by Dan Wohl
Most cinephiles I know like to watch bad movies. At least, they think they like to.
The $3.99 supermarket movie bin never fails to be oddly alluring. I speak from experience. My good friend and former roommate once acquired a VHS with a flimsy holographic cover called King Cobra at a Cub Foods in Minnesota. The cover promised “30 FEET OF PURE TERROR.” The back cover informed us that the man-eating beast of the title had a hilariously benign proper name: Seth. For months, possibly years, it laid near our TV, unwatched, but not forgotten.
We toasted King Cobra at parties. We practically sung paeans to it. We looked ever forward to finally watching it, but we put it off until about a week before we left and moved to New York. We had sold many of our possessions, said our goodbyes, and finally realized the time had come. We sat down, popped the tape in, and finally experienced King Cobra.
Guess what? It was not very good. There were definitely moments of incredible, breathtaking cheesiness. But was it really worth 90 minutes of my life? Maybe…but probably not.
The compulsion to not only accept but revel in the worst examples of a given art form is more or less specific to film people. It’s true that the Museum of Bad Art exists, but I am sure that music lovers, for instance, don’t derive the same kind of pleasure from, say, “Freaxxx” by Brokencyde as film lovers do from Plan 9 From Outer Space.
If Grindhouse, the Found Footage Festival and the fact that Armageddon is included in the Criterion Collection tell us anything, it’s that filmmakers and film scholars have a respect not just for the great films but for everything else too. Anyone can write a terrible short story, but the complexity of the filmmaking process makes every movie a small miracle.
I suspect this is why people watch bad movies. It’s astounding to witness the basic elements of film production—the use of expensive cameras, the consumption of precious film stock or digital memory, the recitation of lines from a screenplay someone wrote, special effects of any kind—in the employ of something so unworthy. I think there’s a sense that the work it takes to make a film at all is deserving of respect, and when a filmmaker squanders that work in a spectacular way, something entertaining (if not a little sad) comes about.
That’s my main problem with watching the supermarket bin film, or the Salvation Army-bought VHS, or the made-for-Syfy film of the week: At a certain point it stops being funny and starts feeling sort of depressing. That’s where Mystery Science Theater 3000, the sublime show about a man and his robot friends being forced to watch (and make fun of) terrible movies, comes in.
I won’t spend time talking about how funny it is—that’s already been done by everyone from Steven Spielberg to Neil Young. What I think is really significant about the show is how it makes watching bad movies not just fun but comfortable. Once the comical novelty of watching a bad movie (alone) wears off, you’re left with…well, watching a bad movie. But watching it with the company of Joel (or Mike if you must) and his robot friends puts everything in what I find to be an unexpected and pleasant context: where the films’ badness, ironically, is not the point as much as how we’re allowed to wallow in a cinematic arena we usually can’t stand spending much time in.
The theme music that opens MST3K included a line that I always found a bit odd:
If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes
And other science facts
Then repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show,
I should really just relax.”
It may have never been revealed how Joel or Mike ate or breathed, but to say the show didn’t care about its internal mythology would not be right. The living quarters of several characters are shown. Tom Servo being carried into the theater is explained by the fact that an air vent at its entrance that disrupts his hovering mechanism. Their ship travels through time and to the end of the universe on occasion.
Just like the B-movies it gleefully skewers, MST3K is a low-budget story that still cares about being a story. That kind of earnestness is at the heart of why Ed Wood is remembered, MST3K is so appealing, and the supermarket DVD bin remains so strangely tempting.
by Michael Neelsen
“No scene that doesn’t turn.”
Such is the motto of Robert McKee’s bible for storytellers, Story. Until I read his book a couple years ago and started hearing more and more screenwriters refer to “turns” and “reversals” and “turning left when they think you’ll turn right,” I had no idea how important a concept this was for screenwriting.
If William Goldman is right and “screenplays are structure,” then scenes are turns.
The next time you watch a film, really pay close attention to the structure of the individual scenes. Nearly every movie that follows classic Hollywood storytelling conventions will construct every scene around at least one turn. The beginning of the scene will present one situation, and by the end of the scene, that situation will turn to something else. The character will start happy and turn sad. The hero will be losing the battle and suddenly summon the strength to win. The girl will be making a fool of herself in front of the boy, but the boy will actually find this cute instead of foolish.
