Have you ever noticed that many Hollywood movies tell the same story at their core? That’s because of the hero’s journey, probably the most common narrative in human history. Let’s take a closer look:
What is the Hero’s Journey?
At its core, the hero’s journey is a narrative pattern that has always existed in principle. The main character of a story goes on a journey and returns changed. Frodo wanders to Mordor, Simba flees the Steppes, Harry Potter leaves the closet, Luke Skywalker boards the Millennium Falcon, and Neo decides to take the blue pill. Whether there is an actual journey or rather an inner process is irrelevant. In the classic hero’s journey, however, the main character does not yet begin as a hero, but only becomes a hero in the course of that journey. In all five of the above examples, we initially see completely normal people who are not aware of their heroism.
The myth of the hero’s journey is as old as mankind itself. By the way, one of the oldest stories in our history is the Gilgamesh Epic (almost 4000 years old). Already there the plot around the protagonist is told according to the hero’s journey. The pattern has continued ever since and is simply unthinkable without it. Every person who deals with storytelling, even a tiny bit, inevitably comes across the hero’s journey immediately. Whether you’re a novelist, a screenwriter, or a marketing person. Yes, marketing person. Even some of the best commercials are written using this schema. You don’t believe it?
The brands advertised don’t matter at all, but the videos have become famous. In general, Super Bowl Commercials are important advertising examples. They cost many millions of dollars and have to make an impression in just a few seconds – they should not be forgotten. For this, companies actually resort to the hero’s journey again and again. Why is that?
Why does the hero’s journey work so well?
Whether it’s marketing, a novel or a film, the viewer or reader should be emotionally gripped. What affects us emotionally is more likely to stick. We love it or we hate it, but it leaves an impression. Now we’ve already talked about the everyday distractions and overloads of the brain. It feels like this is getting worse and worse – at least for me. There are studies that show that we can only process about 5% of the information that comes at us all day long. In other words, most of it just passes us by. This is mainly a protective mechanism of the brain, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to cope.
The brain tries to simplify and falls back on learned mechanisms. I am not a neurologist and can only simplify here. Roughly speaking, the information that appeals to us emotionally and can be linked to other experiences in the brain sticks best. We have always known the narrative pattern of the hero’s journey. It already appears in our children’s stories, just think of Pinocchio or the Jungle Book. And we not only know it, we recognize it immediately. The commercials are good examples of an emotional message that is told in a few minutes and sticks.
Why “hero” anyway?
The term “hero” may seem dusty. It may apply in fantasy stories, but does it also fit “Run Lola Run”? Yes, it does. At its core, the hero’s journey is always about a completely ordinary person (you or me) who is confronted with a challenge and rises above it. She or he comes home stronger at the end, richer in experience and possibly having acquired new skills. So in essence, it always speaks to experiencing something special and being a better version of yourself afterwards – and of course, it all came down to you! By the way, this works not only in stories, but also in real life. Remember the biographies of athletes, scientists, entrepreneurs who come from humble beginnings and work their way up against odds to achieve something outstanding. Athletes who were injured and made a comeback? Exciting in life, but also Oscar-winning material for “Million Dollar Baby.”
There are some structures in the hero’s journey that occur so often that they can be considered common schemes. Christopher Vogler has described in his 1992 bestseller “The Writers Journey” that very many Hollywood films are based on exactly these structures. Vogler defined the “archetypes” and the “stages” of the journey as essential schemes.
The archetypes denote certain characters that are virtually always present in these stories. The hero, of course, but also the mentor (Matrix: Morpheus, Star Wars: Obi Wan Kenobi, Hobbit: Gandalf, Harry Potter: Dumbledore,…). In addition, there are a variety of companions, seducers, rogues and, of course, the “Threshold Keeper”, the great enemy that the hero must overcome. You can go up and down the list: Frodo had to meet Aragorn, Luke had to meet Han, Harry had to meet Hagrid, Neo had to meet Trinity…. you get it.
The “stages” describe the classical course of history, Vogler divides it into 12 steps:
1. Ordinary world
2. Call to adventure
3. Refusal of the call
4. Meeting with the mentor
5. Cossing the threshold
6. Tests, allies and enemies
7. Approach to the inmost cave
8. The ordeal
10. The roard back
12. Return with the elixir
Does everything look familiar to you? That’s no surprise, of course. George Lucas himself has called Vogler an influence on Star Wars!
That’s brilliant! Where does it all come from?
As I said, the mechanism is very old. However, it was not until the US American Joseph Campbell that it was properly researched. He is undoubtedly considered one of the most important myth researchers of the 20th century. For years he investigated tales, legends, myths from cultures around the world, up to the oldest materials of mankind. Of his many publications, his own first work, “The Hero in a Thousand Forms,” published in 1946, stands out immediately. From his research, Campbell distilled the concept of the “monomyth” – a mythological basis common to the vast majority of myths. This monomyth, in turn, he fanned out into actors, plot lines, stations of the hero’s journey.
It is this book to which Christopher Vogler referred. Campbell defined 17 stations of the hero’s journey and Vogler steamed it down to 12 stations. Campbell laid the influential foundation and Vogler popularized it in Hollywood.
I can recommend both books to those interested in the subject matter, but Campbell’s book is at times unwieldy to read. You get an actual textbook with academic pretensions and not an easily accessible treatise on heroic stories. The easier read is definitely Vogler’s book, which of course also has a clear focus on screenwriting rather than mythology. I would say that to understand the importance of the monomyth to film, Vogler’s “Odyssey” is sufficient.
Finally, I would like to recommend a beautiful montage by Robin Fischer of 168 Hollywood films. He has masterfully assembled what so many Hollywood films have in common at their core: