The Titanic Role of Myth in Modern Scriptwriting

James Cameron said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1998, the movie, Titanic, intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived.

Image from

Image from

The Hero’s Journey is the foundation upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Some successful writers subscribe to the notion that there is really only one story; what James Joyce named the “monomyth.” Every great story essentially alternates situations and superimposes them over the same structure. The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Brokeback Mountain, Gladiator, Annie Hall, Shrek, The Fighter, The Shawshank Redemption and other successful stories are all one and the same – various situations built on the same foundation. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Cameron all use this structure. Shakespeare used this structure. Stories in the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah and the Koran use this structure.

As the late great script writer Stewart Stern said: “Structure is inevitable.” William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, among others) says it even more strongly. He says: “Screenplays are structure.” Structure is more than simple three or four acts or plot points etc. Structure is a consistent, complex process through which your characters are led that results in their resolving their initial challenges; battling past their historical and personal limitations.

By familiarizing yourself with mythic narratives, you will see character archetypes in action and avoid making caricatures or stereotypes of archetypal images. You will be introduced to enduring mythic themes that showcase the human condition. You will see where these concepts that originated from the study of myths have been utilized in film and how to apply them to your story. Understanding myths helps writers better execute and deepen their stories.

Your story is uniquely yours.  The structure of the Hero’s Journey is a tool.  Tools in the hands of a master create art where the tool is transparent to the viewer. The toolbox then becomes a launchpad for freedom.  In the hands of a novice it can help get your hands around those random ideas and get them on the page. Structure is not a dirty word.  As quoted above “structure is inevitable.”  Your job is to harness it and utilize it to give voice to your story.


Star Trek “Insurrection”: Archetypes in Cinema

The notion of “archetype” varies.   According to C.G. Jung, an archetype is an image inherited from the earliest human ancestors and is present in the collective unconscious. These archetypes are ongoing.  They may be suppressed or dormant but are not destroyed.

An archetype is difficult to specify definitively.  For example, the Devouring Mother is a commonly experienced archetype. However, the image of the archetype varies according to cultural context, historic moment, and personal predisposition.

In the Hindu tradition this image may be rendered as Kali with her necklace of severed heads. 

In the Classical Greek context, it looks like Medusa with her serpentine hair whose gaze turns the viewer to stone.

The artist’s mandate is to put fresh garments on the archetype so that it is more available to the modern world and yet contains the same potency.

To better prepare for this task, study of these archetypes and their representation across time and cultures in myth and art is highly recommended.

For Jung, James Hillman, and other prominent psychologists, any deity is a rendered image of an archetype.  In an essay listed below, I discuss the Apollo and Hermes archetypes in the film: Star Trek – Insurrection from this Jungian/archetypal psychological perspective as an example of this type of understanding of “archetype.”

Others see the notion of archetype as serving a dramatic function that furthers and deepens story.  Vogler’s Character Archetypes are examples of this perspective.  (see The Writers Journey for more detailed information.)

These two perspective of “archetype” are not mutually exclusive. By becoming familiar with both, you may find they are complementary; each deepening the understanding of the other.

Apollo and Hermes Archetypes in Insurrection

Star Trek – Insurrection is the ninth big screen feature film of the Star Trek franchise. In this Next Generation adventure, the android, Data, experiences a major malfunction. He attacks Federation partners and a Starfleet admiral. Captain Picard and crew are on a separate assignment when they learn of Admiral Dougherty’s problems with Data. The Enterprise immediately goes to Data’s location to assist in clearing up the incident. Picard tells the admiral that he will control Data or terminate him. Picard becomes a focused detective in his quest to identify the cause of Data’s malfunction. He uncovers a plot to forcibly relocate the whole of the planet’s population, the Ba’ku. The planet’s metaphasic radiation has a Fountain-of-Youth effect on the inhabitants who appear young, healthy and mentally alert but have been on the planet 309 years and were not young when they arrived. The Ba’ku are technologically knowledgeable with warp drive capability, but as Sojet, Artim’s father says, “Our technological abilities are not apparent because we have chosen not to employ them in our daily lives. We believe that when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.” Their society is a pastoral agrarian one with a high regard for artisans and their craftsmanship. It is peaceful and has a paradise-like quality. It is ironic that technology is what threatens their lives on this planet and it is technology that exposes the relocation conspiracy thereby preserving their way of life.

