Years ago, I somehow slipped into the habit of eating an apple every day. I guess it was an attempt to switch to a healthier afternoon snack — don’t even bother with your however-many-grams-of-sugar chat. It’s now such a pathetically ingrained part of my routine that I don’t really notice I’m eating it anymore. It’s almost meaningless, as it is for most people who munch down the same damn fruits every single day.
All of this makes it that much weirder for me when I see someone eating an apple on-screen, because it’s far from a throwaway gesture. In fact, this simple act is a big, screaming, neon signpost of significance, usually demonstrating that the eater is a card-carrying villain, maverick badass or just super-arrogant.
Take Ajax from Deadpool. A straight-up sadistic brute of a heel, the British psychopath gnaws at an apple seconds before giving someone a casual throttling: textbook evil-apple-eating.
In a very different corner of the “film foes” world, Harry Potter’s arch-rival Draco Malfoy is seen variously holding, eating and just plain admiring an apple in several films. If you want to go deeper into this one, there’s a popular fan-fiction theory about the romantic closeness of Draco to his apple, termed “Drapple.” (Fun fact: When reading about Drapple on this Fandom page I had to look up four “new” words and felt older than I ever have before.)
Then there’s Colin Farrell’s bloodthirsty vampire, Jerry, taking perhaps the biggest bite of an apple in screen history in Fright Night. Maybe the fact that the apple was the size of a small melon goaded Farrell into tearing off as much as would fit into his vampirical face. Or how about Gerard Butler’s absolute unit of a king in 300: Leonidas isn’t the bad guy, but he sure is a violent fella — a badass, you might say. So unaffected is he by the spoils of war that the first thing on his mind post-battle is to crunch through a red beast.
And it’s not just live action. There are tons of examples across animated works, from Family Guy to creepy anime series Death Note to Disney’s original Aladdin, where apples play a surprisingly big role, but are only eaten by certified bad guy Jafar. Apples are everywhere on both the big and small screen — just ask the movie-trashing minds behind the CinemaSins YouTube channel, who have a vendetta against them being eaten on film, as someone discovered when they started keeping a tally of all the hatred.
So, yes, it’s a cliche, but let’s get to the core of the matter: Why did it become a cliche? And why is it always the bastards eating them? The go-to answer is biblical symbolism, mirroring the act of Adam and Eve eating that forbidden fruit and not giving a shit that you’re doing so, positively reveling in your naughtiness. As it happens, though, the forbidden fruit was never named in the Bible. It came to be regarded as an apple, perhaps — as wiser men than me have pointed out — due to an allegedly hilarious Latin pun. Guys, it could actually have been a pomegranate.
There have been some clear screen nods to the biblical stuff, such as Pleasantville, when Marley Shelton rips an apple off a tree and tempts meek little Tobey Maguire, after which, things start to go sideways. Or Donald Sutherland’s stoner professor in Animal House, chewing an apple as he tries to explain John Milton’s retelling of the forbidden fruit faux pas in Paradise Lost, while leaning next to the word ‘SATAN’ chalked in caps on a blackboard. Subtle.
But surely it’s not always the religious links that drives its inclusion? “I certainly think the biblical symbolism is relevant, since the apple is historically associated with original sin,” says film and TV critic Nick Schager, “but there’s also an active quality to eating an apple — you grasp the fruit in your hand and you bite forcefully into it. That conveys aggression, and is thus a natural fit for bad guys, badasses or other fierce characters. The act has an assertive, in-your-face energy.”
That energy just wouldn’t arrive from eating a different fruit. There are, of course, various on-screen moments where characters get one of their five-a-day through anything from grapes to pears to melon (as this informative roundup proved), but it doesn’t have the same weight as the apple. (One golden, delicious irony of all this is that while villains love to pontificate with apple-in-hand, one apple you won’t see them holding is an Apple: In a video for Vanity Fair, Knives Out director Rian Johnson revealed that the tech giant won’t allow iPhones to be used on camera by any villains in a story, meaning they have to rely solely on their pagers.)
