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.

The warning sings are there, rumbling beneath the surface.  In 2011, Hollywood’s movie-based revenue declined 4.5 percent from 2010 grosses.

Scholars point suspiciously to new technologies that eat away movie profits, including streaming.  And Roger Ebert suggests that the actual theatrical experience is at fault for this decline.  But could the reason behind diminishing revenue be something deeper than shifts in viewing habits?

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 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 [2008])

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 [1991], Clerks [1994]) 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. [1996]) 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...


  1. claudiu3:27 PM

    i think

    that if the story is good, movie goers will want to watch it. even if it is a re-re-re-re-refurbished hero story.

    The problem I see with some of the hero movies nowadays is that they are not fun to watch anymore.

    - Green Lantern was lame. no fun, no soul.
    - Thor was only marginally better, again, very little humor. Only one (one!) honest attempt at fun.
    - X-Men should not even be mentioned, it was that bad.

    oh, and the problem with revenues might be because of that horrendous invention called a drama comedy. Can't stand those.



    If I never have to endure another film/novel/comic/whatever involving characters referred to as "The One" or "The Chosen One" I will be a very happy man indeed.

    What is it about being a spineless boot-licker that appeals to so many people? Why do we fall all over ourselves to be intellectually and emotionally beholden to all these "messiahs?" And you are absolutely correct: For a country that flaps it's jaws endlessly about individual freedom, we sure do spend a lot of time fantasizing about being worshipful supplicants to these Christ figures. The mind reels. But then, being an atheist, I guess I'm automatically a bad audience for this sort of thing. A lot of what turns my stomach about religion are these notions of "surrender" and "worship," which I find deeply troubling and frankly insulting to human dignity.

    As a people, we need to expend a lot more time and effort analyzing the deeper implications of our "entertainment." You're fighting the good fight here, John. Keep it up.

  3. What a potent premise and opinion piece, John! Bravo. I read it and found it stimulating and spot-on. I agree with much in it. Now, I do believe that writers of fiction, and screenwriters themselves, have original concepts and stories still to tell. Yet, the problem, I believe, lies with publishers and the studios. Making a living in either writing field involves those who pay for such things (for books and movies). They are the overlords and their demand is for (and what they believe is) the sure thing. It's the bottom-line mentality in almost everything this country produces. They are the ones pushing the formulaic, especially in bestseller and blockbuster enterprises.

    Unfortunately, they're not going to change their ways still the bottom falls out for that hero recipe. I, too, understand your thoughts about it being somewhat fascistic. The 'Dynamic' or 'Super' Man Theory'. The hero concept is very Friedrich Nietzsche, isn't it? I think our culture is very accepting of it given how we triumph in the 'individual'. It's very much reflected in our films across a number of genres (westerns, action thrillers, etc.). Contrast that with the more group perspective demonstrated in something like Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI. Makes me think we're pre-conditioned for this type of hero fare. I've enjoyed it for a long time, to be honest.

    Perhaps, the paradigms you wrote about, are out there, and in number. But, they're found in smaller films, in genres less frequented. Or, not in popular cinema, at all. Things like BREAKING BAD on cable come readily to mind in not following a prescription. Or, in the storytelling of gaming programmers. Makes one think that there is always hope out there for something original in the mythology still being written.

    Thoughtful article, my friend. Many thanks for sharing it with your readers.

  4. A thought-provoking article for screenwriters and viewers alike! Arguably the best in screen entertainment today eschews such a formula, although I can't help but think of a few such heroes that have inspired me to be more than just an admiring peasant, even if I don't have the birthright. Thanks, as always, though, for seeking to raise the bar, John!

    And of course you get extra marks for quoting Jose Chung!

  5. Also, to answer your question more directly... I think the hero's journey can still be made interesting and rewarding, but it is often approached from an all too familiar direction and one-dimensional perspective.

    I recently watched "The Crusader" episode of America in Primetime, the excellent PBS documentary series. One comment that struck a chord was - and I'm paraphrasing - how we are all such a mess of contradictions, and that characterisation in drama needs to reflect this more.

    Film and television is all the more interesting to me when it tackles that notion head-on, when our heroes are not just fallible, but nuanced and multi-dimensional, like every one of us. That depth and truth of character is, to me, is at the heart of great drama, and can carry me on the journey of such a hero.

  6. Grayson7:54 PM

    Well, John, I'm sure you are hoping that the Space: 1999 reboot announced today ends up using the Cultural Origin Myth that you mentioned.



  7. Claudiu: You make an interesting point, but I think that part of the reason movies are not fun to watch anymore is because we've seen the hero with a thousand faces a thousand times. A boredom factor sets in, and we're left looking at digital effects, and feeling nothing in our hearts. Our minds start to glaze over...

    Count Zero: We're on the same page, buddy. Join me in the good fight! Seriously, it is weird, isn't it, how so many fantasies involve the audience as "emotionally beholden to messiahs." The concept is okay when done well. I like the team work, for instance of Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in The Matrix movies...that cuts through some of "Chosen One" stink. But really, I feel like we got the hero's journey six or seven times this summer ALONE.

