Thursday, March 22, 2012

Is "The Hero's Journey" a Tired Cliché?

The film critic who calls himself "The Hulk" argues that the hero's journey has become a screenwriting crutch. 

According to Hulk, Joseph Campbell originally formulated the paradigm to help analyze existing myths and to draw connections between them. Campbell's template was made famous by George Lucas, who used it as the deep structure for the original Star Wars movie. Since then it has become a production template used by screenwriters to create a glut of similar films and video games.

Hulk says it's not the only story plan that works for adventure movies, and it has become a tiresome cliché: "Our society has overtly adopted the book's breakdown of the hero journey as some kind of ready-made app for paint-by-numbers storytelling."

Hulk blog post on the Hero's Journey myth
The Hero with a Thousand Faces  (the book that started it all)


J.A. said...

In an interview Neil Gaiman noted that he'd begun reading Campbell's book at one point but then put it down. He said he wanted to create without knowing there was a pattern he was "supposed" to be following.

Janet Oliver said...

Thanks for posting this. I've read most of Hulk's post, and watched the video of the South Park writers crashing NYU writing school. Always "therefore" or "but," but never "and then."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link to the Hulk blog post. Did the Hulk melt his CAPS LOCK key into the "always ON" position?

It's a pity, because whatever he has to say gets totally lost when presented in such an unreadable fashion.

Given the choice, I'll take text written in all-lower-case at any time.

Anyhow, I am also tired of clichés. This is the main idea behind your post and the Hulk's post. I wholeheartedly agree with both.


rjgjr said...

You can hear the whole journey set to music Franz Liszt Les Preludes

Cindy Skillman said...

Interesting that he picked up on that, however this is a story imbedded in humanity from the "mists of time," and isn't likely to go away anytime soon. :lol: This is the story people are always telling and have always told. In fact, It might be the only story, bar subplots.

Karen said...

The thing is even if you didn't have any knowledge of the Hero's Journey you'd probably still hit all the major stepping stones in some form or another simply because this story-telling model is hammered into us from the very first stories read to us or the very first films we watch.

Whether it's used as a crutch for screenwriters and game developers I have no idea but to begin a story knowing that you'll be using the Hero's Journey as a basic structure on which your story will be hung isn't necessarily a bad thing. The bad thing is using the Hero's Journey as a fill-in-the-blanks project and not fleshing it out any further.

PatternGhost said...

I've always felt that most plots are taken from some woefully small book of Madlibs (remember those) where the key characters and events are filled in to target a particular market. The ingenuity usually appears mainly in the dialogue and pacing for books and those plus camera/lighting choices for movies. I think Shakespeare did that intentionally and without shame. What sucks is when those filled-in bits get old and tired.

Anonymous said...

I've read stories and seen movies where the writers clearly knew what that pattern was, but they didn't manage to make the story sing. When the writer DOES get it right though, the story resonates in your bones because it's bouncing off parts of our collective human psyche.

Neil Gaiman's stories do resonate, because he already knows those heart deep story patterns and tells stories very well. Hero is not a formula for writing well, it's an inquiry into mythical story lines - those bare bones aren't enough to tell a proper story, but without good bones a story is weaker than it could be.


James Gurney said...

Great comments, everyone. One screenwriting book is called "The Screenwriting Formula." The author does a good job arguing that every writer should know the deep structure, if for no other reason than people in the industry are looking for it. But if the story demands it, you can deviate from the form. All knowledge of craft is good in the hands of a good artist, and fresh ideas can always resonate with traditional structures. I don't know what's worse: the thoughtless composer who copies standard structures, or the iconoclast who chucks out traditional forms without really understanding them first.

Lamont Cranston said...

I would say its deeply flawed. Campbell based it on a few European pantheons and creation myths which on top of being intermixed ultimately have a common origin in the Proto-Indo-European culture. You look outside this at Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Americas, Pacific & Australia, etc and you find they're very different.
But you dont have to be that deep or critical, you can just look at films and books prior to Star Wars popularizing it and you find there is not a deliberate and lazy and safe paint-by-numbers approach to plot breakdown using it

Lamont Cranston said...

I would say its deeply flawed. Campbell based it on a few European pantheons and creation myths which on top of being intermixed ultimately have a common origin in the Proto-Indo-European culture. You look outside this at Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Americas, Pacific & Australia, etc and you find they're very different.
But you dont have to be that deep or critical, you can just look at films and books prior to Star Wars popularizing it and you find there is not a deliberate and lazy and safe paint-by-numbers approach to plot breakdown using it

smileyginger said...

