Using The Hero’s Journey As A Screenwriting Template
The Hero’s Journey is a pattern of storytelling that is found in ancient stories, dramas, myths and religious rituals. The ideas about how such adventures have been passed down through generations come from Joseph Campbell’s research into the nature of storytelling in general.
Campbell draws from Carl Jung’s theories about the collective unconscious, and the formation of Archetypes in his explanation of the universal resonance and appeal of such stories across generational and cultural lines.
Hollywood has tapped into the universality of the Hero’s Journey. Universal appeal is a valuable commodity. Studios (in films like Star Wars, The Hobbit, The Lion King, and The Lord of The Rings) have incorporated archetypical elements into storylines, in order to make them more appealing, more resonant, and therefore, more successful.
To demonstrate how movies are made according to the paradigm, I thought I’d go through an example, using the story from the recent film, Interstellar. The stages of the Hero’s Journey include;
The Ordinary World. At this stage, the hero is introduced, and his world established. This protagonist is shown to live in a state of polarity, in which he is being pulled in different directions.
In Interstellar, the world is a future agrarian world in which Climate Change has ravaged the Earth. Economies are wrecked, resources plundered, and ignored. In fact, Cooper, (Mathew McConaughey) the hero, (a former NASA engineer) is stuck in the Midwest, farming what’s left of the land. Everyone is farming. There’s not enough food.
The Call to Adventure. During this stage, Murphy, Cooper’s 10 year old daughter believes there is a ghost trying to communicate with her. Cooper faces certain internal conflicts throughout the film. At this point, he views the “ghost” in terms of logic vs. emotion. He discovers that books inexplicably falling off the bookcase in patterns are a decipherable as a code.
Refusal of the Call. At first, Cooper tells his daughter, it means nothing and returns to the dreary task of attempting to grow grain in the dust bowl. At this point, he decides he owes it to his family (his son, daughter and father) to ensure their survival, by staying home and growing grains.
Meeting the Mentor. Eventually Cooper discovers the binary code that he and his daughter discovered spells out the coordinates of an unknown location. The explorer in him can’t resist finding those coordinates, where he discovers NASA still exists. He meets Professor Brand, his mentor (Michael Caine), who knows him from his days in NASA as an accomplished engineer and pilot.
Crossing the threshold. Professor Brand explains that mankind’s only hope is to leave their dying Earth in search of an inhabitable planet. He wants Cooper to pilot the mission. Cooper struggles with leaving his family behind, as there may be no return. Cooper embarks on the journey to do what he decides is the “greater good,” to secure the future of the species.
Tests, Allies and Enemies. Cooper and the crew of his ship, Endurance, travel through space (into the new world) at the speed of light, through a wormhole. There are three possible planets which may be habitable, but there’s not enough fuel to go to all three.
Approach. With very little fuel, Cooper faces difficult choices. Cooper decides to set a course to Miller’s planet. When they get there, they find that each hour they spend on the planet is seven years on Earth.
The Ordeal. The planet is covered with water. They find Miller’s ship, but it’s in pieces and underwater. They look for the data recorder on the ship, but gigantic tidal waves delay their progress. One of the crew members dies in the process, they aren’t able to retrieve the data, and when they return to the Endurance, 23 years have passed.
Cooper is fighting time. He wants to see his daughter again, but she is now 33 (played by Jessica Chastain). Cooper and his crew make it to Mann’s planet (Mann is played by Matt Damon), only to find that Mann’s planet is not habitable.
Mann tries to kill Cooper, and to escape using the Endurance. He cuts off Cooper’s air supply and leaves him to die. Another crew member, Brand’s daughter, Amelia, (played by Anne Hathaway) saves Cooper’s life.
Mann escapes, only to die while trying to dock with the Endurance during his escape. Amelia, Brand’s daughter, is unfortunately left behind as Cooper continues his quest.
Cooper faces a major challenge. Without enough fuel, he gambles on travelling through a black hole, hoping to conserve fuel and steer the ship to another, possibly habitable planet.
The Reward. Cooper finds himself facing unknowable consequences in the fifth dimension. Risking possible death, he explores the dimension and finds himself back in his daughter Murphy’s childhood bedroom.
Cooper has in effect, travelled through time, back to the beginning of the film, when Murphy was 10. He is the “ghost” Murphy thought was communicating with him in binary code.
The adult Murphy is able to use Cooper’s clues to solve advanced equations that allow her to launch more space stations to save humanity.
The Road Back. Cooper hasn’t aged much at all. He wants to see his daughter, even though she’s aged. He falls out of the fifth dimension, and into orbit around Saturn. He returns to find his daughter with the knowledge of how to harness the power of the fifth dimension, and so armed; he helps her find a suitable planet to save the species.
The Resurrection. Cooper awakens aboard a NASA space station, to find his daughter, now much older than him, (played by Ellen Burstyn.) She is a brilliant scientist and has led humanity to safety. Cooper realizes his sacrifices were worthwhile.
Return with the Elixir. By using black holes and wormholes Cooper has discovered a whole new way to travel. He is truly a hero. The Elixir in this case, is the knowledge of harnessing five dimensions to move through both space and time. With his mission accomplished, he embarks on a mission to rescue Brand’s daughter, Amelia.
A lot of people write screenplays mirroring aspects of The Hero’s Journey. There may be something to the notion that dramas that touch these story elements will move people deeply as they are engrained in the “collective unconscious.”
However, it may not make much sense to reference such heroic story elements in films like Gone Girl, Juno, Before Midnight, or comedies like The Hangover, or Bridesmaids.
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Silverman, D. (2015). Using The Hero’s Journey As A Screenwriting Template. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 23, 2018, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/hollywood-therapy/2015/03/using-the-heros-journey-as-a-screenwriting-template/