Very rarely do I ever have a conversation about screenplay structure where the topic of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey doesn’t come up. I first came across Campbell’s work as a young Philosophy and Religion major and watched his interview series with Bill Moyers. As a lifelong Star Wars fanatic, there was the added side of Campbell’s story, that he had dramatically influenced George Lucas when he was writing Star Wars.
It wasn’t until a few years later when I took a screenwriting class that The Hero’s Journey once again came up. But this time, completely unrelated to the world of mythology, but as a way of storytelling in both books and films. But I before we go specifically into what the Hero’s Journey is, I think it’s important to understand what it is not. Joseph Campbell never intended the Hero’s Journey to be used as a structural method for writers. Campbell’s work was dedicated to understanding world mythology and the commonalities between the different aspects of religions all over the world. The Hero’s Journey was meant to demonstrate the way in which myths and religions all over the worlds with little to no connection to one another, told stories that had a very specific structure and “beats” if you will. As there are no cultural ties to the story, it therefore means that the ideas found in the Hero’s Journey reflect more about the way we as humans relate through stories.
It is for exactly this reason that the film industry had adopted the hero’s journey structure into virtually every film. Speaking strictly in terms of dollars and sense, it is a very quick way to create stories that are universal and, therefore, marketable in virtually every corner of the globe.
So what exactly is Campbell’s Hero’s Journey all bout. If you have watched Star Wars or Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, you have no doubt noticed several commonalities in the structure. A young innocent boy (or girl) lives in a small town (or planet) and is suddenly called to adventure in some way. They at first resist this change to their world knowing that it will require strength and most likely cause suffering. But, they soon meet a mentor (usually an old man) who helps them use their power and overcome their fear and the adventure begins.
Probably one of the best explanations of the full Hero’s Journey if from Iskander Krayenbosch
So, in review, here’s a breakdown.
Stages of the hero’s journey:
- Birth: Amazing circumstances surrounding birth and childhood.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is called to adventure by some external event or messenger. The Hero may accept the call willingly or reluctantly.
- Mentors/Helpers/Amulet: During the early stages of the journey, the hero will often receive aid from a protective figure. This supernatural helper can take a wide variety of forms, such as a wizard, and old man, a dwarf, a crone, or a fairy godmother. The helper commonly gives the hero a protective amulet or weapon for the journey.
- Crossing the Threshold: Upon reaching the threshold of adventure, the hero must undergo some sort of ordeal in order to pass from the everyday world into the world of adventure. This trial may be as painless as entering a dark cave or as violent as being swallowed up by a whale. The important feature is the contrast between the familiar world of light and the dark, unknown world of adventure.
- Tests/Trials/Ordeals/Belly of the Dragon: The hero travels through the dream-like world of adventure where he must undergo a series of tests. These trials are often violent encounters with monsters, sorcerers, warriors, or forces of nature. Each successful test further proves the hero’s ability and advances the journey toward its climax.
- Companions/Helpers: The hero is often accompanied on the journey by a helper who assists in the series of tests and generally serves as a loyal companion. Alternately, the hero may encounter a supernatural helper in the world of adventure who fulfills this function.
- Climax/The Final Battle: This is the critical moment in the hero’s journey in which there is often a final battle with a monster, wizard, or warrior which facilitates the particular resolution of the adventure.
- Flight: After accomplishing the mission, the hero must return to the threshold of adventure and prepare for a return to the everyday world. If the hero has angered the opposing forces by stealing the elixir or killing a powerful monster, the return may take the form of a hasty flight. If the hero has been given the elixir freely, the flight may be a benign stage of the journey.
- Return: The hero again crosses the threshold of adventure and returns to the everyday world of daylight. The return usually takes the form of an awakening, rebirth, resurrection, or a simple emergence from a cave or forest. Sometimes the hero is pulled out of the adventure world by a force from the daylight world.
- Boon/Elixer: The object, knowledge, or blessing that the hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often it has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the hero’s role in the society.
- Master of Two Worlds/Home: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
The Hero’s Journey In Popular Films