Many of you have read—or at least heard of—Christopher Vogler’s masterful work, The Writer’s Journey (3rd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, CA, 2007. Paperback, $26.95, ISBN-13: 978-1932907360). I read the second edition of this book several years ago and found it fascinating. Much of it stuck (which is what we all hope for when we read, right?), and as I thought about some of my favorite literature and films, I realized that they closely resemble the structure of Vogler’s twelve steps, which universally comprise the hero’s journey.
For those of you who haven’t read the book, those steps, quoted from Vogler, are:
1. Heroes are introduced in the ordinary world, where
2. they receive the call to adventure.
3. They are reluctant at first or refuse the call, but
4. are encouraged by a mentor to
5. cross the first threshold and enter the Special World, where
6. they encounter tests, allies, and enemies.
7. They approach the inmost cave, crossing a second threshold
8. where they endure the ordeal.
9. They take possession of their reward and
10. are pursued on the road back to the Ordinary World.
11. They cross the third threshold, experience a resurrection, and are transformed by the experience.
12. They return with the elixir, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World.
When I recently saw the movie, Avatar, for the first time (yeah, okay, I’m a year behind most of you), I was amazed at how closely it followed the classic hero’s journey. This blog, and maybe the next couple, will deal with that journey and how that film fits it like the glass slipper fit Cinderella’s dainty feet. (And don’t we all wish we had those? I wear a size 8½.) If you’re one of the three people in the USA who hasn’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip this blog until after you’ve rented it.
First, let me say that, despite the fact that I’m “old” (and how did that ever happen?), I loved loved loved Avatar. I was less enamored with Titanic, James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, because I couldn’t understand why anybody would abandon a perfectly good lifeboat as the Titanic sank, no matter how hot Leonardo DiCaprio/Jack Dawson was, only to end up floating on a bedstead in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.
Step 1: The Hero in His Ordinary World
So let’s talk Jake Sully. Brilliant move to make him a casualty of war, a man whose legs are no longer of use. He is the quintessential anti-hero. We get to glimpse his ordinary world in a few short frames at the very beginning of the film – as his identical twin brother is cremated. Uff da. (I am of Norwegian descent. Get used to it.) That’s a brutal Step 1 in this hero’s journey. (Interestingly, we don’t realize he no longer has the use of his legs until he deplanes on Pandora, which gives that fact even more impact.)
Step 2: Call to Action
Jake Sully, a Marine with a spinal cord injury, receives the call to adventure only because he’s genetically identical to his brother Tom, the dead scientist. Two slightly sleazy businessmen are with him as the cardboard box containing his brother’s body slides into the crematorium and the gas jets light up. They try to persuade Jake to join them:
“It would be a fresh start. On a new world.”
“And the pay is good.”
I got the feeling, watching him watch his brother disappear into ashes, that he had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do.
Step 3: Refuse the Call or Accept It Reluctantly
We get a glimpse into Jake’s thoughts at the crematorium: “Yeah, Tommy was the scientist. Me, I’m just another dumb grunt going someplace he’s gonna regret.” That pretty much says it all. The reluctant hero, whose skills, it turns out, are custom made for the situation he’s found himself in.
More in a couple of days on Jake Sully’s journey, and a couple of twists on the mythology of the hero that Avatar has brought to the screen. Any comments?