Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Paradox Of The Hero’s Journey As A Screenwriting Paradigm

Has the mythical Hero’s Journey story form run its course, or is it perhaps truly a timeless expression of Human Nature?

So you want to write a screenplay?
Today I saw that Christopher Vogler is coming to Paris with his three-day seminar on The Writer’s Journey His method is based on Joseph Campbell’s seminal book on comparative mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, which in turn is heavily indebted to Jungian analytical psychology. The announcement made me stop and think once again, seriously, about the value for screenwriters of trawling the history of storytelling for recurring story forms, character types, themes, etc.

Because It's Old Doesn't Mean It's True
Many great movies follow the mythical structure, either deliberately or accidentally, but I actually find it a bit worrying how this particular model is venerated, for the following reason:

As an abstract story form, the Hero’s Journey claims validity on the basis of a very specific and flimsy assumption: Because this type of story has been told for thousands of years, there must be some fundamental truth to it. However, I think ideas about what it means to be human (and ultimately, this is what films try to illuminate) are changing dramatically. The advent of neuroscience, quantum physics and other “new” branches of science are radically challenging many longstanding ideas about concepts such as free will, intuition, decision-making, and so on.

The Hero’s Journey celebrates and glorifies the past, rather than questioning the underlying assumptions about human nature and how we give meaning to our lives. It gives the filmmaker a false sense of comfort and reassurance, nurturing the illusion that they are part of a long, noble tradition of truth-tellers, when in fact what they are doing is uncritically confirming age-old biases.

It's All In The Willpower
Yes, but my willpower is huge.
Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the Hero’s Journey is always ultimately an argument for individual willpower as the final resort. The hero manages to achieve the goal against all odds because of his or her willpower, or the hero fails because of lack of willpower. But this is an outdated, romantic view of human nature that bears little resemblance to the banality of real life.

Since Campbell did his initial studies, a lot has changed. Scientific research has clearly shown that people’s actions are largely determined by situational, genetic and neurological factors. Our decision-making is mostly unconscious. Not in the literary, Freudian sense of an unconscious full of mysteriously repressed forbidden desires, but unconscious in the sense of not being accessible to conscious awareness. You don’t know why you chose the Toyota for the same reason you don’t know how you secrete hormones: It would be completely impractical to be consciously aware of all these processes. The difference is that you think you do know why you chose the Toyota.

Plus, we have far less agency as individual humans than we like to admit. Both in terms of making choices and in terms of acting independently in general. We are much, much less “in charge” of how we behave than we would like to believe. And yet the Hero’s Journey is predicated on this notion that adversity can be overcome by asserting your willpower.

Willpower, if such a things exists, is a very minor factor in real life. Just think about how hard it is to stick to a diet or go to the gym regularly. This is not because of an archetype you are battling with, or because of unconscious desires you’re suppressing. These are just metaphors that psychologists have used in an attempt to describe the very real experience of not being consciously in charge of one’s actions. Sticking to a diet is difficult because of the kind of animal we are, living as we do in extremely new and unfamiliar circumstances on an evolutionary time scale. You’re more likely to stick to a diet by using cognitive tricks and social frameworks to keep you away from temptation, than by telling yourself to man up.

The Screenwriter As Hero
I’m not saying it’s wrong to make movies that reflect and revel in an ancient intuition about individual willpower and agency, but I do think it’s problematic that this model for telling romantic morality tales has become the litmus test for “good screenwriting.”

Lucy, leaving her Ordinary World.
I hear you protesting: You have to know the rules to break them. Or: There simply aren’t any new stories to be told. And so on. But that’s precisely what a paradigm does. It engenders loyalty and the accompanying rationalizations. Once you are committed to a paradigm, it’s almost impossible to get your mind out of it. The problem is, essentially, that familiarity feels like evidence of truth, but it isn’t necessarily.

It’s a peculiar paradox, when you think about it: Designing your screenplay so that it follows the familiar steps of the Hero’s Journey, might actually be a bit cowardly. Or maybe it isn’t. Maybe there is such an unchanging thing as Human Nature, which was the same 3.2 million years ago for our ancestor Lucy as it will be for our descendants in 3 million years from now. I’m sceptical, though.

On the other hand, there are very practical reasons for using the Hero’s Journey, like: It will make a screenplay easier to pitch, more accessible to a larger audience, and so on. Which as far as I’m concerned are absolutely legitimate, pragmatic, business reasons. But don’t get carried away and then claim that it’s the only legitimate choice.

So, Christopher Vogler in Paris… I’m still undecided. Maybe I’ll see you there. If I do, I’ll be the one in the cafeteria trying to muster the willpower to resist yet another croissant.