    Time for a change. I'm all for it, and I'll push it whenever and wherever I can...

    Le0pard13: You bring up an excellent point about studios and publishers pushing the hero's journey on writers. Studios have readers who look for certain things, and demand certain things, and writers gotta eat. That's absolutely true.

    I do think the hero's journey has a place, but I think it has been so overdone as late as to be almost comical. I yearn to see an adventure movie where the template is, at the very least, not so obvious. I also agree with you that TV offers a whole different ballgame Until 2009's feature (which I did enjoy and like) Star Trek was never a hero's journey story. It came from a different kind of of tradition and background. Breaking Bad is another excellent example.

    Adam: I love what you wrote about heroes -- about characters -- being contradictory and fallible. This is what I desire too. Something that reflects the multi-dimensional character of human existence. I think our films need more of that quality. I also feel that the hero's journey is redeemable. It's not that the prototype is bad, or untrue, necessarily, it's that it is being used as a fill-in-the-blank equation, a formula. When something is regimented like that, creativity in the storytelling process just really bleeds out, in my opinion.

    A new primary paradigm could shake things up a bit, and maybe force the hero's journey writers to showcase some originality.

    Grayson: The Cultural Origin Myth in terms of Space:1999 would be a terrific angle to proceed from. I'd love to see the new series go that way. And stranger things have happened.

    I've decided to be optimistic about the whole thing, at least until I have reason not to be.

    best to all,

  8. You make some very good points (eh, except for the OWS remark *wink*). I, too, in recent years have noticed that movies are become increasingly lazy with the material.

    Yet I would be careful not to put the blame on Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’ monomyth, though I don’t think that’s what you’re doing. The problem with so many of the recent films you listed isn’t that they’re using the formula, but that they’re not using the formula ...or, more precisely, that these films are merely feigning the presence of mythological insight. Implementing Campbell’s monomythic structure into your movie is not about the structure itself. It’s about purpose.

    The whole idea is to use that general structure as a launching point to explore a wider variety of cultural, sociological or psychological themes via analogy, metaphor, poetics what-have-you. It’s one thing to throw in a “chosen one” cliché merely to give your audience a familiar narrative form, but another thing altogether to take that idea and spin it this way or that as to address a particular point or number of points, to paint a larger picture. For example:

    Anakin Skywalker wasn’t the chosen one just because. I’ll reframe from getting too deep into a Star Wars discussion, but one theme being explored here is how a prophecy within a religious or spiritual order -- an establishment, institution, orthodox -- is as often a danger to that order because that which is prophesized, even if it foresees the greater good, is a threat to the current hierarchy. Also, Anakin as the messiah isn’t necessarily about special hero saving us, it’s simply about us. Anakin fails and is a product of failure. He’s a great big, pulpy, melodramatic projection of human nature.

  9. Very very nice. A very thoughtful and articulate piece. I enjoyed it very much.

    My thoughts immediately went to the new Battlestar series.

    I've been considering that series a good deal of late and I think it really does a very nice job of breaking from convention and formula and a whole gamut of expectations.

    The series gennuinely intrigued me and kept me out of a comfort zone. I can't say I entirely embraced certain aspects of it, but it was indeed a terrific, refreshing approach to the genre while infusing elements of the classic series I still adore.

    I think Ronald Moore enjoyed breaking from those tropes you write so eloquently about here.

    With Star Trek, another franchise where formula and certain guidelines have been pre-established, Moore was restricted within that pre-existing framework. In some ways, I suspect he enjoyed breaking free with his reinvention of Galactica, for all pros and cons.

    But, again, the idea of the hero as you described them in this fine piece never seems to establish itself on that series in the conventional sense and for that it remained unsettling and unique if not entirely satisfying. It was indeed an interesting journey for a decentralized ensemble cast.

    I suppose LOST takes a similar tact, and while I enjoyed enjoyed that series least, those first three seasons were pretty powerful and unexpected. Is this why I enjoyed those series so much? Understandably they both had trouble sealing the deal with their unconventional narratives, but their original approaches were anything but stale or predictable.

    Clearly, these stories may fall somewhere on or between Paradigm 1 and Paradigm 2.

    I think your reflection on these paradigms is a great start and apply well to these two aforementioned series that I ennjoyed immensely for a time.

    Do we take something new from these examples? I don't know, because they do fall well within those aforementioned groups.

    By the way, I thought your point about these fascisct structures was particularly excellent. It's ironic these stories of the ONE are often delivered by elite, liberal Hollywood types who bemoan anything of a conservative nature. They piously stand before the masses suggesting the concept of OCCUPY as noble etc.. yet their ideas and narratives for film suggest something much different where the masses are but simpletons and little people. Just interesting. It's one worth refelecting.

    Great work here. Best, sff

  10. The Hero's Journey has become the hack writers best friend. My problem with the Star Trek reboot is that James Kirk went through the hero's journey like a check list including miraculous birth. Don't even get me started on the Star Wars homages.

