Thursday, February 09, 2012
I've Seen This Hero a Thousand Times: Why Campbell's Heroic Journey Doesn't Cut it Anymore
"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), page 23.
Might audiences now be rejecting the movie-going experience...because Hollywood too often regurgitates the same old, tired formula?
Today, Joseph Campbell's theory, the so-called "heroic journey," dominates Hollywood, for better or worse. Campbell's description of "The Monomyth" first appeared in 1949, and pinpointed so-called "ageless patterns" in various world mythologies. Campbell laid out this pattern, which he considered a map to the human psyche, and suggested a human "Hero with a Thousand Faces" in his book.
In the 1990s, a screenwriter, Christopher Vogler, penned a famous memo about the utility of the hero's journey in screenwriting. That memo was expanded to book form in The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters. Today, it has become nothing less than the Bible for burgeoning screenwriters...by the boatload.
If you watch movies with any regularity, you recognize immediately all the components of the hero's journey or Monomyth. There's the Call to Action, the Refusal to Action, the Meeting with the Mentor, the First Threshold, the Ordeal, the Reward, the Road Back, and so on. In broad terms, this story is about one person's journey from the ordinary world to the extraordinary world, and back.
There's no doubt that this idea is present throughout mankind's history, both literary and cinematic. The Hero's Journey is one very intriguing paradigm, and its elements are surely tenacious. I'm not suggesting there isn't truth or value to the Heroic Journey, only that it shouldn't be the only mode of storytelling when crafting movie narratives. After all, I love The Matrix films, and Star Wars.
But my personal tastes don't change the fact that Campbell’s Monomyth, the story of a “hero with a thousand faces,” has been depicted so frequently lately that it has begun to shed a not-inconsiderable percentage of its currency.
In 2011 alone, viewers witnessed Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America, all relatively straightforward regurgitations of the Monomyth. As I noted in my review of the film, if you've seen Green Lantern, you've pretty much seen Thor, with just a few hardly noteworthy variations. The actors and costumes are different, but the narratives are incredibly similar.
I absolutely adored Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another 2011 film, but even it was (an abundantly clever) variation on the old heroic journey formula.
So what's the problem?
In short, Campbell's theory about stories and human psychology has been transformed into something more than theory. It has been morphed into the prospective screenwriter's most-likely channel of success: a fill-in-the-blank formula.
A formula is defined as a “fixed or conventional method of approaching something.” Formula also indicates a “procedure to be followed,” and that’s my primary concern here.
Creativity is not a procedure you can follow like a cooking recipe. Storytelling is not merely a matter of shuffling a pre-existing deck of cards. And the human spirit is more multifaceted than any algebraic equation. So why do we insist on shoehorning our entertainment -- our very modern mythology -- into one primary form?
For all its apparent "universality," the hero’s journey is actually merely...ubiquitous. It gets trotted out constantly, so that its very presence reinforces the legend that it is "universally" relevant to the human condition. There are claims made that the hero's journey exists in every culture on Earth, in all time periods of man, and yet we must wonder about such claims, since the Monomyth clearly follows a very Western-centric and patriarchal mode.
As you no doubt realize, the hero’s journey champions the individual -- the single "worthwhile" hero -- and not the efforts of a community. How many movie blockbusters concern, literally, “the Chosen One” (Neo in The Matrix, Anakin in Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer)? And why shouldn’t equally powerful stories be meted instead about “The Ones” instead?
Why must there be only "One?"
For all its much-lauded universality, The Heroic Journey actively promotes only a single, specific value: the value of "all of us" being rescued by one person who happens to be very gifted and very special. He is special usually by din of birth (think Anakin Skywalker), so we have no chance of accomplishing the same achievements he does. Instead, we can be, merely, the admiring peasants.
The widespread acceptance of the hero's journey in our cinema is a little disturbing. It reeks a wee bit of fascism, and I know I'll get in trouble for using that very loaded word. But consider how often blockbuster films suggest that heroism is not a thing to aspire to -- a thing all humans can achieve -- but rather a trait encoded "in the blood" (again, think Anakin's midichlorians, or the film Wanted )
I also often wonder if the pervasive regurgitation of the Hero's Journey has made audiences and people in general more passive and complacent.
We're just waiting around to be rescued.
So while the hero's journey might appeal to our imaginations, it doesn't countenance reality very well. Or worse, it makes reality worse, not better. True tansformational change emerges when people work together, as Occupy Wall Street has begun to demonstrate.
But this isn't a discussion of politics, it's a discussion of storytelling. The hero's journey has been, in modern Hollywood, transformed into a math problem. As Dirk Benedict, the star of The A-Team and Battlestar Galactica noted at one point: " “anybody can write a…script ‘cuz it has been reduced to a formula.”
