In approaching this discussion I spent a few moments recalling the plots of some personal cinematic favorites. I could think of several examples that pretty clearly follow The Hero’s Journey. Les Miserables was recently made modern and beautiful and the journey of the main character is certainly epic and heroic, but also too obvious. Jean Val Jean was impoverished but retained an almost superhuman strength. The story of his life from the point where he comes out of prison and after a series of events tears up the documentation labeling him a convict is his departure into the unknown. He then faces obstacle after obstacle that truly test his solid gold character, which is the initiation. Val Jean’s return is a little confusing for me, but my best guess is that in the final scene, which is like the most beautiful scene in all of musical theatre history, when he gives Cosette the letters that tell her the story of her early life and what his story has been right before he dies, that is his return.
I looked through my DVDs and realized that one of my all time favorites I think fits this formula, does it well, and I doubt anyone else will use it. I would argue that in Ridley Scott’s 1991 masterpiece Thelma & Louise, Thelma goes on The Hero’s Journey.
I can’t help but to buck against Campbell’s very 1949ish insistence that the hero is male because of what women represent. I haven’t looked into it, but I would hope some interested feminists out there have also noticed that this is offensive and looked for examples to the contrary or more importantly that we are holding ourselves to a higher societal standard in recent years and are creating stories and retelling our mythologies in ways that put women in the hero’s role.
First in terms of characteristics of the hero, Thelma is not on a quest for her mate and doesn’t seem to represent creation, and while it is subtle, her independence and bravery, even as recently as 1991 I think do count as a special sort of power. When she witnesses an assault on her friend Louise she interferes at great personal psychological and perhaps even physical risk. In my opinion, Thelma shows nobility of character and willingness to risk her life when she ends the life of this violent misogynist. This situation having turned deadly and being driven by a great injustice also then serves as Thelma’s call to action. She departs on her journey. I think there are many more places where the plot of this great film can and do match with The Hero’s Journey.
Movies can absolutely meet the human needs expressed in the four functions of mythology. The need for mystery has been satisfied by film since great film began to be made. The Departed and Mystic River come to my mind as some of the best movies in my lifetime that have truly made me wonder what was true in the world throughout. When it comes to a picture of the universe in which human beings belong, I think that we have most likely taken that function of mythology for granted in movies. Most film includes a presumption that human beings are meant to be and will even fight hard for the preservation of human kind almost as if to protect the right to that presumption. Maybe movies that involve a threat to the extinction of humans are exhibiting that function of mythology by creating that risk? I think that the need for a picture of our society where each person belongs, movies can and have absolutely met this need in terms of the functions of our mythology. Movies that have intersecting plots like Crash or Love Actually I think have serve that function, where many stories have places that cross, sometimes only by a hair or coincidence. They make all things seem significant and all people seem necessary. Also, movies that include the stories of populations of people rarely represented on screen are important and need to keep happening. Take for example what a big deal it was when Precious came out. The story represented there is not and has not ever been rare, but ideally film should be getting braver. I think this is also true for the documentary genre. I really enjoyed the movie Babies, and what is illustrated there is this point maybe, that all people have a place in the world. My personal favorites in terms of film have to do with human psychology and development. I think some of the greatest movies are movies that show profound change in people or groups of people. These can be biographies like Whats Love Got To Do With It, or romantic comedies where someone shifts or grows a little like Along Came Polly, or sort of wonderful classic dramas like Good Will Hunting. It’s a wonderful thing that we as people are able to enjoy grandiose epic blockbusters and also the subtleties of some independent film or smaller scale movies where you have to pay attention to what is being said or represented about our psychology and life transitions. I want to believe that cinema is keeping up with the job it is tasked with and continues to do a good job of meeting the needs laid out in the four functions of mythology. I think the reality is that money is a bigger incentive and there are too many horrible children’s movies being made and not enough of the good stuff.