I’ll never look at movies in the same way, as a result of reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, who says that contemporary storytellers construct their works according to ancient mythology and fairy tales. This past week I watched “Moneyball” and “Secretariat” with Mr. Vogler’s character-types and framework in mind. I found both movies charming and entertaining, but more importantly, I was a more active, curious viewer than normal and that mindset led me to consider the characters and the story structures more intentionally.
The next time you watch a movie, besides identifying the hero and villain, keep your eye open for a bearer of bad news (herald), a wise advisor (mentor), a character who puts up road blocks (threshhold guardian), and one whose identity is hard to nail down because he isn’t what he seems (shapeshifter). These roles come from archetypes, which, according to Mr. Vogel, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung used to mean “ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race.”
Before you declare this too complicated and decide you’d like to settle down for a nap, think about the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion (heroes) confront the Wicked Witch of the East (villain), with the aid of the Good Witch (mentor), face various roadblocks, among them the flying monkey henchmen and the sentries protecting Oz (threshold guardians), encounter a multi-colored horse in a world of green (herald of change), and finally the Wizard himself (shapeshifter).
Besides learning to recognize certain types of characters, you’ll watch the movie’s heroes following a certain path. First they are minding their own business, doing whatever they normally do, when they encounter a problem, a problem they wish to ignore. Eventually, they decide they have to confront the problem, usually reaching this decision with the help of a mentor. This confrontation puts them through all kinds of trials and ordeals (in some cases more emotional than physical). Ultimately, they begin to solve the problem and start the return journey to their ordinary worlds, when they face yet another, more difficult, challenge that transforms them. The heroes return home, having solved the problem but also changed by their experiences.
Mr. Vogler explains this much more interestingly and completely, analyzing many familiar movies besides the Wizard of Oz. His source is the book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, by famous mythologist Joseph Campbell. Reading this book makes movie viewing a new experience.