The hero’s journey is now a marketing, self-help gimmick: the all-important "secret” writers must learn to earn professional success and big paychecks. Notice that the focus here is on attaining fortune, not effective, great storytelling. We will never get better movies (and especially, better genre movies), so long as a writer's attention is devoted to making it, rather than having something meaningful to convey to the audience.
And listen, don't let anyone convince you there isn't more than one way to skin a cat.
Our human experience is wide, deep and mysterious. So why are we getting so many films that mindlessly plug in characters to a pre-existing, over-exposed formula? A good writer might succeed not by copying past stories like some rote mathematical theorem he memorized in high school – plug this in here; plug that in there – but by reaching out, instead, for a new, heartfelt, and relevant story paradigm.
Stories come in all shapes and sizes, boasting many structures and viewpoints, and the limits of storytelling are only the boundaries of human imagination. I truly believe that.
I'm writing this post today, because I believe it is possible to begin the counter-revolution, to tell writers it is okay to innovate rather than imitate. But obviously, I must put my money where my mouth is. I must answer the question: in what other modes may moviemakers, novelists and other writers craft new, unique and compelling stories?
Are there other games in town, or is everything reducible to the Hero's Journey? Is the Monomyth the best we can ever do, and must we look forward to, in the words of Jose Chung, "another thousand years of the same old crap?"
I ask you to join me help me figure that out.
Here are some of the ideas I've put together so far. This is just a beginning, but it could lead to better, more fully-rounded notions.
Paradigm 1: The No Learning Story.
We've seen this paradigm work effectively in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Wolf Creek (2005) and to some extent, Clerks (1994).
In this paradigm, there can be no "hero's journey" because the protagonists don't travel along a recognizable or proscribed arc of learning and knowledge. No learning, no heroes. Instead, lead characters are expressly blocked from progressing through any kind of structured journey, and must grapple with the idea that life is inherently meaningless, unstructured.
I'll be honest, this paradigm appears to work best within the horror genre, where mystery and ambiguity play a big role. It also seems to work with slacker, independent cinema (Slacker , Clerks ) or other dramas that try, in some core fashion, to mirror the reality of human existence, with repetitive and absurd existential content echoing real life's unique form.
Paradigm 2: The (Cultural) Origin Myth.
No, this isn't the superhero origin story, which is - ipso facto -- the heroic journey. Rather, the Origin Myth is a tale that many cultures have utilized, from a (secure) position of being "settled," to explain how their world came to be. How did the Israelites escape from Egypt? How was Rome founded?
My mentor and friend, the late Johnny Byrne, always told me that in his eyes, Space: 1999 was a futuristic origin myth, the story of a great civilization's cosmic sojourn or exodus, replete with divine intervention and other miracles; as if the tale had been told by the Alphan culture after it was established on another planet.
The benefit of the Origin Myth is that it also involves traversing difficult terrain, but need not limit its eyes to one "special" hero who saves the day and brings paradise. Instead, a community or group of people can be involved, working together to craft the future.
Paradigm 3: The Anti-Hero/The Tragedy
Movies such as Attack The Block (2011), Scarface (1983), and Assault on Precinct (1976) all involve not a hero and his tasks, but an anti-hero. I write about this facet of 1970s and 1980s cinema some in my upcoming review of Attack the Block (coming Tuesday) but the anti-hero is notable because he determinedly shuns what society has become. He doesn't face some crisis and "bring back an elixir" that turns the world into a paradise. Instead, he passes judgement on the world around him, and renders punishment like "The Sword of Damocles" (Escape from L.A. ) against those who created the bad world in the first place.
Films such as Scarface concern the downfall of tragic figures, of anti-heroes. I suppose you might be able to lump The Godfather films into this sub-category as well. We're not watching a hero's ascent, but a man or woman's progressive self-destruction. I readily grant that this paradigm is more an inversion or mirror of the hero's journey than any other I've enumerated, as it involves one individual, primarily.
Like I said, a start...
I'd really like to read your thoughts about this. Are you tired of the umpteenth iteration of the familiar hero's journey? Are variations on that one theme enough to keep you going to theaters to see infinite superhero films?
In short: do you believe that the human condition is as simple and universal as the hero's journey tells us it is, or that our lives are dimensional enough to offer a multitude of storytelling paradigms?
I would suggest -- perhaps naively but optimistically -- that a truly successful screenwriter will succeed not by re-shuffling a very familiar deck, but by developing a new set of playing cards.
Perhaps that's the hero's journey the screenwriting profession needs to undertake, and soon...