The people behind this plot are runaway Ba’ku, now calling themselves Son’a, who left the planet in search of “off-lander” worlds. But, without the metaphasic radiation, their bodies became “a plastic surgeon’s worst nightmare.” The reason behind removing the population is so that the metaphasic particles can be collected to make this extended youth available to all the people of the Federation. However the collection process will make the planet uninhabitable. Picard feels this forced diaspora is contrary to the Prime Directive which prevents any Starfleet expedition from interfering with the natural development of other civilizations. He risks his starship, his career and his life to lead an insurrection against this Federation sanctioned plan. One of the movie’s messages is that there is a price to pay for the benefits of technology, and any given society must raise to their consciousness as to what that cost is.

The movie opens panning a pastoral scene and children playing hide and seek in a field of haystacks. It appears to be a tranquil, simple society; even to the point of being archaic. Here Data is wearing an isolation suit that conceals him from the Ba’ku. He rips off his head piece and reveals a stunning image of a disembodied head. Data is an extreme illustration of the distant, logical thinker of the Apollonian archetype. The image of Data as a disembodied head emphasizes the Apollonian importance of the head, as the seat of the mind and thought. Another characteristic of Apollo, besides being detached and distant, is his prowess as an archer. In this scene, like Apollo the archer, Data armed with a phaser (a weapon of distance), shoots at those he opposes. Phoebus Apollo brings the light of day to the world and enhances the ability to see.  In this scene, Data, like Apollo, brings to light the hidden and secret Son’a and Federation observers for all the Ba’ku to see.

As a Starfleet officer, Data is required to obey orders from a superior officer.  He knowingly disobeys a direct command from his superior officer. He appears to be out of control and out of his mind. These characteristics are not part of the Apollonian archetype. This is a trick by the filmmaker however and we will see later that he in fact is acting rationally. Also there is a brief but obvious connection between the young boy, Artim, and Data. Artim cannot take his eyes off Data. The way Data is revealed is both compelling and repulsive to Artim. Data, too, sees the boy and holds him in his gaze. The Apollo-Hermes connection is strengthened throughout the movie, but here is their first meeting in the movie.

In the Star Trek television series, Data is continually trying to understand what it is about humans that make them human. A major stumbling block in this endeavor was his inability to feel emotion. The script writers expanded the character by providing an “emotion chip” created specifically by his father to enhance his development. Because of Data’s aberrant behavior, the question of his emotion chip is raised. However Geordi confirms that Data left his emotion chip behind when he went on this mission. Frequently Apollo is placed in opposition to Dionysus, known for his abandon to sensual pleasures. Commenting on the secrets of Eleusis, Ginette Paris says in Pagan Grace, ” … we sense the difference between Dionysian consciousness, emotional and experiential, and Apollonian consciousness, which is abstract and formal.” The comment that Data is not operating under the influence of his emotion chip leads the viewer away from a possible Dionysian explanation of his behavior and reestablishes the rational behavior of an Apollo archetype. The possibility that Data is acting emotionally is removed. Geordi and Picard now proceed to solve the mystery of Data’s bizarre behavior knowing that Data is responding logically to circumstances. They try to uncover what those circumstances might be, but first Data must be captured.

Data appears to have become a renegade. He has appropriated the mission scout ship and uses its weaponry to attack the Son’a spacecraft with a Starfleet admiral on board. He even fires on Picard and Worf when they attempt to capture him. Karl Kerenyi, in his book Apollo says that Apollo is the God from afar in that his arrows strike from a distance with inevitable death. Like Apollo, Data, throughout the whole movie, is never portrayed in open proximity to those he opposes, Admiral Dougherty and the leader of the So’na, Ru’afo. Although Data does not directly kill these two leaders of the Ba’ku relocation program, both of them are dead by the end of the film.

Since threats and force are not successful, Picard tries a different tack. When Picard sings, “come out, come out, wherever you are,” Data materializes as if summoned by the song. Picard continues using music to successfully approach and neutralize Data. Music and Apollo are closely linked. Kerenyi quotes the Hymn to Apollo by Callimachus (Apollo),

None is so versatile in skill as Apollo/He watches over the archer; he watches over the bard;/Phoebus’s are both the bow and song.

The use of music to get through to Data is another example of the archetype of Apollo in this film. Hermes meets Apollo’s anger and the judgment of Zeus with such a disarming impertinence that his brother’s affection was now entirely regained, purchased by the gift of the lyre. Data likewise is disarmed by engagement in singing with Worf and Picard.

