The Hero's Journey; Or 'The Not-So-Secret Blueprint Of Every Hollywood Movie'
Welcome to Cracked's Secret Rules Of Movies, where we mercilessly vivisect the modern Hollywood narrative. Today's topic: the hero's journey.
Movies. Cinema. The Poor Man’s Plays. Wordless Books. Uncle Flimothy’s Sequential Image-Contrivances. No matter what you call them, movies are one of the world’s most popular art forms, totally dominating media like “opera” and “ballet” and “choosing a Mother’s Day card which is polite yet subtly resentful.” I have spent virtually my entire life trying to break into the film industry, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: for a creative industry, there’s quite a lot of dogma. There’s an expected orthodoxy around filmmaking that’s been so deeply ingrained in our culture that if you start to strip it away, it becomes unclear what even qualifies as a “movie.”
I love movies. They have the capacity to be emotional, sensual, funny, colorful, and delightful, not unlike having sex with a clown. But they should also have the capacity to be challenging, strange, uncomfortable, and horrifying – like having sex with two clowns (known colloquailly as a “Three Ring Circus”). In this five-part column series, I want to peel away layer after layer of some of the most commonly-accepted “rules'' of filmmaking. We’ll start with the rules deemed to be the least essential and move on to those deemed so absolutely critical that you can’t make a movie without them. I want to raise some thought-provoking questions, like Why do blockbusters cling so tightly to these rules?, and Is it possible for film to break free from the confines of cinematic orthodoxy?, and Why does this guy talk about having sex with clowns so much?
And so, to start with, we’re going to talk about the shape of a story.
What’s the Rule?
For many neophyte writers, the idea of writing an entire story seems like a task so daunting as to be an impossibility on par with going to Denny’s and not creating wild new smells later. An entire story? Where ANYTHING can happen? And it’s not even multiple-choice? It seems overwhelming.
Young creatives everywhere, in many different disciplines, often feel like they’ve discovered a cheat code when they learn about story shapes. (A “cheat code,” by the way, is something video games used to have where you could do a specific input to trigger a special effect in single player games. Yes, they used to make single-player games.) The point is that many stories you see – not just in film! – follow a quantifiable, identifiable pattern of story beats. Very few mainstream stories are completely free from this influence. Depending on how much stock you put in parasociology, this pattern predates not just film, but even the written word. It might be hardwired into our DNA. You’ve probably heard of it at some point, and even if you haven’t you’ve definitely seen something that adheres to it: the Hero’s Journey.
If you’re sneering at me writing about a concept that feels a little too ‘Film 101’ for you, let me assure you that later entries in this series will get more esoteric and also that Boondock Saints is not, contrary to your belief, the greatest movie ever made. Dr. Strange is also not an “experimental film” and if I hear you say that in person I will – this is not a joke, look in my eyes – I will whip you with a boat antenna for the entire duration of Meshes of the Afternoon.
Travel with me to the 1970s, the zenith of American cinema and hair but the nadir of fashion and cuisine. There was a certain unspoken belief in that halcyon decade that science was closing in on the discovery of magic – this belief was surprisingly ubiquitous in academia and would lead directly to the birth of Ghostbusterology just a scant decade later. A man you may know of named George Lucas said that a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces had been a major influence on the science fiction film he’d just made, and just like that a book originally published in the '40s became a staple of the film industry and enjoyed a huge surge in popularity, partially because it appealed to the '70s belief that the quantifiable discovery of magic was just around the corner. The preponderance of this belief roughly coincides with the popularity of cocaine: draw from that what conclusions you will.
Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and comparative-mythologists-about-town, was a dude who read, like, bales of myths. You might think the weird friendless kid with bad posture from your middle school read a lot of mythology, but Campbell puts me to shame. Campbell noticed something about these myths: they all seem to follow a broadly similar pattern. Hugely disparate cultures from all around the world, cultures which existed thousands of years apart, many of which had no knowledge of each other, all seemed to have a core myth or myths that followed the same structure – a structure Joey C-Note dubbed “The Hero’s Journey.”
The gross oversimplifications of the previous sentence will probably piss off a few comparative mythologists, but that’s okay because if there’s two groups of people I’m confident I could kick the asses of it’s people who get mad at me on the internet and comparative mythologists. (Whaddaya gonna do, analyze me through a Jungian lens? Good luck, nerd.) Anyway, speaking of Jungian lenses, Campbell drew some questionable conclusions about all this. He was pretty sure that all of these myths were so similar because they were part of an original myth, a Tower of Babel of storytelling, and if we could reconstruct that we could learn some sort of ultimate truth. He also thought that myths were so similar because all human beings are connected by a collective unconscious and that myths were some sort of divine transference of an unknowable mystery from some other plane of being. Look, I know that’s losing a lot of nuance, but I can’t really sum up the man’s entire body of work in two paragraphs.
But Why, Though?
Hold up, wasn’t this article about movies? Why yes, it was. See, whether or not all the mystical stuff Campbell ascribed to the similarity of myths, there’s another possible explanation: maybe the reason the heroes of these myths all follow a broadly similar journey is that, over a long enough time, myths go through a sort of mimetic evolution and wind up in the forms which we humans most respond to. Maybe the myths that last the longest – the most popular, the most meaningful – all slowly change overtime into the shape that we most respond to. Maybe there’s some primal, atavistic impulse that fires up our monkey brains when we hear about someone leaving the familiar, journeying into the unknown, triumphing over the un-triumph-able, and return with something that causes change. Maybe that’s the same impulse that leads us to explore, to be curious, to seek out new things. It’s what animates us to explore the cosmos and to wonder what’s inside the scary abandoned house with FREE CANDY written in what appears to be blood on the door. It’s probably not free candy…but what if it is? Then we’ve got free candy, AND a kickass story to tell!
