Beyond the Hero’s Journey

Dirk Blothner

It is usual to understand the effect of a film as an identification with the hero of the story. The audience puts itself in the position of the protagonist and experiences his or her actions and sufferings as if they were their own. But when, in an in-depth interview, the viewers are asked to describe precisely what they actually feel and think when they view a certain film, another picture becomes manifest. It then becomes clear that the viewers’ journey does not necessarily coincide with that of the hero. It is precisely the most moving and exciting films which tend to stimulate a double life. They unfold their magic because they entertain a partially unconscious development of a complex in the viewers of which the story on the screen represents only the visible side.

Even if script-writers do not know about this concept of the effects of films based on depth psychology, they nevertheless take account of it in their daily work, for instance, when they draft several subplots and rely on the centre plot and the subplots coalescing into a coherent connection in the viewers‘ minds. Ensemble films and series would fall apart into individual parts if the viewers could not bring this unifying activity into play. But even when they consider in which sequence they want to arrange the stations of the hero’s journey, so that the climax of the story can unfold its maximum effect, script-writers have the viewers‘ inner journey in their sights. As the example of Fight Club below will show, some films go even a step further. In them, the script-writers and directors put the focus of their work explicitly not only on the visible story, but also on the invisible effectual processes. They take into account that the viewers are not only interested in observing the hero’s actions and suffering, but also want to have an unusual experience. Experienced script-writers therefore pose two questions for every scene. First, what does the protagonist need on his or her journey? And second, what do the viewers need on their journey, what effectively takes their experiential process further? They understand film, perhaps similar to music, as a medium for modelling experience.

Even although it is largely unconscious, the experience of a film is not a mystery. Any script-writer can work out an idea of it with empathy and a methodical procedure, and incorporate it in developing the script. Above all it is especially important to understand that the viewers are not already touched emotionally when the actors on the screen manifest feelings. Desperate gestures, tears and outbursts of anger are not converted one-to-one in the viewers’ experience. If you want to bring certain feelings closer to the viewers, you have to carefully prepare the viewers for them. They will only feel the pain of betrayal when beforehand they have actually experienced the feeling of commitment and loyalty, and the victory of love will move them to tears most surely only if a betrayal made probable by the story finally does not take place after all. It all depends on building up the plot in such a way that the psyche, at its own speed, can develop a complex of meaning with a consistent sequence of turnings which transfixes the viewers and finally leaves them with the feeling of having gone through a really moving experience. Beyond the hero’s journey therefore does not mean developing stories which diverge from Campbell’s or Vogler’s models, although this approach is also suitable for them. Rather, it aims at the invisible psychic process which is triggered by the visible film and entertained and sustained for two hours. This process has its own rules and therefore places particular requirements on script-writers. When viewers are fascinated by a film, they are absorbed completely by this process. They forget who they are and are transported into the film’s universe. They evaluate its quality according to the experience which they go through in this transformation.

Shaping effective scenes

Scenes unfold strong effects when they have three features. First, when they are thoroughly formed by a universal human predicament. Second, when they have a perceptible twisting on the axis of this predicament. And third, when they are suitable for activating the viewers.

Universal human predicaments are the salt of human life. They determine its dynamics and its conflicts, and they also provide orientation. Films which do not make these core structures of human life perceptible leave us cold and seem construed. Scenes in which the figures exchange information about an event which has taken place somewhere else and at another time will quickly make the viewers unsettled or induce yawning. That is not surprising. They wanted to see a film and find themselves in a talk show. But as soon as a power struggle, a betrayal or an effort at intimacy can be felt in the dialogue, the scene comes alive and strings are plucked in the viewers which they share with all humans. They are now not only the observer of a happening, but a part of it. Whether a scene is experienced as authentic is decided, according to our psychological knowledge, not so much by whether it was filmed at the original location, but by whether its actions are based on universal human predicaments or not. For real life takes place between power and impotence, between commitment and betrayal, and between humans coming closer and failing to do so. The viewers rediscover their own experiences of life in such scenes and pay thanks through concentrated attentiveness.

The second step in shaping effective scenes takes the concept of universal human predicaments a step further. It has to do with the basic human need for change. As long as we are in a process of change, we feel we are alive. Nothing is more unbearable than the feeling that everything stays the same. If this feeling arises in the cinema, it is immediately noticeable through the fidgeting and conversations in the audience. With its activities it breaks through the standstill as if it wanted to assure itself that it can change something. Experienced script-writers therefore try to give every scene a perceptible twist. They gain an idea of the initial situation and build up the action and dialogue in such a way that at the end something has changed. All the authentically experienced twists take place on the axis of the universal human predicaments addressed above. Power turns into impotence and conversely; the feeling of closeness turns into the heartache of misunderstanding. It is important, however, to take care that the change does not just take place in the characters but also in the viewers. Only then will the viewers really be transfixed by the scene.