In this sequence the film clarifies that Data had been shot by these opponents and this is what blew his circuits. He was shot because he chanced upon a secret Federation vessel with a holographic image of the Ba’ku village. When he was shot, he lost his memory and failsafe systems were activated to protect him from being taken advantage of. These systems allow him to defend himself against attack, which he does in a logical and orderly fashion. The holodeck and transporter beams were the intended means to forcibly and secretly relocate the whole Ba’ku settlement. Apollo’s light illuminates. In order to maintain a deception Apollo must be removed. The Son’a fear that because Data has seen the device he will expose (illuminate) the plan. They try to destroy Data, but like Apollo, Data is a formidable opponent and they are not successful. This scene also confirms that Data’s apparent bizarre behavior was actually rational and logical when the facts of the situation are known.

Data’s effort to connect with Artim are openly displayed mid-way through the film. It is his fascination with this young Hermes, Artim, that leads Data to discover the holodeck. The mercurial aspect of science frequently results in “brilliant” discoveries. This point is a subtle one in the movie: Data is following Artim when he “chances” upon the Son’a plot. Without this mercurial turn of events, the Son’a plan would have been successfully executed. Apollo and Hermes together are the creative force which frustrates this forced relocation scheme.

In the scene where the Ba’ku are evacuating their settlement trying to reach the safety of caves in the nearby mountains where they can hide from the Son’a, the bond between Data and Artim is clearly demonstrated in their conversation. Data’s “specifications” are rigid and static. This is in direct contrast to Artim’s constantly changing body as a child experiences growth. It is hard, if not impossible, to pin Hermes down. He is ever changing; mercurial, where with Apollo, “what you see is what you get.”

Artim questions Data about play and fun. Data explains that play means playing the violin (another reference to music) or playing chess; a very structured game requiring a high degree of logical thought. This type of Apollonian expression of playing is not what Artim means. He is instead talking about the child-like quality of playing without structure for no other reason than the pleasure of having fun. Hermes is well known for his playfulness and fun. Paris, in Pagan Grace, quotes the Hymn to Hermes which says,

There/he found a turtle/and it brought/lots of fun …/The son of Zeus,/ the helper,/looked at it,/then burst out laughing, and said this:/”What a great sign,/what a help this is for me!/I won’t ignore it./Hello there,/little creature,/dancing up and down,/companion at festivals,/how exciting it is/to see you.

The reader of this hymn also can sense the fun of this extraordinary little animal. Apollo might see the same creature but, instead of experiencing fun, he would weigh it, measure it and observe its behavior. He might even experience pleasure, for there is pleasure in gaining Apollonian knowledge. But it would not be fun. The charisma of Hermes’s charm won Apollo over, but Apollo will forever be challenged to learn how to play and have fun. His association with Hermes might be as close as he will come.

This closing scene ends like the movie began with the disembodied head of Data. This time, though, he is in the act of play with Artim. Apollo is trying to find the Hermes in himself. Data speaks like a child would by saying, “I have to go home now;” a common expression of children when their play is interrupted by demands of adults. Data and Artim have become fast friends just as Apollo and Hermes did in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes

Even though Data is unable to experience emotion, there is an inkling by this viewer that these two have developed an authentic affection for each other.

Data rejoins the Enterprise crew, but before he departs, Artim admonished him by saying, “Don’t forget! You have to have fun every day.” There is a subtle reference here about Data’s loss of memory earlier in the film. Apollo has an incredible faculty for facts and figures. But maybe, buried in his memory, there exists the potential capacity for Hermes-like play; a capacity that must be remembered before it can be employed. Data plays a Hermes-like trick on Riker which demonstrates to Artim that Data will take to heart his command to have fun every day.

Confession to the reader: My attraction to this film when it first came out was significantly due to my own tendency to be dry and analytic. I sense an incompleteness in me through my own inability to play and have fun. By working through the archetypal images of Apollo and Hermes, I feel I too can learn from Hermes similar to the way Data does in this film. The Hermes in my life is my daughter, who I believe I have, in some ways, failed because of this inability. This Apollo-Hermes theme encouraged me to balance my Apollo-like tendency with the play of Hermes.


20 Mythic Themes

From “High Concept” to “Controlling Idea,” theme is touted as an important component of your story but often vaguely described. Consciously or unconsciously, theme is also what you are really writing about.