I think it only becomes a tired cliche when the writer is lazy and doesn't push beyond that basic jumping off point. Cambell didn't invent this pattern, he simply shined a light on it. The same could be said for an artist that just stays within the box of basic composition "bullet-points" instead of using it as a foundation and then stretching beyond it. Something CAN follow a formula or pattern without being formulaic.

Wayne Haag said...

I think you might find this interesting James. The Monomyth.. There is only one story! The loss of the state of perfection and the regaining of that state of perfection through transformation of the hero.

By Kal Bashir

The cyclical nature seems obvious to me and I agree with Cindy, I think it's hardwired into us.

Anonymous said...

I'd at least say certain aspects of the Hero's Journey have become a tired cliche. I'm pretty sick of seeing "chosen one" after "chosen one" in fantasy and science fiction films.

---David Ellis

Isaac said...

The problem that Hulk points out and that most proponents of the Monomyth/hero's journey miss is that Campbell himself said that the components could come in any order (which makes it way easier to find evidence for it as a theory...but I digress). So all these things where scriptwriters are following The Hero's Journey point-by-point? The original myths didn't do that! They'd put things out of order, reverse them, play with audience expectations. Then there are the myths that don't conform to the patterns well at all...

Mark Vander Vinne said...

I think Hulk's problem is with people using it as a crutch and not having freedom to deviate from the formula. I don't believe it is cliched, but is often overused and misunderstood. I've also read Christopher Vogler's "The Mythic Journey", mythic structure for writer's and can highly recommend the book. And I believe this is what Hulk is really complaining about as opposed to Campbell. In fact, I have been told too many in Hollywood go back to this book instead of Campbell's since it takes Campbell's ideas (and some others) and shows how they are used in movies from Pretty Woman to The Godfather to Star Wars. He, like Campbell, says there isn't a formula, but understanding the archetypes and mythic structure can help when a writer is struggling to solve a problem.

Is understanding these underlying structures wrong? I don't think so. Is understanding that a painting uses a blue/orange color harmony and you repeating that in your own piece wrong? No. Understanding these things can help us grow, learn and improve. But we can also choose to throw them out when they aren't supporting what we want to say, and that's where Hollywood sometimes gets it wrong.

This formula does work to sell movies, both to execs and to the public. And remember, Hollywood is often about making a buck, not making personal art. The fact that personal art gets made in the process I find to be completely astounding and wonderful.

Pierre said...

I suppose the trick to The Hero's Journey is learning how to subvert it.

The Lord of the Rings easily subverts the hero's journey motif. If you ask anyone who the hero of the story is, the obvious answer would be Frodo.

But Frodo fails in his quest. Gollum's greed and desire become the key to the downfall of the Dark Lord. By the end of his journey to Mount Doom, Frodo has given himself to the ring and ultimately fails his quest.

Tolkien's genius is the idea that Gollum's obsession ultimately results in good, while Frodo's good intentions result in his madness. He heals in the end but is never quite the same.

Even Samwise is more of a hero than Frodo since Frodo is forever teetering on the verge of succumbing to the power of the ring. Sam remains the faithful companion and is the reason that they are successful at reaching Mount Doom. His determination allows Gollum to fulfill his deepest desires (regaining the ring) and fulfill the ultimate good (the destruction of the Dark Lord).

Ultimately, Hulk's notion is correct. Too many people don't have the ability to see past the structure of the Hero's journey and be able to do something new with it.

Anonymous said...

I think it is rather like painting people - if you're just following a formula it can get boring - if you dont' believe it or are enthusiastic about it - it's the authenticity that's a problem.

I also think it stems from the fact that many of these writers, frankly aren't very well read.

The western canon has been largely swept aside for PC/multiculti 2nd rate rubbish.

Anonymous said...

...and to accompany it.. most fantasy/video "art" are corny tired cliche's.

The depictions of women are comically adolescent.

Anonymous said...

It depends on how you understand it. If you take it as a Conan the Barbarian formula, then yes, it is a crutch. If we understand it as a simplification of the process through which the human heart journeys on its route to enlightenment, then I still think it's quite relevant and useful.

Anonymous said...

@Pierre I have to disagree with you on some of your thematic interpretations of The Lord of the Rings. In your comment you say that Frodo fails in his quest, that he succumbs to madness, and that Gollum's obsession ultimately results in good.

We must consider the point of view.