Script-writers sometimes have a false picture of the intelligence of their audience. You do not need a high IQ to understand a film. The unconscious intelligence of the psyche is far more astonishing and creative than in the academic construct measured by intelligence tests. Even if viewers can hardly articulate in their own words what they liked so much about a film, people with only basic education are still in a position to grasp the most complicated gags and situations. Viewers who have grown up under the influence of the electronic media actually demand to be integrated into the ongoing productions of meaning in a film. If they do not have anything to do, they feel that they are not being taken seriously and finally start being derogatory about the film. Therefore, thirdly, authors are well advised to construct scenes in such a way that the viewers have a job, for instance, by leaving something out and leaving it to the public to close the gap. Or by withholding information from a character which the viewers already have, thus giving them the possibility of understanding one and the same scene from two different perspectives. A means of activation which is currently very popular consists in withholding important information from the viewers and surprising them with it at the end of the film. When the viewers in The Sixth Sense finally find out that the psychotherapist, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), has been dead for more than a year and only for this reason was in a position to treat little Cole (Haley Joel Osment), the viewers go through the whole story once again in their minds and attribute a completely different meaning to it. This reinterpretation which suddenly breaks in was a decisive building block for the film by Night M. Shyamalan. Young viewers in particular develop a great deal of respect for films which activate them in such a skilful way.

Effective scenes lift out a universal predicament from human reality which is connected with the film’s theme. They lead viewers on this track into their world and give them the opportunity to adjust to their tone and tint. They then give the mood thus generated a twist in such a way that in the end, the world of the scene has completely changed. In that such scenes include a conception of the viewers‘ activity, they engender the feeling of also having been the creators of the action.

The hero’s journey

Because he cannot sleep, in Fight Club, an anonymous single man (Edward Norton), the narrator of the film, goes to various self-help groups in search of suffering. When he learns to cry without restraint, he feels better. But his order gets confused when he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), a tourist of misery like himself, for whose direct eroticism he does not feel to be a match as a man. In his distress he develops the psychotic alter ego, Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a charismatic macho with steely muscles, and in this way he can partake in the erotic adventure. At the same time he establishes his own self-help group, the so-called Fight Club, in which young men bash each other up in search of their feelings. Our hero believes that he is living together with his alter ego in a large house. Together they build up a paramilitary organisation out of the Fight Club which has the aim of shaking world capital in its foundations. Only when the first victims occur does the whole development seem strange to the narrator. But when he finally recognises his psychosis, it is already too late. As Tyler Durden, he has put the fatal Enterprise Chaos into motion which can no longer be stopped. Thousands of young men have been enthused by his critical social ideas and no longer want to give them up. In the end, he can only free himself from his psychotic ego by putting a bullet into his head. Badly injured, but liberated from his hallucinations, he now wants to risk a love relationship with Marla.

The audience’s journey

That is the rough outline of the hero’s journey in Fight Club. While the viewers follow it, a psychic journey is formed in their own experience which partly runs parallel with the outer journey, but partly also unfolds its own life. I would like to describe very briefly a few stations on this journey. I base my comments on in-depth interviews which Jennifer Richards carried out at the University of Cologne.

Fight Club makes an unusually strong impression. Not only young men, but also women and older viewers left the show shaken up and were still experiencing after-effects several weeks thereafter. Because of the film, a young woman started painting in oils, a female teacher had the feeling of having found a new point of access to her vocation. Many assessed the film to be a document of the times, a present-day work of art.

The film’s satirical approach gives expression to experiences, observations and thoughts which have already stirred in many viewers in view of contemporary everyday life. The film shows how greedily people orient themselves towards changing advertising strategies and at the same time are in search of their true selves. The film’s portrayal of self-help groups makes it experienceable to what degree the search for feelings has become a substantial content of life. Many viewers also find it is characteristic for our times that the protagonist has to calculate in his job whether a recall action for the automobile maker for whom he is working is more lucrative than the payment of compensation for the accident victims. In the viewers‘ experience, the opening scenes condense more or less explicitly into a sharply drawn picture of the state of Western civilisation at the turn of the millennium. A society in a diffusion of values, guided by abstractions and obsessions. People move in circles of moods and feelings without an orientation toward a collective aim. Feverish running on the spot. The hero is a cog in this machine. Many feel that they have been understood by Fight Club in their own reservations and misgivings.

The second stretch begins with the appearance of the alter ego, Tyler Durden, and the beginning of the fights. It is as if the machine which was idling at the beginning has now been put into gear. The viewers feel that fist punches mean values. With them something is set in motion whose direction cannot be specified, but the change is welcome against the background of the opening sequences. Even if the faces which have been beaten bloody are hard to look at, the first fight scenes have the effect of a surprising clarification, like the longed-for impulse for a development with consequences.