An extreme type of turn is called a reversal. These are 180-degree turns from one extreme to its polar opposite. Alive to dead. Attraction to repulsion. Kill to rescue.
One of the best reversals I’ve seen comes in Shane Black’s noir-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the scene, Robert Downey, Jr. is about to play Russian roulette on a prisoner in order to convince him to divulge information. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times, and Black knows it. Downey puts a single bullet in the chamber of a revolver and aims it at the prisoner. He cries out, “Where is the girl?” and pulls the trigger. Since we’ve seen this scenario play out before, we expect it to go the exact same way as it always has: click, click, and finally the prisoner can’t take the fear of being shot anymore and gives up everything. But in Black’s film, before the prisoner can even deny knowing anything, the first pull of the trigger sends the only bullet in the revolver into his head, killing him. This always gets a rousing response of uproarious laughter from the audience, because we weren’t expecting it to go that way.
Another great example comes in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Brendon Gleeson enters the scene wanting to kill his longtime friend played by Colin Farrell. But when he approaches Farrell with his gun drawn, he suddenly sees Farrell pull his own gun on himself in attempted suicide. Gleeson’s friend instincts kick in as his motivation goes from wanting to kill Farrell to wanting to save Farrell.
While you don’t need a reversal in every scene, it’s good to have as many as you can come up with. It keeps us on the edge of our seat. It’s the quality that makes us all say, “I had no idea what was going to happen in that movie.” It’s even better if you can play on previous cinematic convention like Black does in Bang Bang, making us expect something we’ve seen a trillion times only to deliver the exact opposite.
My acting teacher, Ben Taylor, recently wrote a hilarious scene that takes place in a gay strip club. It shows a drunk, middle-aged man stumbling around, seemingly infatuated with one of the boy dancers on stage. When another one of the employees at the bar tries to escort the man away, he cries out, “I’m his father!” Everyone freezes. Shock. A father has come in to a gay strip club and discovered his own son as a performer. This is the scene’s turn. But then the boy dancer shouts from the stage, “You’re not my father!” The drunk man replies, “Okay, I’m not his father.” This is a reversal of the initial turn, and got tons of laughs.
You can fold this on itself as much as the logic in your narrative allows. But there is a danger in placing too many turns and reversals in your scenes. It can start to come across as absurd coincidence. I just made this mistake in a scene I wrote for class. In my scene, a man returns home to his apartment, drunk, to find that all the furniture has been changed (turn #1). He also finds a woman he doesn’t know lying on his bed, beckoning him to stay with her (turn #2). When he starts to give in to her, thinking it’s just his lucky day, she mentions her husband (turn #3). Our hero asks her what apartment number this is. She says 304. Our hero freaks and proclaims, “I’m on the wrong floor! My key opened your door!” (turn #4). When he tries to leave, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the woman’s husband (turn #5). When the husband enters and sees our hero, it turns out they are old college buddies! (turn #6). Instead of kicking him out, the husband invites our hero to stay for dinner (turn #7). While I got decent notes on this scene in class, there’s no question that it is absolutely absurd, and I feel adequately displays the risk of implanting too many turns in a single narrative (for an example of a movie that does this, look no further than 2005′s inexplicable Best Picture winner, Crash, in which a select number of characters continue to conveniently bump into each other multiple times in a single day in a city of nearly ten million people).
The opposite extreme, of course, is writing a scene with no turns. If there isn’t a turn in a scene or narrative, you will quickly get bored and wonder why you’re watching it. Think of a scene where a character starts happy and ends happy. Or a narrative where a family is living a nice, quiet life in the suburbs and in the end still lives a nice, quiet life in the suburbs. Stories are change. To quote McKee’s fictional depiction in Adaptation., “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.”
One of the only dreams I still remember years and years after I had it involved me being on a theme park ride. I was in some sort of boat floating on black water in a tunnel with a forest scene painted on the side. I don’t remember if I jumped out voluntarily or if I was somehow bumped out, but I ended up with my face pressed against this fake wall…where I saw that the forest scene was actually painted with unimaginable detail and realism. I felt like I could fall right through it. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.
