Sometimes I think there's an overarching formula for successful storytelling out there and we just haven't quite hit it yet.
When Christopher Vogler wrote a 7-page brief describing the 'hero's journey' or 'Monomyth' for film execs, there was a revolution in storytelling for movies. Suddenly, nobody had to read Joseph Campbell's somewhat turgid The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which in any case had been around since 1949 without attracting a great deal of attention (except a brief post-Star Wars vogue). There was the mythic formula, 7 pages, ready to use.
Suddenly every movie was a hero's journey and you could make a drinking game out of identifying the elements: "the refusal of the call! Drink!" "The crossing of the first threshold! Drink!" This was a step forward, in that clueless development people suddenly had at least a vague outline for getting a narrative in between the car crashes and gunfights.
But there were some serious drawbacks to this approach. First of all, nobody knows why the hero's journey contains its particular components. The Meeting With The Goddess? What? Apotheosis? Didn't he marry Jackie Kennedy? The trouble with any formula is it encourages orthodoxy, unless the storyteller consciously challenges the conventions within the formula itself.
One reason The Matrix worked so well is it is an extremely self-aware, almost campy retelling of the Monomyth story. When the Wachowski Brothers decide to play around with the formula along the way, it's surprising and fresh. The reason Willow was such a pile of shit, by contrast, is because it's the hero's journey told in Mad Libs. They just plugged fantasy elements into the structure and said, "look, we have the perfect post-Star Wars mega-hit." It was so slavishly deliberate and unsurprising, it hurt to watch.
Because nobody has seen Willow since its second screening in theaters, here's a sample of its expository style. Only watch the first minute and a half, unless you're a connoisseur of cinematic clichés. They might as well have the old wizard character say "I am the Wise Man; here is a powerful talisman as mentioned in Stage 4 of The Memo."
Contrast that with essentially the same scene in The Matrix.
But here's the thing: audiences know the hero's journey now. They see it coming. It has suffocated a great deal of imagination in filmmaking. (There has also been a tendency to celebrate male heroes over female ones, because the Monomyth is male-oriented; this is another subject for another time, but it's a problem.)
I think we need to back up and look at why the hero's journey works, and what it does, rather than simply run it like a story machine. I'm not answering my own question here, but it's something to think about. Why do we like the protagonist of humble origins who turns out to be the chosen one? Why do we like him to have wise mentors, and to receive useful talismans? Why must he suffer some kind of crisis of faith before his ultimate triumph?
Sometimes I think it's straightforward wish-fulfillment, because these are significant desires in our own lives. We all crave success and admiration. We need guidance from people who want us to succeed, and genuinely know how to help us do it. We prefer to have tools of some kind to aid our efforts. We want a purpose in life (the quest) and we want to discover we are someone special and different along the way.
But there's more to it than that. I wonder if the Monomyth is a variation on a deeper, larger idea, something to do with telling the shape of a typical human life. There's our transition from parochial infancy through mentored adolescence, the discovery of strengths and portents in our lives as we approach adulthood -- and then the main event, our adult lives: a series of failures, victories, loves, hates, unions and betrayals, all overshadowed by the increasing presence of mortality. The whole shebang ends before death, generally, for fictional purposes, with an ultimate state which could be said to be transformation into the wise mentor we met at the beginning.
Maybe I'll write a 7-page memo on the subject.
3 weeks ago