Concerning the first: Frodo doesn't fail in his quest, neither from his own point of view nor from the world's. He succeeds. He succeeds because—and this, in my opinion, is the whole theme of the story—he takes compassion on Gollum. During the many moments he could kill Gollum, Frodo chose not to. He understood Gollum and took pity on him. In the end, it was 'the Pity of Frodo (and Bilbo) that saved the world,' as Gandalf said.

Where Gollum's actions may have brought about good for the rest of the world, but from his point of view he ultimately failed. This was because his pity was only for himself.

The story does use the Hero's journey, albeit circuitously, but it doesn't rely on the pagan tradition of courage and physical strength, which is where I believe your comment about 'subverting the hero's journey' to be off center. The story of Frodo is a hero's journey: one of compassion. The fact that it was written in our day is an illustration of how the old human heart is making way for the new: compassion is now recognized as the more powerful force in the universe (look at Ghandi's liberation of three-hundred and fifty million Indians from servitude using non-violence, for example).

Also, Frodo never heals in the land of Middle Earth not because he's gone mad, but because he surrendered his whole self in order to save the world. Furthermore, he saw the incurable weakness of humanity. What happened in that moment in Mount Doom was that Frodo saw quite clearly that in this life he would not and could never gain power over the pride of the human heart. It was, and is, impossible. However, choosing compassion opened the way for the higher power of truth to save him, and Sam Gamgee, and their friends, and thus Frodo earned his passage to the East. There, where all darkness is drawn away, he could heal.

Anonymous said...

Correction: passage to the West. (I was thinking of Narnia and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is my most favorite, favorite, favorite...favorite favorite...favorite book of all time. Just saying.)

dragonladych said...

It's not true to say that Campbell only used european pantheons to base his ideas upon. The trigger to all his research was his encounter with Sri Krishnamurti. And he also studied Native American culture and Myth, etc.

He didn't always get it it right but he had an approach that was clear for all to understand.

This graph is certainly not meant to be a pattern for all stories it's just the base of the Hero's Myth. The rest is up to each one of us.

Campbell's teachings have always been the base for my own life's path, I owe him a lot. I don't always agree with him, that's the main teaching, always question the Master and find your own path.

My favourite quote by Campbell is "If you can see your path clearly in front of you, you're probably on someone else's path"

I think this says it all ;)

T. Arispe said...

It's kind of funny, but I was discussing this very thing with my friend the other day. I was going to type my response here...but then it got really long. So I'm posting it here: for anyone to read if they're so inclined.

TL;DR: I agree.

James Gurney said...

One example of a mythic story type that doesn't fit the hero's journey type is the tragedy (Adam and Eve, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet). No return of the hero, no boon. It makes for great cinematic drama, but maybe one of the reasons we don't often see it in tentpole films is that it is awfully hard to sequelize.

Anonymous said...

I think of art as essentially an order (i.e. an anti-chaos) that is disguised. The order aspect is that which adds meaning and structure to human existence, and the disguise aspect invokes our creativity and imagination to induce an aesthetic experience, whereby we are at least subconsciously aware of the order's presence, or, even consciously aware to the point of total unmasked recognition of the order. If Hulk's point is that a thin to non-existent disguise makes for poor art, I'd agree; but I would think that one so concerned with literary skill should be capable of being far more concise when appropriate.

r8r said...

that's the thing about fiction -- it has to make sense. real life doesn't.
like the composition of a good picture, everything in a fictional story has to support or contribute to its main point. anything unnecessary has to be dispensed with for the story to work. real life has all kinds of unnecessary elements.

Livio Cazzulani said...

Before Campbell, the Russian anthropologist Vladimir Propp in his famous "Morphology of the Folktale", published in 1928, analyzed the basic elements of tales. He does not speak of Hero's Journey, but of "Absentation", "Departure", and "Return" of hero, after a series of trials. I agree the "Quest" is the oldest narrative pattern and if it retains its appeal, it is because we recognize again ourselves in it.

pierre said...

Hi James,

The stories you discuss are tragedies. Aristotle wrote an entire treatise on the structure of tragedy in his book called "Poetics".

Brianbeus, of course you are correct in your assessment. I guess I was just too eager to illustrate how Tolkien subverts the basic hero's journey that I glossed over some of the basic ideas of Frodo's own heroic journey. Yes, Frodo's compassion is the ultimate act that saves Middle Earth. If he hadn't, Gollum would not have been there at Mount Doom to play his part in the ring's destruction.

As you stated, Frodo is profoundly changed by his journey. There is no return to normal for him, unlike Samwise who lives a happy life with wife and children in the Shire. As you state, Frodo finds no peace in the Shire and can only heal in the East.

Anonymous said...

Watch the fascinating hero's journey videos at