  11. Cannon:

    I love how you put that: the movie's today "feign" knowledge of the myth. I agree. They are shallow and superficial, and I argue that comes from thinking of the heroic journey not actually in terms of the mythology and stories themselves, but in terms of a "how-can-I-most-easily-succeed" screenwriter's formula, one breathlessly sold and marketed by self-help gurus. Excellent point.

    Will: You are absolutely right that the 2009 Star Trek -- for the first time in that franchise's history -- turned to the heroic journey as template. I agree. I still think the movie was pretty good. The template worked in that case, though I hate to see something that never depended on a formula succumb to it.

    And yes, the hero's journey is the last refuge of a hack writer. I agree 100 percent!

    best to all,

  12. I couldn't agree more, and I'll go a step further. Storytelling has been held hostage recently by the tyranny of "stucture" and the idea that story must have an "arc". Great stories are ultimately character based and the "arc" often occurs out of the characters' interactions with each other and external events rather than an artificially-imposed "structure". As examples I'll cite "Gone With the Wind", "Wuthering Heights", "The Bank Dick", "Duck Soup", "Bringing up Baby" or any Robert Altman film. These stories all follow their own internal logic and make little sense from a modern idea of "structure" though there is clear character growth and movement toward climax and resolution. I'd love to see some SF films that emulate these sort of precursors.

  13. Anonymous9:21 AM

    first of all my english is poor so please be indulgent.
    When i was reading your paper, i was thinking of movie like M (Fritz Lang 1931), Tokyo Story (Ozu 1953), Harakiri (1962 Kobayashi) Mon oncle d'amerique (My American Uncle Alain Resnais 1980) ou Mon oncle (Tati) or more recently the thing (Carpenter) or Only god forgive. What i mean is : there is many many other story but : 1 blockbuster spend so much in commercial so you really need to be curious to know there is something else, 2 maybe it's just hard to see something else in USA (i don't know), 3 Hollywood thinks he can not escape his economical model....
    But in a movie-festival 5 years ago, i saw a preview of an italian movie with a hero who can't step up his condition, can't speak to the woman he loves, go to jail for nothing and... the end.Everybody in the audience was frustrated and the movie went direct-to-dvd.
    So, maybe, director who escapes "the heroic journey" can be genius and acclaimed (very rare) or just don't have any success.80 millions movie Producers won't take this risk. It s friday night you go to see a movie with your friends, you just want to relax with what you know. They count on that.
    And can we escape our human condition ? There are some gods since the beginning of known humanity and every time we believe this is the one. What i mean is : maybe we need it (god , heroe's journey, whatever) as human.We can't go further. Maybe few people, sometime, but all of us ?
    Well, please take this lightly, i'm just an unemployed musician in France, not a philosopher :-)

    have a good day.

    1. No need to apologize for your English. I definitely got the drift. And I don't disagree with anything you said. I think the impetus to make something "commercial" is indeed the very reason why we see so many re-iterations of this myth. As you note, people don't want to be confronted with the new, or the uncomfortable, and so conservative producers copy rather than innovate. The problem is that we are at the point where that approach -- the copying -- is not meeting better results than innovating. Big movies are bombing left and right because there is a sense that they are familiar; that you know how they are going to turn out, or shape up. So my point is that a good solid innovation can break the stranglehold, perhaps, and speak to the need to see something original, or at least not derivative of a thousand other movies. People do seek what they know, but familiarity also breeds contempt. It's a tough thicket, but Hollywood better figure out how to navigate it.

      Thank you for a great comment this morning, and you have a good day too!


  14. Anonymous8:41 AM

    I just stumbled upon this conversation so I am late to the party. Interesting thoughts about the state of current writing and media in general. Consider for a moment that it is easier than ever before to make movies, write, or be creative in a public way. If you have a phone you can make a movie, a computer you can write something for the whole world to see, or a laptop and a guitar and you can put your music out there. All that diversity and variation and it seems that the remakes come faster than ever. In terms of movies specifically, where are the great screenwriters? Who will challenge and entertain us at the same time? The movies I have enjoyed the best most recently were much more a sum of their parts and an "experience" of media. I found Gravity mesmerizing but not because of its script. The plot was a broad stroke of an idea to place two characters in jeopardy. The movie was the experience of watching that moment happen. One could argue that this film was the pinnacle of sight, sound, and vision in film as we know it recently. A sort of "roller coaster" ride to quote so many critics.
    The Matrix was a fine example of "mythic" writing 101 but with such a deliriously inventive visual style that it bridged the gap between familiar and new effortlessly. Then the two sequels beat the initial conceit over our heads relentlessly with nothing more than pyrotechnics. They literally had no soul.
    My comment would be that we are willing to watch familiar stories if we sense that they are genuine. The Green Lantern had no grounding, even within its world. The most banal backstories possible were written to give an excuse to film a movie. The studio threw millions of dollars at an outline.
    The good news is that I am still willing to wait and anticipate that moment. I believe that it will come. Someone will create something new and familiar at the same time that innovates as well as regards its predecessors with respect. The fun is in finding it.

    Thanks for your time!



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