I’ve always been fascinated by theme parks, though I hardly think I’m unique in this respect. What I think is great about that childhood dream I had is how it reminds me of the one-paragraph short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a map so giant and real that it blended into reality. On Exactitude in Science is often mentioned as part of the definition of the concept of hyperreality, and hyperrealist philosophers have always singled out theme parks as prime examples of the idea: that in a media-soaked age like our own, the fake can seem as real, or realer, than reality.
I’ve been thinking about this (and my dream) recently because of the impending opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure in Orlando. There will be Ollivander’s Wand Shop. There will be Hagrid’s hut. There will be butterbeer (though despite rumors, there will apparently be no alcoholic variant). There will be plentiful and exorbitant opportunities to purchase merchandise. On the website, Daniel Radcliffe says the Wizarding World fulfills the wish that the Harry Potter universe “could be real, and [parkgoers] could be a part of it.” Emma Watson says it’s the result of kids saying “I wish Hogwarts could be real, I want to go myself.”
Well, I do want to go myself. But does going to a chunk of Universal Orlando themed like it count? I guess it’s obvious that the answer is, marketing aside, no. But then why am I still so excited to go there?
No theme park attraction can possibly live up to the standard pitch of “stepping into the world” of a movie. But theme parks keep building them, and people (myself included) keep being, depending on how you look at it, enthralled by them, suckered by them, or both.
I’d like to believe that in the Wizarding World I could do more than ride rides, buy stuff, and look at the elaborate façade they’ve constructed. I wish I could hop a fence and discover the gritty parts of Hogsmeade that aren’t meant for tourists, instead of support buildings and a visit from security. But I’ve found that being in a place that even allows me to imagine such a thing has surprising power. That’s why when theme parks add even a drop of unexpected reality, it can be startling. Did you know, for instance, that the very Seussian palm trees at Universal’s Seuss Landing are real living plants (curved by Hurricane Andrew and then uprooted and replanted)? Or that tucked into an unassuming corner of Disney World’s Main Street USA lies an operational period-appropriate barbershop?
Theme parks are hyperrealist capitals because they promise something impossible yet deliver something that seems slightly less than impossible. That impossibility gap is everything. When we walk through the eminently fake streets of Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World, we’re in Borges’ map. We let the fake become realer than the real.
What’s interesting is how theme parks seem to know that there is no stronger medium to tie this myth into than film. This is evident nowhere more than at Walt Disney World, where the powers that be have been busy converting almost every stand-alone ride they have into something related to a film, even when it’s quite awkward. The Enchanted Tiki Room is now “run” by Iago from Aladdin and Zazu from The Lion King. The uncharacteristically terrifying Alien Encounter, which simulated a ferocious extraterrestrial spitting blood at you and breathing on the back of your neck, now uses the same mechanisms for a benign show involving Stitch. The river ride in Epcot’s Mexico, which used to be comprised simply of videos of Mexican life, now involves the Three Caballeros being animated on top of the same video in a manner not unlike a rap song that samples an older track.
Even when the film in question is one that is guaranteed to have been seen by virtually no children—such as the racist Song of the South—Disney still has enough faith in the magic of film to base a ride, in this case Splash Mountain, on (the non-racist parts of) it.
It all makes me wonder whether our love of films will one day lead to a virtual reality where we truly do not need to accept the fakeness of theme parks. An artificial world so complex and interactive that I actually could jump over my semi-proverbial Hogsmeade fence. In short, a holodeck. If you ask me, it’s going to be this, and certainly not any ridiculous fad like 3D, that will be the next revolution in cinematic entertainment.
An immersive, photorealistic world, imbued with cinematic depth, that adapts automatically to how the user interacts with it: It would stretch the impossibility gap to a breaking point and make hyperreality indistinguishable from reality in every way except for its fantasticalness. We are a long, long way from that point. But if theme parks let us feel that way for even a moment, then I’m all for them.
by Michael Neelsen
As filmmakers and film enthusiasts, you can assume we here at ATA have some very firmly held beliefs on the subject of censorship and the first amendment. We artists cling to our words and images like conservatives “cling to their guns and religion” (oohh, weren’t expecting a political reference, were ya?).
