Examining the Popularity of the Hero’s Journey in Hollywood

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In 1949 Joseph Campbell released ‘The Hero With a Thousand Faces’, in which he outlined a monomyth called the hero’s journey, which would last for generations and provide a template for thousands of stories. Given how popular the hero’s journey has been, it’s worth asking why. Why do most people seem to love it so much? An examination of films from multiple eras and genres shows why Campbell’s hero’s journey is the most influential monomyth in the history of film. It mirrors the process all human beings go through in order to grow from adolescents into adults: leave home, get mentored, overcome challenges, and finally come back a new person.

The first step in the hero’s journey is the call to adventure. According to a memo from former Disney executive Christopher Vogler, the call to adventure is the moment when “the hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure”. In other words, the hero is living his or her normal/boring life when something or someone comes along to change everything by forcing the hero to adapt. In ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939), the call to adventure takes the form of a tornado. Dorothy is living a boring life in Kansas when a tornado hits and literally carries her away to her adventure. In ‘Star Wars’ (1977) the call to adventure comes when Luke Skywalker finds R2D2. Luke is bored on Tatooine and then a droid shows up with a hidden message from a beautiful princess who needs help from someone named Obi-Wan Kenobi. This development gets Luke to search for this mysterious figure. Finally, in ‘The Matrix’ (1999), the call to adventure comes when Neo is bored at work opens a mysterious package and finds a cell phone. As soon as he answers, he hears Morpheus's voice telling him that he is in danger and has to leave the office immediately. These heroes, no matter whether they are living on a distant planet or in Kansas, have one thing in common. Everything around them is familiar, even boring. And on some level, they are yearning to break free from that familiarity. In that sense, they are like most teenagers. We usually want to get away from our parents and go on our adventure.

The next step in the journey is refusal of the call, when the hero decides not to step out of his or her comfort zone and go on the adventure. For whatever reason, the hero thinks he or she would rather stay home even though it’s not exciting there. In ‘Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker originally refuses to join Obi-wan Kenobi to go to Alderaan to find Princess Leia. His decision shows the conflict of emotions and turmoil in a character when they refuse the call. Here, Luke wants to go to Alderaan but cannot go because he feels that his responsibilities to his family are much more important than a personal adventure. In ‘The Matrix’, when Morpheus calls Neo and tells him the way to get out of the building, Neo first judges it too dangerous, which allows us to see Neo deciding whether he should trust this voice on his phone. Finally, in ‘The Lion King’ (1994), after Mufasa is killed, Simba refuses to return to pride rock and accept his destiny as king. What they all have in common is that the hero is reluctant to start the adventure, as exciting as it may be. The reluctance to leave home and stay with what is familiar is an experience most people can relate to. This may also help to explain the popularity of the hero’s journey. If the hero acted fearless all the time, he or she would be much less relatable. All of us have some anxiety about leaving home.

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The next step in the journey is meeting the mentor, a mythical being who provides the hero with guidance in using his or her special abilities. This is a very important moment because it often forces the hero to overcome his or her reluctance. In ‘Star Wars’ this is the moment when Luke meets Obi-wan Kenobi. In ‘The Matrix’ Neo overcomes his reluctance with the help of Morpheus. And in ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ (2012) this is the moment when Bilbo Baggins meets Gandalf, who teaches Bilbo everything he needs to know about Middle Earth and gives him the confidence to become what he is at the end of the story. This again is a very relatable part of the hero’s journey. After leaving home, everyone will need guidance in order to survive and grow. Oftentimes this mentor takes the form of a professor, but it can also be a coach or a boss. Whatever the case, we all get mentored at some point in our life.

Perhaps the most important part of the hero’s journey is the supreme ordeal, the big fight or confrontation that the story has been leading up to. In ‘Star Wars’ this is Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker’s iconic lightsaber duel. In ‘The Matrix’ the final fight is between Neo and Agent Smith. And in ‘The Lion King’, Simba’s fight with Scar is the culmination of the whole movie. In the supreme ordeal, the hero has to overcome not only the opponent, but also fears and doubts. Luke doubts whether Darth Vader is his father. Neo fears that he can’t defeat Agent Smith. Simba has feared Scar his entire life. Plus, he knows that Scar killed his father, so Scar must be very dangerous. It is those fears and doubts that connect the supreme ordeal to our lives. While most of us will probably not have to fight a battle to the death, all of us can relate to overcoming a fear or doubt once we leave home. For some people the biggest test is getting into college. For others, the test is getting the job they have always wanted. Whatever the case, all of us can relate to a hero overcoming a major obstacle.

The last part of the hero’s journey is the return. This is the moment when the hero comes home a new person, often to a restored homeland. In ‘Star Wars’ the return occurs when Luke Skywalker goes back to the planet where all of his friends are after the Death Star has blown up. In ‘The Matrix’ it is when Neo returns with all the people he saved from the matrix. And in ‘The Lion King’, it happens when Simba returns from fighting Scar to accept his rightful place as king in his newly restored land. For us, the return is not always coming back to a once broken homeland. And it’s not like we are necessarily transformed in as dramatic a way as some of these heroes. Perhaps it is when we return from college with more experience. Or when we come back from getting a new job with greater confidence. Whatever the case, we do come back changed in some way after we’ve grown

The fact that our change is less dramatic is perhaps the other reason why people love the hero’s journey so much. We wish we could change as much as Dorothy, Luke, Neo, Bilbo and Simba do. We wish we could but we cannot. So, we watch their journey unfold instead and try to see ourselves in it.

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Examining the Popularity of the Hero’s Journey in Hollywood. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/examining-the-popularity-of-the-heros-journey-in-hollywood/
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