Sunday, March 8, 2009

One story to bind them all... But that's not necessarily a good thing

Last year, Cosby and Major Dad writer/creator Earl Pomerantz bemoaned the general state of American movies on his excellent blog, and more especially because they always tell the same story. It's either 'somebody wants something and gets it' or 'somebody wants something and goes mad'.

Of course, mr. Pomerantz nuances this blanket statement (there are movies in which the protagonist doesn't get his wish, and these are his favourites), but there's more than a little truth in his statement. The underlying story structure of most American films has become extremely uniform over the past two or three decades.

And that underlying story structure is the Hero's Journey.

For those screenwriting enthusiasts who lived on Mars for the last thirty years or who never opened a book beyond Field or McKee: The Hero's Journey is the screenwriting structure developed by Christopher Vogler, who based it on Joseph Campbell's classic The Hero With The Thousand Faces.

Basically, it's about the process of becoming an adult: the hero leaves his home, ventures into the unknown world, is challenged and returns to his home transformed, an adult who adds something to society.
It's a fictionalized representation of the ritual of adulthood, which in primitive societies generally takes place when puberty occurs.

Now, I'm not criticizing the Hero's Journey: it's a story archetype which works, and which appeals to psychological mechanisms and processes in everybody's mental make-up.

Yet there is far more to life than moving from childhood to adulthood.

There are countless stories to tell about the challenges of adulthood, about the slow decline when middle-age sets in, and about old age and facing one's mortality. In James Bonnett's Stealing Fire From The Gods, all of these story types are placed on a story wheel, divided into quadrants. It shows very clearly how much more story material is available to screenwriters.

And these stories were more prevalent in the past (and are also found more often in the films of other countries). For some reason, though, the Hero's Journey model has pushed all others aside.

One of the reasons for this may be that it's the only story structure of its type that is commonly known and described so exhaustively. Bonnet's book is very inspiring and, in its second edition, also attempts to provide practical models of the kind, but the fact remains that Vogler's rightly famous manual is extremely effective in fixing the Hero's Journey model in the reader's mind - and in making it immediately applicable.

Secondly, the whole character arc concept which is so prevalent in screenwriting theory (and which every teacher, myself included, imparts to their pupils), always implies an evolution in the main character. Something is missing in their life, and through their experiences, the flaw is healed. No matter what the genre, this is the 'genetic blueprint' for just about every film protagonist since the '80s - although Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4 and Shia Leboeuf in Transformers had no character arcs to speak of.

In both these cases, the lack of an arc is a weakness: John McClane feels stale, now, and Leboeuf's character is so bland it beggars belief. There are other characters, though, who do not need an arc. James Bond (pre-Brosnan) is the best example. Here is a man who is complete, who has flaws he will never be able to overcome (compulsive womanizer, snob, sometimes overconfident, impulsive). Yet his talents more than outweigh these weaknesses. Similarly, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, Dirty Harry etc. are characters who are what they are. Their flaws are part of their appeal, and they do not need to 'learn' in order to be effective and entertaining. What is important though, is that they are portrayed with enough multi-dimensionality when they first appear, so they come alive to the audience and create a very strong impression - an impression which overshadows the details of the actual narrative.

This is a huge topic and I've only touched on the surface - I may return to it later to investigate certain points more deeply. What I would like you to take away from reading this is the following: the Hero's Journey is but one story model, which is ideally suited to (many) screen stories, but not all of them. Investigate the alternatives. Learn to fit the structural model to the content of the story, as form and content are one. One size might fit many, but it does not fit all.

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