Why scriptwriters should avoid using the Hero’s Journey.

**Warning – this post contains many spoilers for the movie Wanted which was released in 2008.  Read at your own risk.

At the beginning of a writing course, a student is encouraged to study Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  In it he postulates the existence of the mono myth and from that concludes that most, if not all, stories break down into the Hero’s Journey.  Christopher Vogler went further than that in his The Writer’s Journey, a bible for screenwriters which has produced many of the top selling movie scripts of all time.  I’ve heard George Lucas used the Hero’s Journey to write Star Wars (almost step for step) and the scriptwriting software Contour even provides you with a breakdown of certain movies that also use this formula.

It works, which is why people use it.  Again and again and again.  Which brings me to my rant today.  As an Australian, I, along with many of my countrymen (and women – country people just sounded weird), have watched in envy over the past few years at the wonder that is Netflix.  We salivated at the thought of thousands of television episodes available at the touch of a button, no ads, and no trying to pick up a show half way through a season because you missed the starting date.  When Netflix announced they were coming to Australia, I think the shout of joy was heard around the world, and when I found out that my internet service provider was offering a 6 month free trial of Netflix with their new unlimited package, I was sold.  And so were 1.4 million other Australians.  We haven’t adapted to something so quickly since Pirate Bay started.

So in the following orgy of television watching I have come across quite a few shows that Netflix deemed would interest me.  I chortled through Arrested Development, marvelled at Daredevil, and have watched several action movies that i missed at the cinema.  Or so I thought.

That brings me to Wanted.  Angelina Jolie, James Macavoy, Morgan Freeman.  Stellar actors in an action movie, what more could you want?  It was only as I was about half way through the movie that I realised I’d already seen it.  This has happened to me before, but usually it was forgettable telemovies or old tv shows, not kickbutt genre movies where bullets curve around corners and men fly through the air while shooting.  Why would I forget this one?  What was it about this movie that made my brain put it in the category of don’t bother remembering this one?  It isn’t particularly bad, although the levels of suspended disbelief are astronomical (did you see that flippy car bit?), and while the acting isn’t Oscar worthy, it is certainly not Plan 9 from Outer Space bad, or even Razzie bad.

My guess is part of what makes this movie forgettable is that, aside from the weird stunts, there are no real surprises.  This movie follows the Hero’s Journey from beginning to end.  Our hero, Wesley Gibson (James Macavoy), is an office drone who is bullied by his boss, knows his friend is fucking his girlfriend, takes anxiety pills to calm panic attacks and cannot find any mention of himself on Google (apparently the ultimate sign you are a nobody is even Google can’t find you).  This, in Campbell’s book, is known as the Ordinary Everyday Life, phase one of the Hero’s Journey.

The film then progresses to phase two, the Call to Adventure, when hapless Wesley is caught up in a gun fight where he finds out he is the target, and is then taken on one of the craziest car chases I’ve ever seen (and yet, I did not even remember this).  He is brought to the lair of the Fraternity (fairly unoriginal name for a group of assassins, plus there are women in the group too so it doesn’t make a lot of sense) by his rescuer, Fox (Angelina Jolie) who explains that he is being hunted by the man who just killed his father.  Sloan (Morgan Freeman) tells him he must shoot the wings off the flies hovering over the bin.  When he refuses, they put a gun to his head and tell him that he doesn’t really suffer from anxiety, he is special, and then he manages to shoot those wings off.  (still with me?)

Phase three of the Hero’s Journey is the refusal of the call, where the hero rejects the offer for adventure and tries to go back to his normal life.  Of course that never works out, and I know you thought that before I even wrote it.  That’s because an appalling amount of movie script writers use this formula because viewers love familiarity.  Where would the drama be if the hero just went, ‘OK’?  No, they need to be conflicted between the safe and the exciting.

Wanted follows all the phases in sequence: Crossing the Threshold (no going back now); Tests and Helpers (it’s time for a training montage); The Supreme Ordeal (let’s kill that mofo who killed my dad); Receiving the Reward (I guess learning the truth could be considered a reward – oh no, I killed my own father?  Noooooooo. Ok this one doesn’t quite fit the mould); Flight (now everyone’s after the hero); Recrossing the threshold (waking up in an apartment across from your own surrounded by baby pictures of yourself); Return with the elixir (using the unsubtle hint from earlier in the movie to booby trap rats into blowing up the compound of assassins thus killing everyone except the head bad guy who you kill in a remarkably similar fashion to the way the guy at the start was assassinated); and, finally, Back to the Beginning (where the hero breaks the fourth wall and tells the audience “This is me taking back control of my life. What the fuck have you done lately?”  Take that, bitches).

Now that I have written it all out, I still don’t understand why I couldn’t remember any of this movie.  The moment I realised I had seen it is where he walks into the room where the Loom of Fate is weaving out people’s destinies, that is, who the Fraternity are to assassinate next.  That’s it.  That is the only part of the movie I remembered, and it is not the most interesting or exciting part, in fact it made me groan.  I have to conclude that even with its quirky car chases, unreal (and I don’t mean that in the good way) special effects, moderately good acting and suitably attractive cast, there is something in this story that blends it with every other movie out there.  This is why the movies that won’t leave your mind, leave you talking for days, and, even if you only see them once, stay in your memory are the ones that break free from the cookie cutter scripts that are churned out in Hollywood.  This is why it is not always suitable to use the Hero’s Journey as a template for your story.  So, scriptwriters out there, be original and you’ll be remembered.


2 thoughts on “Why scriptwriters should avoid using the Hero’s Journey.

  1. Aha, somebody was paying attention in Myths and Symbols! Interesting analysis, but it could just be another symptom of Hollywood, ie. formulaic movie making. I think these days the studios are so scared of making a loss, and the production companies are so governed by the accountants, that in order to get a green light for anything they have to deliver a script that is (to the accountant’s tiny minds) familiar, non-challenging, pretty, violent, and can be guaranteed to drag in some kind of audience (probably those to young to have seen all the previous incarnations of the same story that came before).

    I’m sure there are good indie films that have followed the Hero’s journey to good effect – Fargo, possibly? It all comes down to the talent and strength of the writer and producers to be original and hold on to their principles. Personally, I like it and use it now and then to get me out of a corner I’ve painted myself into.

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