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.

Is it really Therapy?

I know the term retail therapy is supposed to evoke visions of shoppers almost in a zen calm after weilding their credit cards, but really ithas notbeen my experience, especially today.  If anything, going shopping today is enough to send you to therapy.

All I want in this little shopping trip is one pair of shoes for a specific purpose.  They are for my upcoming trip overseas so they must be multipurpose shoes.  They must be cool, because I am travelling into summer.  They must be sturdy because I will be doing a lot of walking.  They must be pretty, because they will be doubling up as evening shoes.  And they must be reasonably priced, because I am a tightarse.

That’s not too much to ask is it?

But finding this wonderful pair of shoes is proving to be a challenge that I am not sure I am up to.  I cannot spend too much time searching as there are other constraints on my time but I have a limited time to get them.  I hate crowds but all the good shops are full of people.  I like personal service but the cheaper shops are all about help yourself.

I thought I had found the answer today with a factory outlet for Rockport Shoes which are very expensive normally but some of the best shoes around.  There was a big sale on and they had many sandles that might fit my requirements, but sadlyI must report yet another shopping failure.  All the shoes are tied together with plastic tags so there is no way to try themboth on without help from an assistant.  Try as I might those assistants ignored me.  Surely it wasn`t because I was looking in the super specials area?  I don’t want to even go there but needless to say there was bno therapy involved in today`s excursion.  In fact I think I wil fall back on the most proven therapy of all, chocolate

Review of The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

One look at the cover art to this book and I knew I had to read it.  Oh not the insipid, appeal to teen girls cover that appeared on the Australian edition,

but the radical, oh my god this book will be awesome, cover art that appeared on the American edition.

I grew up on tales of Changelings, faeries who were left in place of a stolen human baby, and that image of dangling iron above a crib spoke to something inside me.

The blurb starts off like this:

“Mackie Doyle is the Replacement.  Though he lives in the small town of Gentry, Mackie comes from a world of tunnels and black murky water, a world of living dead girls ruled by a little tattooed princess.  He is a Replacment – left in the crib of a human baby sixteen years ago.  Now, because of fatal allergies to iron, blood, and consecrated ground, Mackie is slowly dying in the human world.”

There was so much potential in that one paragraph, so many what ifs that my brain practically exploded.  Unfortunately, while the book was extremely enjoyable, and it certainly held my attention (not an easy thing to do these days) I felt that its potential was not quite realised.  My initial excitement at the possibilities inherent within this idea did not eventuate.  Maybe the lead characters were too young for me to relate to, although I normally don’t have a problem relating to YA fiction (being so very young at heart while at the same time having the right to say ‘Kids these days!’)

Perhaps it was the fact that I was brought up on the faerie changeling tales, so very much a part of my Irish heritage.  My expectations were very high and they weren’t fulfilled.  Please understand, I am not saying this was a bad book, in fact it was extremely well written and kudos to a new author for coming out with such a great first novel.  It is an achievement to get into print that I am extremely jealous of and I don’t make any pretensions that I could have done a better job, I couldn’t.

It is just that when you get to a subject that you love, you so, so want it to be your ultimate book.  Your expectations are so high that you cannot help but be disappointed.  I find this happens a lot with sequels.  The author is such a favourite of yours that you automatically buy the next novel sight unseen.  You wait months for it to come out, tensions mounting, until the day it is published and you can go and finally purchase it.  You read it in one sitting, devouring the prose of your favourite author, delighting in meeting favourite characters again, but thinking in the back of your mind that perhaps the author is coasting a little, perhaps they are resting on their laurels a touch?  Perhaps this could have been better?

But you persevere, knowing that the quality will come back, that perhaps they had a bad year, perhaps the deadlines were too tight and they didn’t get a chance to review as much as they usually do.  Perhaps they simply have nothing left to say about the characters, but the publishers want more, more, more.  Needless to say, I will buy, and keep on buying this author purely for their past brilliance and the hope of future brilliance.  It will take more than one lame book to turn me off a whole series.

This post was longer the first time round, in fact I had my rant up and going at a million miles an hour but the internet went down half way through and the autosave didn’t work so now my rant has fizzled and I can’t even remember what I wrote before.  What I will say is that I can recommend The Replacement, although it is a YA book and, unlike most YA books, you can really tell.  The print is extra large, like they think the young have bad eyes?  It is beautifully written and I did enjoy it but I think if you want to read about things that go bump in the night I would recommend Faerie Tale by Raymond E Feist, one of the most chillingly scary stories I have ever read.  (In fact I should reread it and do a review!)