Some people argue that humanity’s idea of religion began as a response to the great forces of the unknown. Death is the first and foremost of these; all religions grapple with death in some capacity. Following close behind are the forces of nature. Agrarian peoples from the earliest farmers to modern-day Californians feel the effects of drought. Many respond by praying for rain. Rain has become a powerful symbol in our culture to convey a variety of meanings, but more recently it’s more of a used-and-abused trope that’s lost much of its rich complexity.
Rain is tied to fertility and prosperity. That’s easy enough to understand: when it rains, plants grow, and when plants grow, we can eat them and other beings that eat them. A long drought means no food and uncomfortable living conditions. Humans did all sorts of things to try to get it to rain, to predict when it was going to rain, and to make the best use of rain when it finally came. But as time went on and humans became less dependent on each particular rainfall, our ideas grew, too. Religions developed away from close ties with the land and the forces of nature. They spent more time on other questions (like understanding sickness, why bad things happen to good people, and even more about what happens after we die).
Our understanding of rain changed, too. Fast forward to today and rain really doesn’t have any obvious connection to fertility anymore. Instead, in America’s largely Christianity-influenced society, we’re much more likely to see rain as a kind of baptism: a moment of redemption, forgiveness, and new beginnings. When at one point the forces of nature dictated how we lived our religion, now our religions can dictate how we understand forces of nature.
In V for Vendetta, we see a pretty straightforward use of “Rain as Baptism”. We see her transformation in the scene below (skip to 2:20 for the real meaty part):
After V reveals to Evey that he was behind her torture all along, she asks to be taken outside and V takes her onto the roof. Evey stands in the rain, opens her arms, and begins her new life free from the fear of death. It’s a message closely tied to baptism symbolism. Baptism symbolizes a person’s new life as a Christian, but for many Christians, that new life comes with death symbolism, too. Early Christians (and many modern Christians) baptize by fully immersing people in water, to symbolize a metaphorical drowning. The old life drowns in the baptismal font; a new life begins when the Christian rises from the waters. As Evey and V talk about life and death and fear of death, that connection to baptism is clear. It was only later on that pouring water over someone’s head became a suitable substitute for some Christians. That latter “pouring water” imagery is a better fit for how rain works in the scene. It’s the form of baptism that most Christians are going to be more familiar with today, but I don’t believe it really contains quite as much symbolic depth as immersion.
The same things happens in Disney’s The Lion King. After Simba defeats Scar and his cronies, the skies dump sheets of rain all over Pride Rock, quenching the fires while Simba roars to his pride.
The rain shows new beginnings, and the moment when Simba fully accepts his kingship. The rain tells us that the fight is over, our heroes don’t have to worry about the fiery scourge of Scar’s reign anymore. In this case both the fire and the rain are cleansing symbols, and at 1:15 we see the water wash away a gazelle skull—a symbol of rain washing away the old and making way for the new.
This idea is so popular that writers have begun to invert it, too. Thor does a particularly good job with this. When Thor finally makes his way (in the rain) past everyone guarding his hammer, he expects a satisfying reunion with the source of his power. The scene plays on all of our expectations that this is supposed to be a big turning point for the character, in a positive way. Instead, Thor’s treated to a huge letdown when he discovers he can’t lift his hammer. He spends the rest of the movie learning what it really means to be truly worthy of the power of Thor.
The problem with this trope is that it’s so incredibly overdone. It’s an easy way for lazy writers to artificially beef up the depth of their work… but that doesn’t usually work. It’s one thing to use rain to set the mood of a scene, especially if it’s gloomy, sad, or dramatic. But there’s a difference between using rain as artistic shorthand to set the mood and using it as the primary vehicle for a writer’s message. In the latter case, the rain has to serve some other purpose to really make sense.
In V for Vendetta, it shows how Evey and V are foils of one another. Evey experiences her symbolic baptism with water, but V had his with fire. The preceding dialogue gives the scene more heft, and Evey’s line, “God is in the rain” is the thematic climax of the whole scene. The movie does a great job of really using the baptism symbolism to its fullest extent. In The Lion King, rain reinforces the motif of the great circle of life, bigger and more important than any lion family drama. Rain (and fire) are utilized as the powerful forces of nature that they are. The rain acts in the background, setting the mood and contextualizing the story. Again, it shows us that Simba’s journey is part of a bigger plan. His whole story is about realizing that the world is bigger than him, that he has a part to play in the great circle of life, and it’s wrong to pursue his own whims outside of it. Unless the rain makes sense to the story, it’s just going to come off as cheap or melodramatic.
Rain symbolism feels most like a flimsy trick when it’s tied closely with redemption and baptism. If anything, these are secondary symbols of rain. New life and fertility are old interpretations of rain symbolism, and frankly they make more sense when you’re just looking at the force of nature divorced from our religious cultural context. This isn’t to say that we should never use rain as an image—quite the contrary, it can be quite powerful. But when writers want to make full use of its rich symbolism, they should do just that, and not simply throw it in to create some artificial depth.