Whereas up to this point, the young men dealt blows to each other, in the next twist of the plot they direct their blows increasingly toward the outside, at first not yet in the form of violent attacks, but as partly absurd and partly liberating actions against the fear of change. Fed by Tyler Durden’s critical social maxims, the foundations of contemporary civilisation are dealt heavy blows. It becomes more than apparent to what extent people are paralysed by their compulsions and how faint the prospects are that their great expectations will be fulfilled at some time. Even though Tyler’s followers, who are dressed in black, look as if they are members of a fascist militant group, the viewers experience their joining together into a kind of underground army, despite that, as an emotional perspective. For, in this way, a clearly discernible direction with consequences replaces the initial circling. This satisfaction shows that among young people today, even the spark of a decisive act suffices to fire their yearning for a common destiny. No matter how little they believe that politicians and business leaders can secure a way into the future, in the cinema they very much enjoy the possibility of seeing a decisive revolution with consequences come about. Fight Club is therefore not only a satire, but also provides for two hours a compensation for human needs which are not fulfilled by present-day civilisation.

The fourth station of the journey leads the inner journey back to its psychologizing beginning. For the narrator, the Enterprise Chaos goes much too far and he tries to stop it. He finds out, however, that he himself put it into motion as Tyler Durden. It was all a product of his psychosis into which he fled out of fear of the woman. If one makes clear the development which has been set into motion up until that point and which is rooted deeply in the problems of contemporary civilisation, the satisfaction of liberating oneself from the mad spinning of the top by means of a decisive blow, it then becomes comprehensible that the return to the hero’s psychology is not able to absorb this momentum. When the narrator shoots himself in the head, therefore, for many it seems like a contrived solution in order to give the development which has been set into motion a politically correct end.

Viewed from beyond the hero’s journey it becomes understandable what kind of jolt Fight Club gives to the psyche is of its viewers, many of whom are young. They live in a civilisation which does not tell them what it is worth living and dying for. Even after 11 September 2001, nothing much has changed in this regard. As Tyler Durden says in one of his speeches, they have an inkling that commodity consumption, music radio stations, parties, changing fashions cannot divert them in the long run from the fact that this society does not offer them any path into the future. They look at the film story, but in doing so, inklings and hopes are aroused which they sense within themselves, independently of Fincher’s film. The film does not create them, but only gives them a sharp form. Characters who assert themselves forcefully appear in many contemporary action films. The decisive factor in Fight Club is that the film puts the charismatic Tyler Durden into relation with an agitated life which, however, does not have any consequences. In this way, for the duration of the film, the viewers are led out beyond the borders of the civilisation in which they live. This is the way in which the most exciting films of our times work, not just productions like The Usual Suspects or Fight Club. In blockbusters like Forrest Gump, Castaway and The Matrix, too, we have been able to observe similar developments of complexes which are deeply rooted in fundamental problems of contemporary civilisation.

What conclusions can script-writers draw from this?

An authentic story, a good plot are always the starting point for an effective film. In my article, however, I want to make the case for regarding the hero’s journey not as an end in itself, but as a medium for modelling rousing psychic journeys on the part of viewers. Script-writers can implement this concept in two respects.

On the one hand, my article suggests that film should be understood consistently as a process having effects. The story and the psyche do not have a simple cause-and-effect relationship with one another. The first scenes of the hero’s journey set a complex of meanings into motion in the viewers‘ experience. This complex brings expectations, limitations and substantial focuses into play. It has effects on the interpretation of the following scenes and gives them meaning. It can, however, also be sharpened by them, differentiated or can have its polarity reversed. When script-writers think their way into such processes and ask themselves in which way a twist to the plot further develops the state which the film has generated in the viewers up until that point, they have the beyond which is addressed here in view. The pointers given above on forming effective scenes can be used as a foundation for this.

On the other hand, I want to make it clear that the effective contents of films do not come across to the viewers so much as information, but rather already lie dormant in the viewers in the form of universal basic predicaments. Effective scripts aim at modelling the current hopes and fears of people by means of the hero’s journey. They draw virulent complexes into a soul-stirring development. In Fight Club, a nameless protagonist undertakes a journey through his psychosis. A personal conflict forces him to do so. But by following him, the viewers have an experience which deals with the directions of development of our Western civilisation. When, finally, the narrator is freed from his psychosis, for him it is a triumph and the solution of his conflict. For many viewers, however, a formation collapses at this point which they had experienced as very promising. They have enjoyed, at least from their safe seat in the cinema, having had an experience which civilisation at present does not make available to them.

In my view, Fight Club is one of the most complicated and sophisticated films of recent years, in both a formal and substantial respect. But that is not supposed to mean that the concept is applicable only to such films. Film is a cultural medium. In a society which is defined by abstractions, formalisms and a diffusion of values, the entertainment media take on the task of supplying people with gripping contents. Viewed in this way, script-writers are at the cutting edge of cultural development and have the possibility of experimenting with its developmental tendencies. At present this field is occupied mainly by American authors. Already in the twenties and thirties of the 20th century, Hollywood knew that film is a medium of culture. In Europe, this conception still has problems finding adherents.

Translated from the German by Michael Eldred, artefact text & translation, Cologne

First published in ScrptWriter March 2003 (page 30-33)

▸ Hier finden Sie weitere Filmanalysen