The Hero’s Journey

I was recently asked what theme of movies I would want to see if I could put together my very own film festival. The question was asked during an interesting conversation between myself and a few friends. Several comical answers made it into the mix, but I started searching further in my own mind for the type of story we all crave. Then it hit me; there is a specific reason why superhero movies are incredibly popular. Moviegoers of all ages enjoy a good hero’s journey story. Thus, I devised my own idea for a film festival. Unfortunately, the way I spoke it out loud was cluttered, staccato, and didn’t make much sense. After we had our conversation, I decided it was best to write everything down in some kind of coherent plan. That plan, in all of its details, is described herein.

The Hero’s Journey

Fans of movies, books, and mythological stories have always dreamt of being the knight in shining armor or the conquering hero that defies all odds to defeat the bad guy. Some children dress up as their favorite superhero for Halloween. A modern day trend has many people dressing up as their favorite characters, known as cosplay, from their favorite video games and television shows. Heroes speak to the inner monologues of people because of their honor, dignity, fame, and perfect personalities. Movies have been made for many years regarding heroes and the steps they take to become the heroes of legend. I decided to put together a film festival for students from high school freshman and up, and the hero’s journey is the first thing that came to mind. Every movie with a hero follows the same basic principle: the origins of the hero is shown, something happens that causes the hero great conflict, and then the hero overcomes the conflict and proves victorious. Several movies use Joseph Campbell’s structure for the hero’s journey and will be showcased at this festival. The movies are The Lion King, The Matrix, and Star Wars.

Theme and Justification

Many arguments can be made about the themes of different superhero movies. The one common theme amongst these three movies, however, is the hero’s journey and the struggle to be beyond great in a world filled with dread. Each movie has its own story, its own struggles, and separate versions of the hero’s journey.

Students overcome struggles on a daily basis. Some become exhausted from the combined stress of school, work, and social life. During each semester, students can overcome great odds to complete tasks that otherwise would seem impossible. Graduate school especially can provide students with unbelievable challenges given the difficulty and immense amount of school work while dealing with the challenges of real life as well. Being able to overcome these obstacles is what separates the heroes from the common folk. Even though this was simply an analogy, the idea behind overcoming obstacles and proving victorious is the real meaning.

This particular formula for the hero’s journey has twelve steps. These twelve steps are in respective order: ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting the mentor, crossing the threshold, tests along with allies and enemies, approach to the innermost cave, ordeal, reward, the road back, resurrection, and return with the elixir. Not all twelve steps are necessary for the movie to follow the journey, but the same overall structure can be seen, even if a few steps are missing.

Many students fail to find a purpose in their lives. Some students take much more than four years to finish secondary education while still never choosing a career path or specific field of study. Tough decisions and sacrifices are defining virtues in a student’s life, and viewing the hero’s journey is a way of fulfilling a fantasy of overcoming every hindrance between failure and success. Students need role models and inspiration in order to successfully weave their way through the early stages of adult life.

These movies will not only entertain the students, but hopefully provide a much needed source of inspiration. Seeing a hero down on his luck and forced to make a life changing decision is the basis for a myriad of students. Even the slightest modicum of witnessing a great triumph is enough to inspire a student to want to do bigger and greater things. As the mentors teach these heroes, hopefully the students will take some of the lessons to heart. It is important for students to see the struggles of another person, empathize with each predicament, and overcome their own obstacles via the lessons taught to these heroes.

Comparing and Contrasting the Movies

Each movie fits within the theme of the hero’s journey to some extent, however, each movie has its differences about how it conforms to the familiar structure. Although each movie does not follow every step in the formula, it somehow captures the essence of what it means for a movie to showcase a hero and his or her journey through the trials and tribulations that lead to their triumph.

Star Wars is one of the most well-known movies from the past fifty years. The movie tells the story of Luke Skywalker and his journey from a simple farm boy to the hero of the galaxy. The first few steps of the hero’s journey can be seen during Luke’s beginnings as a farm boy. Luke can be seen on an ordinary world, a desert planet called Tatooine. Nothing extraordinary exists on this planet for Luke, and he truly believes that he is stuck being a farmhand for the rest of his life. The next three steps in the hero’s journey happen almost simultaneously as he meets his mentor, Obi-wan Kenobi, and his adventure begins. When Obi-Wan is telling Luke about Darth Vader and his turn to evil, Luke is wary of believing it. Luke does not want to leave home, thus he refuses the call. But upon returning home, he has found that his family has been slaughtered and he is forced to leave with Obi-Wan. These steps are essential for the hero’s journey as Luke is forced to step outside his normal boundaries and begin a journey towards heroism.

