The Hero’s Journey as Screenplay
Last week we were talking about the “hero’s journey” in myth. This week let’s talk about movies.
The neophyte writer, when he arrives in Tinseltown, very soon gets wised up to the lingo—“inciting incident,” “Act Two curtain,” “All Is Lost moment” and so forth. It’s not so much that there’s a “formula.” But there’s definitely a “vocabulary.”
The reason there’s a vocabulary is that certain structural concepts work in stories, and others don’t. How do moviemakers know this (forgetting for a moment William Goldman’s famous axiom, “Nobody knows anything”)? They know by the box office. The Monday morning ticket figures. Audiences line up for some movies and run away from others.
William Goldman said another very smart thing. He said “Screenplays are structure.” What he meant was that the building blocks of the story and how they are arranged are the most important elements in the success of a screen drama or comedy. What comes first, what comes second, what’s left in, what’s left out. If the architecture works emotionally, the movie will work, even if the casting is less than inspired and the dialogue fails to rise to Academy Award level.
What’s interesting to me is that these building blocks often parallel, beat by beat, Joseph Campbell’s throughline of the “hero’s journey.”
Herewith those beats in myth: the hero starts out unconscious, the hero receives a “call,” the hero ventures forth, meets outlandish characters, receives aid from unexpected sources (often divine or semi-divine), suffers, is lost, despairs, and finally returns home—often in a guise unrecognizable to others.
That’s a movie. That’s a screenplay.
In the prototypical screen story, the protagonist starts out in “normal” life. Think about Taken, The Hangover, Bridesmaids. But something is out-of-kilter or potentially out-of-kilter. Suddenly: a shock! The inciting incident propels the hero out of normal life and into movie life.
We have launched ourselves upon the “hero’s journey.”
From here to the end of the movie (as Robert McKee has astutely observed), the protagonist wants only to restore order. He wants to get his daughter back, find Doug, return to sanity. In screenwriter’s argot, this is Act One.
Act Two is the trial of the actual journey. Stephen Cannell (one of the masters of storytelling) said something very wise. “Act Two is about the villain.” He meant that the hero is now encountering resistance to everything he tries. If he’s Matt Damon in a Bourne movie, the poor guy can’t even stop to hit the men’s room without the toilet exploding. Thank goodness he’s got Franka Potente—i.e. “aid from unexpected sources.”
Act Two in a movie is the guts of the “hero’s journey.” In this section, the protagonist encounters not just random resistance or evil, but Bad Stuff that’s specific to him. The theme of the hero’s ordeal arises from unacknowledged elements of his own internal disequilibrium. The hero is becoming conscious of his own shit. Bourne is trying to unravel his forgotten past; Stu in The Hangover is wrestling with issues of standing up to his bully girlfriend.
But at the same time as the hero’s struggle is specific to him or her alone, it is also universal. It’s your story and mine. It’s myth.
In myth and in movies, Act Two ends with the All Is Lost moment. At this point, the hero is facing maximum resistance. He is as far from his goal as he can possibly be. Paradoxically, he is also on the threshold of the breakthrough he has been seeking. What he must do is change, and the change is of consciousness as much as of action.
In Act Three, the hero returns home. The hero brings a gift. The hero restores equilibrium to his life. He is no longer the person he was, but the person he has become.
In other words, movies have been using the “hero’s journey” since long before Joseph Campbell introduced the concept into the popular vernacular.
Why? Because it works. The dazed and confused human being (i.e., you and I standing in line to buy our tickets) responds to the on-screen projection of the story that’s already engraved upon our hearts—and has been for tens of millions of years. That story never gets old. We want to hear it again and again. We never get tired of it.
Life is hard. Life is bewildering. Worst of all, life—as most of us experience it—is devoid of significance. That’s why we need stories. Movies, which are structured deliberately to follow the timeless beats of the hero’s journey (with a creative deviation here and there), make life seem like it has significance. The story may end sadly, even tragically. But, as the filmmakers have shaped it and mounted it, it has meaning. It is not random. It is not without significance.
My own view is that such stories are not nonsense. They may be formula, they may be pulp; they may be venal and they may be escapist. But they’re not just Hollywood flimflam. The hero’s journey, in myth or in movies, reflects a primal template of the human heart. It describes how life really works.
The protagonist in a movie or the hero in a book (or you and I living from day to day) must, over and over, come to see what he has refused to see. He must acknowledge what he has fled from acknowledging. He must face what he has refused to face. Whether the final wrap-up is “Trust the Force, Luke” or “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” that transformation invariably comes at the end of a journey that looks and feels a lot like myth.
Next week we’ll start exploring how all this fits for you and me as artists and entrepreneurs.