Part of the impact of an apple being eaten is simply down to the act of consumption. People aren’t meant to eat on-screen — it slows things down, makes reeling off lines more difficult and creates extraneous noise. It’s clunky and uncool. Showing a character brazenly eating anything demonstrates that not only do they not care what other characters think of them, but also that they don’t care about the rules of filmmaking, thereby rattling the fourth wall in the process.
“Having characters eat isn’t usually given much airtime,” says Uxshely Carcamo, a psychotherapist and nutritionist at The Food Therapy Clinic, “whereas we’re often shown images of individuals drinking alcohol, which is seen as much more glamorous. Eating could convey arrogance or indifference to other people’s opinions, and it could certainly be used to establish a power dynamic between characters.”
Apples are a great way of adding in an extra “screw you” to that dynamic. For one, they’re super-noisy — that crunch is one of the loudest, most recognizable eating sounds there is. They also take ages to chew through and swallow, especially if you’ve given yourself a Colin Farrell or Gerard Butler-style, something-to-prove mouthful.
Harrison Ford didn’t let any of that stop him from sleazing it up in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, however. With a mouth full of citrus, he casually tries to seduce Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott (who also takes a few bites, but seems to chew through it far more elegantly), laying the groundwork for the smug bastard side of apple-eating. Twenty-five years later, Chris Pine’s swaggering Captain Kirk perfects the art in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, demolishing an apple while nonchalantly crushing a seemingly impossible training simulation (he cheated, by the way).
Yet for all its challenges, the apple is also eminently functional as an on-screen tool: No need to peel it (hear that, bananas and oranges?); you can eat it comfortably with one hand (take notes, pear); and there’s no slurpy mess — looking at you, peach.
Abigail Rubin, a pastry chef from New York who’s worked at restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and The Dutch, agrees that the apple’s practicalities are a big plus. “It holds well in your hand and looks good on film, especially if you have that perfect red apple — that red just looks cool. And the ‘crack’ of biting into an apple adds tension to things. It’s very evocative, and in a movie you can make that work to your advantage.”
Having crafted everything from salted caramel apple pie to apple cider donuts to apple miso crumb cake, Rubin has spent more time thinking about apples than most. She points out that as well as loss-of-innocence, apples also symbolize something closer to, well, innocence: “They’re very ingrained in our culture with Americana and tradition, the whole ‘as American as apple pie’ idea — it’s a sense of comfort and nostalgia, versus the sense of evil and temptation.”
Those conflicting ideas meet in one of the earliest on-screen apple-eating moments, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, from 1937. The seriously naive Snow White is tricked by the witch into eating a big, red, shiny and very poisoned apple, putting her into a rather inconvenient coma. It’s an obvious take on the biblical story again, but she accepts the apple believing it’ll make her dreams (of being literally carried away by a prince to his castle, to live happily ever after; aim higher, Snow, you’re better than that) come true. It turns out to be a big ol’ lie, but still, for Snow White — the fairest and most gullible of them all — the apple is a symbol of security and fulfillment.
Snow White is also noteworthy because, as you may have noticed, it’s one of the few cases where the character eating an apple is female. In the many, many examples I found, only a smattering featured women. It’s surely yet another signifier that, shockingly, Hollywood is run by a bunch of dudes — a bunch of dudes who love watching other dudes eat apples, apparently.
Along with sexism, the powers-that-be also want to champion food waste. No character seems capable of taking more than a couple of bites of their apple, usually then throwing it aside. “I think that’s in-keeping with their villainy,” says Schager. “It suggests their flippant disregard for everything in front of them, or in their grasp. In that regard, an apple is also an ideal fruit for an antagonist.”
Pure evil. But even more disturbing is a theory from Carcamo, which blew my tiny mind: “Apples symbolize healthy habits. In this way, they represent a character seeing themselves as superior, because they’re consuming healthy foods. If the character was eating ice cream, this wouldn’t convey the same level of superiority.”
Those bastards are getting fitter and healthier than the rest of us with every bite. Truly, a level of cunning I didn’t expect to find when I started looking into this whole tangy mess. And for that alone, these evil, arrogant, very healthy scumbags should be commended.