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 filmquadposters.co.uk

Image from filmquadposters.co.uk

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.

 

The Monomyth – aka Hero’s Journey

Interest in Joseph Campbell’s work continues to grow.  In a highly compressed whirlwind trip of world mythologies, Campbell shows us that many commonalities exist in our human family through a breathtaking sampler of mythological narratives across an expanse of time and location in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  That is not to say that differences are absent.  Rather, he attempts, through this work, to balance the extreme and extremist focus on the differences that appear to be the dominant view now for centuries, if not millennia.

Campbell quoting James Joyce says: “The monomyth is an everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique way.”  That is to say, fundamentally, there is one narrative.  However, this form demands of us that we live our unique narrative out.  We cannot live someone else’s narrative.  Campbell was insistent that we enter the woods alone where it is thickest and where no path exists.

The monomyth is the journey each of us is on.  “Myth commonly is an allegory or metaphor of the agony of self-completion through the mastery and assimilation of conflicting opposites.  The process is described in the typical symbolic terms of encounters, perils, feats, and trials [in myths].”  This comment was made in The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer (edited by Joseph Campbell) before Campbell put to pen the monomyth.  Myths are metaphors to assist us in the confusing business of living life.

The common understanding of myth is as a story.  The content of myth as stories is important but there is something behind the content of the story: mythic form ( Dennis Patrick Slattery on The Relevance of Myth in our Lives). Slattery asked himself: “What kind of energy field gathers itself to coagulate or constellate that has this particular type of plot?  It’s not that myth as story is wrong; it is just insufficient.  There is something behind the narrative that each of us is living out.  To merely discuss the plot of our lives is to sidestep the form.”  The Universal emerges through unique local and individual expression.

For writers who use the Hero’s Journey as structure to guide them in their writing, the greater truth of the monomyth may be overlooked.  There are those who try to capitalize on the form saying things like there are 510+ stages of the hero’s journey. There are in fact uncounted stages of this journey as each of us “inflects in particular ways” the reiteration of unchanging principles.  Do not be taken in by jargon.  There is something very basic to the human condition here.  Jargon muddies these waters when clarity is desired.  Also, I suggest you do not dismiss the form because it appears simple.  Do not confuse simple with simplistic (and simple often does not mean easy).  The potency of the underlying truth is not diminished by the simplicity of the structure.  Another common error is to think of the form as if it were a formula.  If the writer does this, the story most likely will feel formulaic to the audience.

The story you writers tell (and the story that each of us must live) is uniquely our own.  If we do not follow the call, the story that only each of us uniquely has the capacity to live will go unlived; a vacuum will have been created because that gap cannot be filled by any other.  The everlasting reiteration of unchanging principles and events inflected in particular and unique ways is simultaneously a grueling demand to rise to the challenges that are presented to us and a gift, elixir, joy, and experience of the wonder of Life.