Myths contain a wealth of themes. At the center of these mythologems resides powerful archetypal images.

Here is a partial list of mythic themes that may help you identify what underlies your plot that gives it meaning and drives your characters to take purposeful actions.

Depending on your genre, the trick here might be to differentiate the literal application and the metaphorical to your specific story.

1. The Father Quest
2. Meeting the Father
3. Exile/Return
4. Salvation/Redemption/Atonement
5. Paradise/Wasteland
6. Betrayal/Loyalty
7. Home
8. Death/Resurrection-Rebirth
9. Night Sea Journey
10. The Deluge
11. Immortality (Fountain of Youth)
12. Beauty
13. Love
14. The Forbidden Fruit
15. The Dark Wood
16. Enchantment
17. Inexhaustible dish (e.g. the Grail)
18. Initiation
19. Dismemberment/Wholeness
20. Divine Child/Orphan

Understanding and applying these mythic themes will give your work added depth. As they are also timeless and part of the on-going human psychic life, applying them may also increase your story’s potential for relevance.

Write well. Write often.

TV and Intelligence

We often hear that TV is geared to the lowest denominator. A common criticism is that mass media not only reduces uniqueness among various cultures, but contributes to numbing the mind and quashing the imagination.

However, well known story consultant, script doctor, and teacher, Robert McKee, has been saying for a long time that some of the best writing today can be seen on TV. (I could say that some of the worst can been seen on TV also, but that’s not the discussion today.)

In an essay Rob Brezsny says:

“. . . an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker notes that Americans’ IQ scores have been steadily rising for a long time — so much so that a person whose IQ placed her in the top ten percent of the population in 1920 would be in the bottom third today. One possible explanation: Our “growing stupidity” may better be described as a difficulty keeping up with the ever-growing mass of facts, whereas we are actually becoming better at solving problems.

Gladwell cites the book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Its author, Steven Johnson, argues that pop culture is increasingly expanding our intelligence about social relationships and stretching our ability to sort out complex moral dilemmas. TV shows in the 1970s, like “Starsky and Hutch” and “Dallas,” had linear, easy-to-follow story lines with simple characters who behaved in predictable ways.

Writing for TV shows like LostThe Sopranos, and Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica Cast photo by dark chacal 2010

Battlestar Galactica Cast
photo by dark chacal 2010

weave together a number of convoluted narrative threads that require rapt attention and even repeated viewings in order to understand. Characters often wrestle with contradictory motivations that complicate their behavior as they deal with ambiguous dilemmas for which there are no clearly right solutions. Viewers who take in shows like this are in effect attending brain gyms.” (Go to Rob Brezsny’s website for his full article.)

Great stories, intricate plot, and fascinating characters feed our imagination. Imagination might seem stifled by a constant diet of reality shows. However, imagination arises from the psyche and the psyche is difficult to manage. Like our bodies, it is best to feed psyche the highest level of nutrition available. Even though we may lack the best, there is still great potential to function well beyond our current level.

Of course, as a mythologist, I recommend mythology as a place to begin to feed the imagination quality nutrients, and, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the writers for the shows listed by Brezsny also dine at the mythology banquet.

Pan’s Labyrinth

A couple of years ago, I was privileged to attend Warren Etheredge’s interview of Guillermo del Toro. I found Mr. del Toro to be unassuming and open. It is my opinion Pan’s Labyrinth won an Academy Award and gained public popularity, at least in part, because of the mythical nature of the story and images.

In this interview, del Toro mentioned that he has a personal mythology library in his “man-cave.” I doubt that del Toro’s genius, his interest in mythology and his award winning films are mere coincidence. (click here for a discussion on genius by Elizabeth Gilbert)

Pan’s Labyrinth, was the inspiration for the following commentary. In an excerpt from his web site, Tom Flynn, PhD, says about this film:

“Many interpretations are made possible by this movie [Pan’s Labyrinth], and that is part of what makes it mythic.  To me, the mythic is the invisible skeleton of story, and when storytelling enriches the possibility of more storytelling by people’s discussions in trying to understand it, then we, in our extended narratives, become the mythmakers, if you will. I just made that up. I like it. I think the academic term for this outspinning of stories from myth is mythopoesis, an ongoing re-rendering of story and myth.”

Go to Tom’s web page for more.

If you sat through to the final page of credits in the film “Gravity”, you saw Mr. Guillermo del Toro at the top the list given Special Thanks. Hmmm.