For the past eighteen years there has been a comedy duo on the front lines of the eternal “freedom of speech” battlefield, and their manifestations of foul-mouthed third graders, Mormon porn stars and cannibalistic cowboys have fought the good fight, tasting victories and defeats for the good of artists everywhere.
I’m talking, of course, about Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
(PLEASE BE ADVISED: THE VIDEO BELOW IS ONE OF THE MORE EXTREME MOMENTS IN SOUTH PARK HISTORY, SO IT IS VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY NSFW, AND IT CERTAINLY SHOULD NOT BE VIEWED BY THE EASILY OFFENDED.)
Many people would argue that Parker and Stone are nothing more than unintelligent scribes of toilet humor and fart jokes, as well as the more than occasional offensive jabs at religion.
But what those people don’t understand is that we need people like Parker and Stone out there showing us images of a stingray-skewered Steve Irwin mere days after his death and Jesus Christ defecating on the American flag, especially in these politically-correct times where freedom of speech has to be defended on a nearly daily basis due to somebody somewhere getting offended by something.
Imagine the first amendment as an elastic rubber band. Everything within the band is material deemed acceptable and appropriate by everyone in society, and everything outside the band is considered “crossing the line.” Every time Parker and Stone make a joke about Steven Spielberg and George Lucas raping Indiana Jones or show an image of the Virgin Mary “bleeding out her ass,” they stretch that rubber band wider, allowing more and more edgy material to be encompassed within the circumference of acceptability. Without them, the band would remain tight and constricting, and more and more things could and would be censored and slapped with the label of “obscene.”
To quote the poster tagline from perhaps the single best movie ever made about the defense of the first amendment, The People v. Larry Flynt, “You may not like what he does, but are you prepared to give up his right to do it?”
This is the question you must ask yourself if you’ve ever wished shows like South Park or Family Guy off the air, or if you’ve ever thought a movie shouldn’t have been released because it was too violent or sexually explicit. We mustn’t legislate based on personal taste. Freedom of speech is too important, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone fight for it every time they put pen to paper.
Tune in to the season premiere of South Park on Comedy Central one week from today, Wednesday, March 17 at 9:00 PM CST.
by Dan Wohl
(Note: contains mild spoilers of Alice in Wonderland (2010))
Back around the period in which I was Marilyn Manson for three consecutive Halloweens, I used to dream about a dark, weird film version of Alice in Wonderland. I pictured a gray-tinged poster with a vacantly-staring Alice and a real-looking flamingo riffing on this illustration in the Lewis Carroll book. I foresaw a trailer that built to a climax before the soundtrack went silent, a quick zoom went to a closeup of an evil-version-of-Cate-Blanchett-in-Elizabeth-like Queen of Hearts and she growled, “off with her head!” I imagined a film that would retain the genius of Carroll’s world while injecting the character depth and robust plot his stories lacked.
But that’s not what I got. Instead I got Tim Burton’s cinematic brain aneurysm called Alice in Wonderland.
The plot that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton came up with leads Alice to defeat the Jabberwocky, which is all well and good and reminiscent of the climax of the computer game American McGee’s Alice, one of the biggest “twisted Wonderland” influences on my adolescent mind. But things unraveled for me quickly once we learned exactly why Burton’s Alice has to slay the Jabberwock. Apparently, a scroll (don’t ask where it came from) foretells that Alice will do so on a day called… “The Frabjous Day.”
Clearly you’re meant to pat yourself on the back in you recognize the phrase from the Carroll poem:
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
The brilliance of the poem Jabberwocky is the way it proves that because of taken-for-granted linguistic norms, even nonsense words can make perfect sense. Burton and Woolverton don’t get it. The father’s happy exclamation—O frabjous day!— works only in context. If you take it out of its place to somewhere where you aren’t already expecting words like “fabulous” or “joyous,” it’s rendered meaningless, and that’s exactly the point.
It’s a minor point, but I think it’s a perfect representation of Burton’s massive failure in this film, and I’d say, most of his career. Transforming a context-reliant whimsical phrase into a solemn proper noun is exactly the sort of style-above-substance-at-all-costs move that Burton has displayed for a long time. And the worst part is, his style choices seem to be getting worse and worse.
