If you are a screenwriter, you already know The Hero’s Journey. Every writer, agent, producer and executive in Hollywood knows all about Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as popularized by Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Perhaps you’ve analyzed “the refusal of the call” and “the symbolic death and rebirth” in Star Wars. Maybe you’ve identified mobsters in The The Godfather as “Mentors," “Tricksters” and “Supernatural Aids.” It's not hard. We really can find reflections of the “monomyth” in movies as diverse as “Blue Is The Warmest Color” and “Iron Man 3.”
But… have you read any actual myths lately? They're weird. Really weird. So weird they make me wonder if The Hero’s Journey, as interpreted by screenplay gurus, ignores the uncanny, disturbing, and intriguing weirdness of the myths on which it is based.
For example, take Gilgamesh. First composed some 4000 years ago, it is our oldest story, and the mother of all mythic quests. Yet it contains none of the clarity, simplicity, or easy classifications found in screenwriting books. In his introduction to his recent translation Stephen Mitchell writes, “The more we try to fit Gilgamesh into the pattern of this archetypal journey, the more bizarre, quirky and postmodern it seems.”
The story goes like this: Gilgamesh is our hero, but he is also a tyrant, a rapist, an egomaniac and a coward in the face of death. His counterpart, the yin to his yang, is not a princess or goddess, but a wild, hairy man, Enkidu. The major female character in the story is a high priestess but also a prostitute who civilizes Enkidu by having sex with him for six days straight. She then hands him over to King Gilgamesh, who first brutally attacks his “other half” but who then “takes him in his arms and caresses him the way a man caresses his wife.”
Next, these two best-buddies set out to face a monster, Humbaba (which is what heroes do after all, slay monsters) but these particular heroes weep at the sight of Humbaba, they fail miserably in their battle with him until a god steps in and fixes the fight in their favor, and when the now-helpless monster turns out NOT to be evil at all, and simply the guardian of a sacred forest, they kill him anyway and clear-cut the old, sacred trees for their own glory and profit.
All this, of course, angers the gods, and they respond by killing Enkidu and causing our hero, Gilgamesh, unbearable grief and suffering, mostly because he now realizes that someday he is going to die too. So, egotistical a fearful as always, Gilgamesh goes on a long, painful journey to find the one mortal man who was given the secret to eternal life. However, when Gilgamesh finally finds this man, all the wise mentor can tell him is that quests like his are pointless and that he should get over himself.
As Mitchell writes. “By preemptively attacking a monster [who was a danger to no one], Gilgamesh brings on himself a disaster that can only be overcome by an agonizing quest that results in wisdom by proving its own folly." This is a story with NO light and dark side of the force. "In its refusal to side with either hero or monster, it leads us to question our dangerous certainties about good and evil.”
Which is to say this story is weird. It’s not the kind of thing that would make a good pitch to Disney. And, if you spend time reading various original myths, you start to discover that they are all weird. Did you know that sleeping beauty was NOT awakened with a kiss? She was raped in her sleep and abandoned by Prince Charming only to finally awaken a year later to find two babies suckling on her fingertips. Did you know that the story of the 12 labors begins with Hercules murdering his wife and children in a drunken rage? Great stories are strange. Myths are bizarre. And, while all these heroes and heroines still reflect, at least in part, the generic features of the Hero’s Journey, it is precisely the way these tales diverge from the norm that makes them memorable.
It's also a good idea to remember that while all classic movies do reflect some aspect of the monomyth, all lousy movies do as well. Stories - great, mediocre, and dreadful - all follow the same patterns. The Hero’s Journey is not a recipe for success; it is a description of the collective building blocks of any story - including those for Gigli, Catwoman, and Troll 2… or for that matter, Star Wars Episode One. The monomyth is a kind of symbolic and spiritual average, not some storyteller's "secret to eternal life." Maybe instead of searching for "control, order, and meaning" in magical templates, what we screenwriters really need is to face the futility of "the quest," as did Gilgamesh, and embrace life's chaotic weirdness.
So, consider all this before you spend too much time with “step-by-step guidelines for plot and character development.” (Volger, back cover) Be less obsessed with fitting a story into a “Hero's Journey,” and more concerned with finding those excessive and inscrutable human experiences that cannot be so neatly contained.
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