begins to understand the deeper implications of the camera. When he films a battle scene with his Boy Scout troop, he coaches one of his actors to feel remorse for his fallen soldiers. After a long talk, the boy becomes crestfallen at the thought of losing his friends. As Sammy films the scene, the boy sinks into a temporary depression that goes beyond acting—Sammy has triggered a deeper existential confrontation in this boy’s being; a buried, intrinsic fear regarding death and loss. It’s in this moment that Sammy understands the camera’s ability to reveal the deeper humanities of a story.

Eventually, that realization extends to moments from his own life. Take the footage he films for his family’s camping trip. To the naked eye, the relationship between Mitzi and Bennie is completely innocent, their interactions innocuous. But after carefully observing the outskirts of the frame, by slowing down certain moments, by carefully editing together a string of events, Sammy is able to expose the deeper implications of their relationship. Thus, the camera becomes a tool for exposing truths we cannot see with the naked eye.

The final shot of the film serves as the catharsis for this thematic journey. John Ford tells Sammy to never position the horizon in the middle of the frame. So, as Sammy leaves Ford’s office and steps outside, the camera literally repositions itself so the horizon is situation at the bottom of the screen. This becomes Spielberg’s way of opening the world up to Sammy through the very camera he’s used to detail Sammy’s life.

And since Sammy is a fictionalized version of Spielberg’s own life, this becomes a meta-moment for Spielberg himself. Every lesson Sammy has learned with his camera, from his humble beginnings to his existential understandings of humanity, has built to this moment. The camera has allowed Sammy to be more observant of the world and the people around him. He knows the immense responsibility he holds as a filmmaker. And with that understanding, he’s ready to go out and film great movies that can make the world a better place.

What are your thoughts?

Are there more themes you think should be part of the Colossus Movie Guide for The Fabelmans? Leave your comments below and we’ll consider updating the guide. 

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