Take the characters in the Alice in Wonderland. Calling them one-note would, for some of them, overstate by one how many notes they’re given. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen does nothing the entire film. I might have completely forgotten Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts except for how revolting his real-head-digital-body pastiche was. And I’m not sure if I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing a film character as lacking in humanity as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.
Look at him. He looks like a combination of Madonna and Tim Curry in It wearing the Joker’s suit and the Cat in the Hat’s tie. And what do we know of his character? He confirms that he’s a hatter. It seems fair to say he’s mad. For some reason his accent jumps from one end of Great Britain to the other and back. And…what else? He isn’t a film character; he’s a piece of expressionist art.
Take a look, if you will, at the first minute or so of the video for Avril Lavigne’s tie-in song, “Alice,” directed by Dave Meyers. It might not be a masterpiece, but I think Meyers has exactly the right idea where Burton doesn’t: A live action remake/sequel to Disney’s original Alice in Wonderland should be more, probably much more, unsettlingly real than a cartoon from the ’50s, not less. Especially when its director accepts the mantle of Hollywood’s go-to “goth” director.
Allow me to make a bold statement: I think Tim Burton is the worst thing to happen to goth culture. Ever. No one is more responsible for its Hot Topicization. In its classic form, goth ideology was about romanticism, artistic intellectualism, and an awareness of the earthly, supernatural and existential horrors humanity finds itself facing. Burton’s work hasn’t seriously explored any of this since what I’d say are his two best films, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Since then, he’s had one success (Sweeney Todd) and a slew of high-profile adaptations that were either disappointing (Sleepy Hollow) or catastrophic (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland).
Burton’s rule of making only adaptations of previous work is the reason that I think he’s a corrosive cultural force rather than merely a poor director. Because of his role as THE goth director, he gobbles up most of the remake projects flagged as waiting for a dark, twisted spin, and they end up instead with Burton’s immature drivel when other directors might have done something legitimately interesting with them.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, aside from Alice, the other perfect example for me. Everyone knows the 1971 original has its tremendously disturbing moments. It’s safe to say that the horrifying boat ride scene is the only G-rated movie sequence to inspire a Marilyn Manson video. Many would argue that a remake was unnecessary, but an entire film more in the vein of the boat ride did seem appealing. But Burton’s 2005 version somehow delivered considerably less dark weirdness, or substance at all; it delivered Charlie living in a house designed by Dr. Seuss and a Willy Wonka who recoils from human contact in one scene and asks for high fives in the next.
That kind of contradiction in internal logic is one more thing endemic in Burton’s films. Look at Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow; in one scene he’s a sniveling scaredy-cat terrified of a spider and in the next he’s a suave detective who orders everyone around.
To go back to Alice for a moment: At the beginning of the film, Alice talks to a crazy old aunt of hers who talks about a prince coming to marry her. Then Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a place where flowers talk, caterpillars smoke hookah and fish breathe air and stand erect on their tails. In a big climactic moment, Alice is informed beyond any doubt that Wonderland is real, not a dream. Fair enough, I guess. But then when she returns to our Earth, she is suddenly imbued with wisdom that she imparts via one-sentence morsels of advice to each member of her family. And what does she say to her aunt? “There is no prince. You really need to talk to someone about these delusions.”
The stunning nonsensicality of this made me want to take a vorpal sword to my ears. Maybe I need to talk to someone about my delusions that the general public will one day agree with me that Burton is not a good director. If it ever happened, that would be, for me, quite the frabjous day.
SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. I first saw Mark L. Lester’s Commando as a young boy and even then I was rather surprised that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s eponymous hero, John Matrix, didn’t get together with his reluctant sidekick, Cindy (Rae Dawn Chong). She’s set up to be the love interest, but the filmmakers never pull the trigger. I was similarly baffled by the saccharine relationship between Matrix and his daughter, Jenny (Alyssa Milano). In my youthful naivety, I frankly thought this was too hokey for an R-rated movie, i.e., a movie intended for grown-ups. What audience of adults would buy into this? And I couldn’t believe that the film would be about her kidnapping and Matrix tracking down and rescuing her. It’s just the hero invading the castle and saving the damsel-in-distress? Hell, Star Warswasn’t that basic. There had to be some socio-political nuance to the situation I simply wasn’t old enough to grasp.