The Matrix is another film that follows the same concept as Star Wars. The main character, Neo, starts out as a regular office worker that often makes mistakes and is known as a bit of a rebel. He lives in a normal world, in a normal apartment, with a normal job. However, something happens that plummets Neo into the hero’s journey. Whereas Star Wars has Luke dealing with the death of his family as the stepping stone, Neo is given more of a conscious choice. His mentor, Morpheus, gives him two pills from which to choose. If Neo chooses the red pill, he will be shown the truth and quite literally cross a threshold into a new, exciting world. Conversely, choosing the blue pill will return him to his old life of normalcy and redundancy. Neo chooses the red pill and begins his journey. Later in the story, Neo is trained by his mentor and is eventually faced with the choice to either save himself or his mentor. Neo overcomes that innermost cave and realizes he is considered “The One”, or the savior of humankind.

Both Star Wars and The Matrix follow a stereotypical solo male hero that becomes something great from nothing. The Lion King, however, tells a different kind of hero’s journey while still maintaining the proper formula. Simba, the hero, actually starts out in a more extraordinary world as the heir to the throne in the Pride Lands. Much like Luke, Simba’s closest family member, his father, is killed, and Simba is forced to retreat to isolation. However, during his isolation, he is found by his mentors, Timon and Pumba. Unlike the other two heroes, Simba is given a proverbial luxurious life with Timon and Pumba. What makes Simba a hero is when he comes across an old friend, Nala. She tells him to return to the Pride Lands and challenge Scar, the new leader. Unbeknownst to Simba, Scar is actually his father’s killer. Simba has fully embraced the lifestyle Timon and Pumba have given him, but the ghost of his slain father appears and convinces him to return. Once he returns, Simba defeats Scar and reclaims the throne.

All three movies have similarities and differences when approaching the steps in the hero’s journey. Luke and Simba are both forced from their ordinary world due to the death of family members, whereas Neo is given a decision to make so that his life will no longer be ordinary. Luke and Neo are trained by their mentors to overcome adversity via some form of combat and spiritual belief, whereas Simba is taught to put all of that behind him and become sedentary. Simba and Neo are both told and believe they cannot become the hero that is necessary. Luke, on the other hand, is given no other option as his mentor is slain and he can no longer sit idly by while the Empire runs rampart over the galaxy. Even though each movie tells a different story for each hero, all three have similar modules of filmmaking.

Music, or the lack thereof, can help bind a movie into a singular story that helps complement all other aspects of filmmaking. Given the importance of music in filmmaking, these movies would need exemplary storytelling via music to help complement the hero. Star Wars and The Lion King had stellar soundtracks and the music definitely set the tone in each movie. Even though The Matrix was not known for its music, it did include many aspects of a science fiction world in its sound. Much like Inception, a great deal of the movie used sound effects pertinent to the world of the film. Sounds of computers loading, gunfire, static electricity, and combat filled the silences.

The color palette of each film drastically changed based on the phase of the hero’s journey being shown. Star Wars provided the audience with a drab desert and plain clothes. But as soon as Luke crossed the threshold, the audience was greeted with exotic instruments, colors, aliens, outfits, planets, and computerized technology. Simba lived in a bountiful world filled with rich wildlife. As a direct counter to Luke, Simba went from this rich wildlife to a plain desert. Once Simba returned home, the Pride Lands had been filled with despair, darkness, and mediocrity. Neo also experienced a reverse change as he went from the city life to a futuristic world where the sun has been blocked out and everything is drab and gray in color. These shifts in color help set the tone the hero is forced to endure or enjoy. The drastic shifts in the color palette is a nifty form of storytelling where the characters do not necessarily have to be present on the screen for the audience to understand what is happening.

Conclusion

These movies do a good job of invoking the old saying of “everybody likes an underdog”, by showcasing a hero that overcomes every impediment in order to find success where all hope seemed lost. Valiant acts of bravery, wittiness, courage, strength, intelligence, and empowerment sends a powerful message to people of all ages. Students struggling to find their purpose and place in the world can be inspired by these acts. The Lion King, The Matrix, and Star Wars are phenomenal examples of such exemplary and significant actions. Even though these three movies are widely known around the world, viewing them with the intention of watching a hero’s journey can change the perspective of audiences. Rather than just being entertaining, these movies can provide an ample source of inspiration that just might change the life of a person.

For more information about the Hero’s Journey, check out this link: http://www.movieoutline.com/articles/the-hero-journey-mythic-structure-of-joseph-campbell-monomyth.html

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