What is the Hero’s Journey in a movie and why is it important?
It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t get taught in a basic script writing course (check here), but if all the elements of the Journey are not in place, the audience will feel that something is missing, something they can’t quite put there finger on. Who devised the idea of the Hero’s Journey?
The quick academic answer is in the early part of the 20th century there was a guy named Joseph Campbell, and he was studying myths and legends and stories from all over the world. He started noticing something similar in all these stories and what he noticed was that heroines and heroes from every time period were taking more or less the same journey.
He called this the Hero’s Journey. It’s a circular pattern with got three basic parts:
He went on to fill in that circle with many more points of detail but for our talk we’ll just stick to the basics. A heroine or hero starts off in their village, or subdivision, or office cubicle and they get separated from it. Sometimes they get lost, sometimes they get kicked out. Sometimes Laurence Fishburne shows up and says ‘you can take the red pill or you could take the blue pill’.
Anyway it goes, this person is now on an adventure, whether they like it or not. The adventure is full of challenges. Typically there’s a helper that comes to guide them along the way. They get magical powers or maybe they get a magic weapon. They struggle, but finally evil is vanquished. The dragon is slayed, the Death Star explodes.
The hero has been initiated from average person to hero person but that’s not the end of it. Then they have to return to the village to share the treasure and sometimes they’re just happy to be alive when they get back.
A good example of this is the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is living an average farm life but deep down she is wishing for something more. Something over the rainbow. Getting her wish, a giant tornado comes and picks up her house and she’s deposited in the Land of Oz.
The Good Witch of the North comes to greet her with what’s known as a ‘call to adventure’. She says ‘Okay Dorothy, if you want to make it home, follow this yellow brick road and go find The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy goes on the classic quintessential journey.
She meets helpers that aid her on her journey, she gets some magic slippers, she struggles and almost dies many times but finally they find the Wizard, only to discover he’s a fraud. Some dude from Omaha I believe, but it doesn’t matter because the trials of the journey have initiated her from farm girl to hero girl.
She realizes that what she was looking for she had inside her the whole time. She only has to click her heels together to return home. Separation, initiation and return, that’s the basic idea. You can go see this pattern develop in any movie that you watch.
l here’s where it gets fun because it turns out that the adventures and misadventures of your life follow the same pattern. Stories are essentially the same, because they all come from the same place . They all come from humans, whether living in the pyramid 3,000 years ago or in a trailer park right now.
We all fear and desire the same things. We all fear judgment, pain and death. We all desire love and happiness. What you see when you watch a movie is your own hopes, dreams and fears chasing each other around in the form of good guys and bad guys, causing drama, resolving conflict just like life.
We are not separate from the characters we see in our movies and in our novels. They are us. It’s one journey and if it’s all one journey, then that makes you a hero. You are the hero of your own journey. I don’t mean ‘hero’ like you’re going to save the Earth from aliens or you’re going to rescue school children from a burning building. I mean hero like in the day to day living of your life.
Do you live with fear or do you live with courage and compassion? Campbell went on a made a remarkable correlation between the hero’s journey and the living of your life. He gives this advice to his students. You’ve probably heard it many times:
“Follow your bliss. Do that thing that fills you with the most joy and do it no matter what. That is the starting place for a real life Hero’s Journey.” Let’s use an easy example – Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs went on the same journey as the Grail Knights, the Knights looking for the Holy Grail.
He followed his bliss into the forests of Silicon Valley. There was no path. He blazed his own trail. As he travelled, miracles of coincidences manifested, as well as epic disasters that he had to overcome. Finally, he gets the Grail and returned to share it with all of us.
Okay, so we’re not Steve Jobs and we’re not Oprah. We might not be a big shots doing big things but we are all Dorothy, and we are all the Grail Knights. Whether you are raising a family, or starting a business, or teaching children, or saving the world from another zombie apocalypse, the journey is the same.
The Hero’s Journey is kind of like a road map. You can see what the path looks like and so you can see where you are on the cycle. Did you answer the call to adventure? Are you following your bliss?