Sometime in the late eighties to early nineties, Hollywood screenwriter/producer Christopher Vogler wrote a memo for Disney Studios entitled “A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces.” This title is referring to the seminal 1949 non-fiction book by renowned mythographer Joseph Campbell in which he breaks down his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies, commonly referred to as the monomyth. Campbell’s theory later became the primary inspiration for George Lucas’ Star Wars.
However, Vogler’s memo to Disney influenced the creation of such films as Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Vogler later expanded the memo and published it as the book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, which became the inspiration for a number of successful Hollywood films and is believed to have been used in the development of the Wachowski Brothers’ The Matrix.
This memo has become part of Hollywood lore, and I felt that its historical impact on cinematic storytelling made it perfect food for thought for the readers of ATA. Enjoy!
A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO “THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES”
by Christopher Vogler
In the long run, the most influential book of the 20th Century may turn out to be Joseph Campbell’s THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES.
It’s certainly true that the book is having a major impact on writing and story-telling, but above all on movie-making. Aware or not, filmmakers like John Boorman, George Miller, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Coppola owe their successes to the ageless pattern that Joseph Campbell identifies in the book.
The ideas in the book are an excellent set of analytical tools.
With them you can compose a story to meet any situation, a story that will be dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true.
With them you can always determine what’s wrong with a story that’s floundering, and you can find a better solution to almost any story problem by examining the pattern laid out in the book.
There’s nothing new in the book. The ideas in it are older than the Pyramids, older than Stonehenge, older than the earliest cave painting.
Campbell’s contribution was to gather the ideas together, recognize them, articulate them, name them. He exposed the pattern for the first time, the pattern that lies behind every story ever told.
Campbell is a mythographer — he writes about myths. What he discovered in his study of world myths is that THEY ARE ALL BASICALLY THE SAME STORY — retold endlessly in infinite variation.
He discovered that all story-telling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories, from the crudest jokes to the highest flights of literature, can be understood in terms of the “HERO MYTH”; the “MONOMYTH” whose principles he lays out in the book.
Campbell was a student of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and the ideas in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES are often described as Jungian.
The book is based on Jung’s idea of the “Archetypes” constantly repeating characters who occur in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures.
Jung believed that these archetypes are reflections of the human mind — that our minds divide themselves into these characters to play out the drama of our lives.
The repeating characters of the hero myth, such as the young hero, the wise old man, the shape-shifting woman, and the shadowy nemesis, are identical with the archetypes of the human mind, as shown in dreams. That’s why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, are always psychologically true.
Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, unreal events.
This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories built on the model of THE HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source in the collective unconscious, and because they reflect universal concerns. They deal with universal questions like “Why was I born?” “What happens when I die?” “How can I overcome my life problems and be happy?”
The ideas in the book can be applied to understanding any human problem. They are a great key to life as well as being a major tool for dealing more effectively with a mass audience.
Christ, Hitler, Mohammed, and Buddha all understood the principles in the book and applied them to influence millions.
If you want to understand the ideas behind the HERO MYTH, there’s no substitute for actually reading the book. It’s an experience that has a way of changing people. It’s also a good idea to read a lot of myths, but it amounts to the same thing since Campbell spends most of the book illustrating his point by re-telling old myths.
Campbell gives a condensed version of the hero myth on p. 245.
However, since he uses some specialized technical terms that require going back to his examples in earlier chapters to find out what he’s talking about, I’ve taken the liberty of amending his outline slightly, re-telling the hero myth in my own way. Feel free to do the same. Every story-teller bends the myth to his own purpose.
That’s why THE HERO HAS A THOUSAND FACES
The stages of the HERO are:
1) THE HERO IS INTRODUCED IN HIS ORDINARY WORLD.
Most stories take place in a special world, a world that is new and alien to its hero. If you’re going to tell a story about a fish out of his customary element, you first have to create a contrast by showing him in his mundane, ordinary world. In WITNESS you see both the Amish boy and the policeman in their ordinary worlds before they are thrust into alien worlds — the farmboy into the city, and the city cop into the unfamiliar countryside. In STAR WARS you see Luke Skywalker bored to death as a farmboy before he takes on the universe.
2) THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.
The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure. Maybe the land is dying, as in the Arthur stories about the search for the Holy Grail. In STAR WARS again, it’s Princess Leia’s holographic message to Obi Wan Kenobi, who asks Luke to join in the quest. In detective stories, it’s the hero accepting a new case. In romantic comedies it could be the first sight of that special — but annoying someone the hero or heroine will be pursuing/sparring with the remainder of the story.
3) THE HERO IS RELUCTANT AT FIRST.
Often at this point, the hero balks at the threshold of adventure. After all, he or she is facing the greatest of all fears — fear of the unknown. At this point Luke refuses Obi Wan’s call to adventure, and returns to his aunt and uncle’s farmhouse, only to find they have been barbecued by the Emperor’s stormtroopers. Suddenly Luke is no longer reluctant, and is eager to undertake the adventure. He is motivated.
4) THE HERO IS ENCOURAGED BY THE WISE OLD MAN OR WOMAN.
By this time many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like character who is the hero’s mentor. In JAWS it’s the crusty Robert Shaw character who knows all about sharks; in the mythology of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it’s Lou Grant. The mentor gives advice and sometimes magical weapons. This is Obi Wan Kenobi giving Luke Skywalker his father’s light sabre.
The mentor can only go so far with the hero. Eventually the hero must face the unknown by himself. Sometimes the wise old man is required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the adventure going.
5) THE HERO PASSES THE FIRST THRESHOLD.
He fully enters the special world of his story for the first time. This is the moment at which the story takes off and the adventure gets going. The balloon goes up, the romance begins, the plane or spaceship blasts off, the wagon train gets rolling. Dorothy sets out on the Yellow Brick Road. The hero is now committed to his journey… and there’s no turning back.
6) THE HERO ENCOUNTERS TESTS AND HELPERS.
The hero is forced to make allies and enemies in the special world, and to pass certain tests and challenges that are part of his training. In STAR WARS, the cantina is the setting for the forging of an important alliance with Han Solo, and the start of an important enmity with Jabba The Hut. In CASABLANCA, Rick’s Cafe is the setting for the “alliances and enmities” phase, and in many westersn it’s the saloon where these relationships are established.
The tests and challenges phase is represented in STAR WARS by the scene of Obi Wan teaching Luke about the Force, as Luke is made to learn by fighting blindfolded. The early laser battles with the Imperial Fighters are another test which Luke passes successfully.
7) THE HERO REACHES THE INNERMOST CAVE
The hero comes at last to a dangerous place, often deep underground, where the object of his quest is hidden. In the Arthurian stories the Chapel Perilous is the dangerous chamber where the seeker finds the Grail. In many myths the hero has to descend into hell to retrieve a loved one, or into a cave to fight a dragon and gain a treasure. It’s Theseus going into the Labyrinth to face the Minotaur. In STAR WARS it’s Luke and company being sucked into the Death Star where they will rescue Princess Leia. Sometimes it’s the hero entering the headquarters of his nemesis; and sometimes it’s just the hero going into his or her own dream world to confront his or hers worst fears… and overcome them.
8 ) THE HERO ENDURES THE SUPREME ORDEAL.
This is the moment at which the hero touches bottom. He faces the possibility of death, brought to the brink in a fight with a mythical beast. For us, the audience standing outside the cave waiting for the victor to emerge, it’s a black moment. In STAR WARS, it’s the harrowing moment in the bowels of the Death Star, where Luke, Leia and company are trapped in the giant trash-masher. Luke is pulled under by the tentacled monster that lives in the sewage, and is held down so long the audience begins to wonder if he’s dead. E.T. momentarily appears to die on the operating table.
This is a critical moment in any story, an ordeal in which the hero appears to die and is born again. It’s a major source of the magic of the hero myth. What happens is that the audience has been led to identify with the hero. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death feeling with the hero. We are temporarily depressed, and then we are revived by the hero’s return from death.
This is the magic of any well-designed amusement park thrill ride. Space Mountain or The Great White Knuckler make the passengers feel like they’re going to die, and there’s a great thrill that comes from surviving a moment like that. This is also the trick of rites of passage and rites of initiation into fraternities and secret societies. The initiate is forced to taste death and experience resurrection. You’re never more alive than when you think you’re going to die.
