No More Heroes Anymore

The Hero’s Journey: mythic or myth? ☛

Toby Litt recently wrote a fascinating article in which he argued that writing screenplays about climate issues has become difficult because movie screenwriters, and indeed audiences, have all got too use to the Hero’s Journey model of storytelling. His logic goes that tackling climate change requires collective action, but movies have conditioned us to follow the story of a single protagonist – an individual, not a community. In a very real way movie heroes are not only failing to save the world, they’re preventing us from doing so. At the very least the Hero’s Journey is holding us back from writing better stories.

Rewind  – what’s the Hero’s Journey?

1949 – anthropologist Joseph Campbell publishes his seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He argues that all myths are retellings of the same story – the monomyth. According to Campbell the archetypal narrative is:

“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.”

The universality of this pattern appeals to George Lucas, who uses it to structure his screenplay for Star Wars (episode IV). In the blockbuster boom created by the staggering success of Lucas’s space opera, writing screenplays to Campbell’s mythic model becomes increasingly popular.

1985 – Hollywood development exec Christopher Vogler condenses Campbell’s work into a 7 page memo for Disney, showing how this story structure existed in movies from Casablanca to ET, Jaws and of course Star Wars. Talking in mythic terms of wise old men, seizing the sword, and enduring supreme ordeals, it soon becomes the bible for Hollywood Studios. When in 1992 Vogler expands his memo into the book The Writer’s Journey, many screenwriters feel that they’ve found a map to the innermost cave containing the secret elixir.

The idea of the Hero’s Journey being the one true model for storytelling has had many adherents – notably most screenwriting gurus have accepted it into their theories. John Yorke talks of  ‘There and back again’; McKee rephrases the form, but doesn’t significantly deviate from it. Some filmmakers have kicked against the idea – notably the Coen Brothers and Michael Haneke – but if you’re not an auteur, rejection of this pattern is often seen as foolishness, if not arrogance:  “All great stores told by all cultures since the dawn of time have been structured in this way. Think you can do better? Knock yourself out!”

So, there you have it: that’s how you write a screenplay, or any story for that matter. I can stop blogging and get back to writing heroes who venture forth…

The only problem is…

It’s not true.

Okay, to be fair there are plenty of stories that follow the model of the Hero’s Journey, possibly even the majority of tales of epic adventure, and even some more mundane stories too… but all great stories? No. Possibly the most telling evidence is that, while many of the tropes Campbell identified exist within it, Star Wars itself is not actually a Hero’s Journey. I’m not even convinced that Luke is in fact the hero of Episode IV. Arguably, a narrative baton is passed between Leia, R2D2, Obi-Wan Kenobe and Luke, each of them taking their turn to keep the story moving forward. Even though Luke is the one who delivers the final decisive shot that saves the day, he does spend most of the film being told what to do. It’s not the story of a hero, it’s the story of a team. Sure, Luke becomes more central as the saga continues, but it was the success of the first film that changed Hollywood.

There isn’t the ‘there and back’ structure that John Yorke and others insist upon: if escaping the Death Star with the plans is the “decisive victory”, the mid-point, it’s weak. They already have the plans before going to the Death Star and they end up there by accident.

It’s interesting, too, that Lucas’s original script conformed more to Campbell’s story shape, but when shot and edited that version just didn’t work. It was only when the story was reassembled in the cutting room, and Luke removed from the first 12 minutes that the story started to come together. Here is an excellent mini-documentary about this process:

Screenwriting gurus will almost certainly object. They have become past masters at explaining how every good story is an expression of the Hero’s Journey. But I think it’s important to remember that the Hero’s Journey is the well-spring of the founding stories of many major religions. As with religion, if you truly believe, it becomes easy to find ways for the facts to fit your argument. It’s called pareidolia: the human tendency to look for and find patterns in the world; and if no pattern is present we’ll see one anyway.  Screenwriting is lonely work and if you can find a beacon, a prophet whose teachings you can follow, then it all become so much easier.

Before a thousand angry screenwriters jump down my throat, I should say that the Hero’s Journey is a pretty good story shape. One protagonist, three acts, battle at the midpoint, there and back again, it can work extremely well. It was used by Homer in The Odyssey and by so many other storytellers before and since. But it is dangerous, damaging, and straight-up wrong to say that it is the one true story structure. That leads to what we have to a great extent in Hollywood storytelling: a monoculture, where stories feel samey and are predictable. And, as in nature, monocultures are not healthy.

The good news is that this monoculture is starting to fade. The growth in serialised storytelling, both in streaming television series and even in blockbusters is leading to a greater range of story shapes. Of course, the Hero’s Journey could easily be serialised, but in practice these formats are favouring stories with multiple or group protagonists, and the pattern of the story changes from movie-to-movie, season-to-season. After all if you have the same story shape in the same world things will soon feel repetitive… remember Star Wars: The Force Awakens? And designing one monolithic story arc just doesn’t work if your show could be cancelled after any given season.

The idea of using the monomyth as a template for creation, rather than just an analysis of pre-existing stories, was always a flawed idea. Why would we want there to be just one story? Why look for ways to make all stories the same? Is it coincidence that Campbell was writing his book in the same year that McDonalds opened their first restaurant, launching a format that would go on to provide standardised, easy-to-digest meals across the planet? Do the golden arches of their logo spell M for monomyth?

No they don’t, but you see how easy pareidolia can be.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2021

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

4 thoughts on “No More Heroes Anymore

  1. Hi Guy. Another interesting piece! After teaching cinematography for a bit, I realised that the only cinematography being taught was the cinematography that can be taught easily and successfully. There’s plenty of great stuff that is almost impossible to teach because it doesn’t conform to a pattern. If I was going to write a book or run an online course I would have to design it around the more conformist content. I imagine this is what happens with a lot of stuff, writing in particular. So we end up with a ‘consensus’ of advice and opinion which isn’t especially accurate. Which, for those who really ‘know’ is actually quite good because it keeps the new young guns at bay. 🙂 Keep well. N

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. Thanks for this Guy – it needs promoting outside of the usual audience 🙂

    Sophie Galleymore Bird oysoph@yahoo.co.uk 07779 297205 writer & activist sophiegalleymorebird.co.uk

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