With Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces being the underlying influence for so many stories and films, let’s explore what this archetypal story structure means in the 21st century.
In a nutshell, the basic premise of Campbell’s book is that myths from different parts of the world at various time periods share similar characteristics, implying a fundamental form to storytelling that is common and relatable to people regardless of culture or creed. Campbell divided up the journey into 12 stages:
Indeed many well-known films follow this story arc, most notably the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings franchises; the question now is how relevant the hero’s journey is in the increasingly connected yet dichotomous world of today. While in Star Wars Luke Skywalker forms part of a larger group with Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia, and the cyborgs, he is clearly the hero who will bring balance to the universe, set apart from the rest of his cohorts by being the last Jedi. In contrast, Tolkien’s hero Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings is set apart from the others by his sheer lack of magical powers and physical prowess, yet his hobbit’s purity of heart makes him the keeper of the ring. Like Sir Galahad, the only knight of the Round Table who was given the divine grace to see the Holy Grail, Frodo’s goodness and purity makes him an unlikely hero in a world of elves, dwarves, and men. But heroes both Luke and Frodo are nonetheless as each has been singularly chosen to save their respective universes.
In between the two World Wars, F. Scott Fitzgerald placed the tragic figure of Gatsby as a reflection of the roaring ‘20’s with his Great Gatsby, recently remade into a film by Baz Luhrmann. Considered a story with neither a high concept nor a hero’s journey, The Great Gatsby has nonetheless resonated with audiences since its first publication in 1925, its author capturing the shiny falseness of his age with perfect pitch. Gatsby, aka Jay Gatz, is so brash and blatant in his lies that he remains innocent throughout by the sheer purity of his dream of Daisy. His young love undiminished by time, Gatsby pursues his dream with no holds barred, wheeling and dealing illegally all to give himself the appearance of being something that no money could ever make him be. Gatsby’s call to action is in the past, before the story begins, and unlike the hero’s arc, where the hero emerges different in the end than the beginning, Gatsby’s innocence allows his inner life to remain constant throughout, his hope for Daisy unwavering to the bitter end. Perhaps Gatsby’s story is an everyday tragedy that hits too close to home for its structure to matter; whatever the case may be, the theme of inner purity recurs yet again as a seeming prerequisite for becoming a hero, even a tragic one.
More recently, the figurative hero has since been largely replaced by the literal comic-book one, and the idea of a dream team of multiple superheroes has been coming into play more often, if for nothing else than bankability. The Avengers movie was highly successful at the box office as was Guardians of the Galaxy, a shining moment in an overall drab bunch of summer blockbusters this year. This trend of supersizing superheroes follows the belief that something good could be made better by simply having more of it. However, its mercenary roots notwithstanding, this trend does show how the hero’s journey has been adapted and modified so that teamwork is not only emphasized but necessary; the idea of a lone hero who saves the day is giving way to a group of heroes needed to combat the forces of evil that are too great to vanquish alone.
And there are limits to how far the hero’s journey archetype actually reaches. Terrence Malick’s films tend to be more contemplative and tonal, such as The Tree of Life and To the Wonder and likewise the animated films of Hayao Miyazaki do not always follow the arc of the hero. In Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, both Sophie and Howl could be considered the heroes of the story, each being stronger together than separately. While elements of the hero’s journey are still manifest, they take on a slightly different form in Howl; it is more a story of convergence, of an unlikely pair finding true love and sloughing away old fears and darkness by the strength of their combined light, something Gatsby was hoping to find with Daisy.
So while the hero’s journey may be a fundamental characteristic of many an ancient myth, the signs of the times show new myths emerging with a more collective sensibility; there is hope yet for the Jay Gatsbys of this world.