9) THE HERO SIEZES THE SWORD.
Having survived death, beaten the dragon, slain the Minotaur, the hero now takes possession of the treasure he’s come seeking. Sometimes it’s a special weapon like a magic sword, or it may be a token like the Grail or some elixer which can heal the wounded land. Sometimes the “sword” is knowledge and experience that leads to greater understanding and a reconciliation with hostile forces.
The hero may settle a conflict with his father or with his shadowy nemesis. In RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke is reconciled with both, as he discovers that the dying Darth Vader is his father, and not such a bad guy after all.
The hero may also be reconciled with a woman. Often she is the treasure he’s come to win or rescue, and there is often a love scene or sacred marriage at this point. Women in these stories (or men if the hero is female) tend to be SHAPE-SHIFTERS. They appear to change in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly changing aspects of the opposite sex as seen from the hero’s point of view. The hero’s supreme ordeal may grant him a better understanding of women, leading to a reconciliation with the opposite sex.
10) THE ROAD BACK.
The hero’s not out of the woods yet. Some of the best chase scenes come at this point, as the hero is pursued by the vengeful forces from whom he has stolen the elixir or the treasure. This is the chase as Luke and friends escape from the Death Star, with Princess Leia and the plans that will bring down Darth Vader.
If the hero has not yet managed to reconcile with his father or the gods, they may come raging after him at this point. This is the moonlight bicycle flight of Elliott and E.T. as they escape from “Keys” (Peter Coyote), a force representing governmental authority. By the end of the movie, Keys and Elliott have been reconciled, and it even looks like Keys will end up as Elliott’s father. (The script not the final cut, guys).
The hero emerges from the special world, transformed by his experience. There is often a replay here of the mock death-and-rebirth of stage 8, as the hero once again faces death and survives. Each ordeal wins him new command over the Force. He is transformed into a new being by his experience.
12) RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.
The hero comes back to his ordinary world, but his adventure would be meaningless unless he brought back the elixir, treasure, or some lesson from the special world. Sometimes it’s just knowledge or experience, but unless he comes back with the exlixir or some boon to mankind, he’s doomed to repeat the adventure until he does. Many comedies use this ending, as a foolish character refuses to learn his lesson and embarks on the same folly that got him in trouble in the first place.
Sometimes the boon is treasure won on the quest, or love, or just the knowledge that the special world exists and can be survived. Sometimes it’s just coming home with a good story to tell.
THE SHORT FORM OF THE HERO STORY:
The hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he receives the call to adventure. He is reluctant at first but is encouraged by the wise old man or woman to cross the first threshold, where he encounters tests and helpers. He reaches the innermost cave, where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. He is resurrected and transformed by his experience. He returns to his ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir to benefit his world.
As with any formula, there are pitfalls to be avoided. Following the guidelines of myth too rigidly can lead to a stiff, unnatural structure, and there is danger of being too obvious.
The HERO MYTH is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself. The order of the hero’s stages as given here is only one of many variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically reshuffled without losing their power.
The values of the myth are what’s important. The images of the basic version — young heroes seeking magic swords from old wizards, fighting evil dragons in deep caves, etc., — are just symbols, and can be changed infinitely to suit the story at hand.
The myth is easily translated to contemporary dramas, comedies, romances, or action-adventures by substituting modern equivalents for the symbolic figures and props of the hero story. The Wise Old Man may be a real shaman or Wizard, but he can also be any kind of mentor or teacher, doctor or therapist, crusty but benign boss, tough but fair top sargeant, parent, grandfather, etc. Modern heroes may not be going into caves and labyrinths to fight their mythical beasts, but they do enter an innermost cave by going into space, to the bottom of the sea, into their own minds, or into the depths of a modern city.
The myth can be used to tell the simplest comic book story or the most sophisticated drama. It grows and matures as new experiments are tried within its basic framework. Changing the sex and ages of the basic characters only makes it more interesting, and allows ever more complex webs of understanding to be spun among them. The basic characters can be combined, or divided into several figures to show different aspects of the same idea. The myth is infinitely flexible, capable of endless variation without sacrificing any of its magic.
And it will outlive us all.