The cinematic prominence of seven

George Bell takes a look at the significance of the number 7 in the film industry

George Bell
14th May 2020
Image credit: IMDB
As with most forms of media, in film, numbers hold a lot of significance. Turns out all that maths stuff is important beyond doing Pythagoras. But for whatever reason, I’ve always felt that cinema has been particularly obsessed with the number seven. Because, damn, why are there so many films about it?

A prominent example of this is the film Se7en directed by David Fincher. It was based around the seven deadly sins which made sense as to why seven was such an integral part of the plot. No, I don’t plan on getting into a philosophical debate as to why there are only seven deadly sins as let us be honest, I am not smart enough for that. But I do think that these seven sins clearly have a massive cultural impact even beyond films based solely on the sins like Se7en.

The Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) matches this idea of these sins weirdly well. Rather than seven brutal murders, we have seven small individuals. But the dwarves clearly also have a relationship with the sins. Sounds weird but hear me out. Sleepy is sloth, Happy is lust, Grumpy is wrath, Doc is pride, Dopey is greed, Sneezy is envy, and Bashful is gluttony. These representations of the seven deadly sins is obviously a lot tamer but is an effective way of showing diversity and complexity within the group of characters.

The idea that we can remember seven things at once means it is likely we can remember that many characters in a film

However, it isn’t just that Hollywood is obsessed with sinning (well they are, but a conversation for another time), as there are other reasons behind the oh-so frequent use of the number seven. It turns out that the number seven matches most people’s short-term memory capacity. A study in 1985 was conducted by George Miller of Harvard University showing that on average a person can retain seven items of information. His paper is considered one of the most influential in psychology. And it is clear that Hollywood took this idea by the horns and ran with it. The idea that we can remember seven things at once means it is likely we can remember that many characters in a film hence explaining that number in an ensemble cast film.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is a great example of this. All these characters are unique and there is just enough of them that you have an idea who is who and can even figure out who is your favourite. It is likely if there were any more characters, we as the audience would have forgotten some of them as well as them being underdeveloped. The inspiration behind The Magnificent Seven is another great example of the cinematic love of this number with Seven Samurai (1954) being one of the best films of all time and it does show the effectiveness of having a group with at most seven people.

And as we are likely to remember several new pieces of information at once, the number seven fits well into our attention spans. It’s also been proven that it is the most popular number as when the mathematician Alex Bellos asked 44,000 people what their favourite number was, over 4000 said seven - far more than any other number. This goes to show that we have a weird liking towards this number so it's no wonder film studios are making films to do with it, chances are we would go and watch it!

Probably one of the most influential seven films is The Seventh Seal (1957) which if you haven’t heard of follows a medieval night (played by the late Max von Sydow) who challenges Death to a game of chess for the life of his friends and himself. This Swedish-made film takes its title from The Book of Revelation and leads into my next point nicely: the religious importance of the number seven. While I am not religious myself, many people associate the seventh day of the week as the day of god and for rest as the first six are meant for work. In Revelation, the seventh seal introduces the seven trumpets which then call forth the seven angels who carry the seven bowls of god’s wrath. I will be honest I have no idea what the Bible is going on about here but it does clearly show one thing. There is a lot of religious significance behind the number seven which is another reason behind cinemas' obsession with it.

So before you go and bully your local maths students take a step back and appreciate the work they are doing, because numbers really do have more influence in media than you expect. First person to count how many sevens in this article get 7p from me.

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AUTHOR: George Bell
One half film addict, one part computer nerd. All parts Croc lover

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