Whether because they thought they were tapping into some interconnective psychic wellspring or because they thought the Hero’s Journey was a tried-and-true shortcut to storytelling success, the die was cast. Screenwriters, musicians, novelists, and artists of all stripes were off to the races. All manner of art was being made from Campbell’s blueprints.
Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is broken down into seventeen discrete parts, each part of a larger third, making it easy to pattern a story afer. It has the natural rise-and-fall rhythm we expect from good stories baked right in. I’m not going to break them all down because this article is already drier than microwave safety symposia and for the low low price of several thousand dollars you too can take a Screenwriting 101 course. What you need to know is this: this is not something people noticed in retrospect and were like “hey, isn’t it funny how you can take movies and make them fit into Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?” No, writers deliberately follow the Hero’s Journey. I am friends with multiple working TV writers who explicitly use it as a blueprint.
Sure, some play fast and loose with how literally the interpret the beats (Shrek doesn’t literally die and become reborn as a god, unlike Neo from The Matrix or Jesus from VeggieTales Presents: Baal Vs. The Artichokes). Some beats have fallen out of fashion – the rank efficiency of filmic storytelling has made the Refusal of the Call all but extinct. Nobody wants to see some poor jagoff begging Spider-Man to stop the Goldenrod Gremlin from destroying the Puppy Orphanage only for Spider-Man to be like “no thank you, maybe next time.” But a truly staggering number of films follow the Hero’s Journey, from Avatar to The Wizard of Oz to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to the aforementioned Star Wars. I am now obligated by Comedy Law to make a George Lucas joke:
This is all really just scratching the surface. There are literally books written about the books written about the Hero’s Journey. It’s one of those things, like the Snyder Beat Sheet, that once you recognize it you can predict a movie’s entire plot in the first ten minutes. This isn’t even taking into account things like The Golden Bough, which is also influential on film. It argues that most religious stories boil down to the ritual murder/sacrifice of a god-king which will allow the cycle of life to begin anew. Keep that in mind next time you see a film which contains what my favorite film professor dubbed TMS, or “traumatic male sacrifice.” The easiest way to find an example of that is to go to your nearest theater and purchase a ticket to almost any movie.
Oh, what’s that? You think films are for snobs and you only watch TV? Well guess what, Sonny Jim: there’s a modified version of the Hero’s Journey widely used in TV, and it’s authored by none other than Rick and Morty co-creator and Slavoj Žižek impersonator Dan Harmon.
It looks like this:
I know this image is crunchier than an attachment from your aunt’s email SUBJECT:FW:FW:FW:TOO GOOD NOT TO SHARE!!! PROOF “”HUSSAIN”” OBAMA FAKED THE MOON LANDING, but try and read point eight: the master of both worlds. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this circle is so common Rick and Morty actually made a joke about it:
Okay, But What if You Didn’t?
Look, there’s way more to be said here. I didn’t even get to mention Kurt Vonnegut’s theory of Story Shapes because this article is already becoming too long for average toilet reading. If you’re still here, thank you and also good luck on your colonoscopy tomorrow!
So now the question is, what if you were to forego the Hero’s Journey? What would that movie look like? And the answer is: you’ve got a lot of films to choose from to find out. I’m not going to draw this last part out too much because, unlike the upcoming entries, it’s not too hard to find films that don’t follow the Hero’s Journey. Film Noir doesn’t usually seem to line up with it too neatly. Biopics don’t either – turns out it’s hard to squeeze The Magic Flight into The Man Who Sucks at Cats But Also Everything Else: The Ballad of Jackson Galaxy. Like a tarot reading, the Hero’s Journey is vague enough that if you really tried you could shoehorn most narrative movies to fit it. Also like tarot reading, Los Angeles has a shockingly large amount of people who make six figures a year giving advice to young people based on it.
Instead of laboriously laying out every movie that follows the Hero’s Journey and what its ubiquity has done to popular films as a medium, I’m briefly going to highlight a movie I love that doesn’t follow the Hero’s Journey. At least not perfectly. I’m not going to watch your three hour YouTube essay telling me why I’m wrong unless the nudity is truly tasteful. The movie in question is Killing Them Softly.
The odds are good that you haven’t seen this movie. It was poorly received by audiences upon release – in fact, since they started operations in 1979, it’s one of only 22 films to receive a Cinemascore of F. Killing Them Softly a sort of gritty, violent, darkly comic noir-adjacent crime thriller that’s also a bitter indictment of America. It is, in many ways, a movie about failure. You know, a little light viewing, something to throw on as background viewing during a party or if you want the orgy to start winding down. It stars Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, and James Gandolfini. This movie has more GOATs in it than a Carl’s Jr. burger.
I’m not going to lay out the plot for you, because I think that would sort of miss the point of the movie. It’s a comedy of errors about violent criminals all stabbing each other in the back and trying to get ahead while America tries to make itself believe it’s anything other than a corporation pretending to be patriotic. The focus jumps around between all these different dirtbags and the mistakes they make while trying to screw each other over. I have nothing but effusive, obnoxious enthusiasm for this movie, but it is perhaps an object lesson in why studios like scripts that stick to a tried-and-true formula: remember when I saw it got an F from Cinemascores? Audiences, it seems, were baffled by a narrative absent the familiar devices of Campbell’s mythos.
Or maybe something as bitterly cynical as Killing Them Softly needs Brad Pitt to hang dong to be palatable, I’m not sure. But I’m willing to find out, dammit!
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant or showrunner’s assistant on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.
Top image: GAS-Photo/Shutterstock