The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Can you see it?

Can you see it?

An Open Secret in the Hollywood film industry is that many Hollywood films—including films that do not seem to be stories about heroes—are shaped according to the mythological Hero’s Journey that author Joseph Campbell saw reflected in all world mythologies. Campbell, a friend of John Steinbeck, described The Hero’s Journey in his now-classic 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Once familiar with these patterns, the reader (or viewer) will see them everywhere in the stories around us.

Now let’s ask ourselves: What ARE the elements of The Hero’s Journey?

The Hero often begins in an ordinary world, and a call from a special world launches the story by luring The Hero into the unknown. Accompanied by archetypal companions such as the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Shadow, the Shapeshifter, the Trickster and others, the Hero passes through several stages of the journey, becoming increasingly committed to the Quest—and increasingly unable to turn back—as he or she continues the adventure.

The Hero is often presented with magical or significant objects on the way. He or she passes through ordeals, and encounters tests, allies and enemies. Once The Hero has reached the darkest point of the conflict—usually the climax of the film, he or she begins the journey back to the “normal” world, bearing the fruit of these adventures, strengthened and confirmed in his or her essential identity. The Hero often brings back a special power to the community through surviving these ordeals.

While one might expect to find these patterns in fantasy films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Matrix, or Star Wars, a closer look at more realistic stories or even comedies through this lens will provide surprising insights. These building blocks also form the core stories of mainstream movies as varied as An Officer and A Gentleman, Titanic, The Firm, Field of Dreams, Patriot Games, East of Eden, Scarface, and Sister Act. In fact, they can be found in most films and stories.

Earlier this year we heard the story of a young man over sixty years ago, who joined the Army, and left Salinas to serve his country thinking there was no chance he would ever be in harm’s way. Only to find himself at the mercy of an invading army who overran his base, and forced him and many other young men from Salinas to walk 60 miles on foot with little food and water, all while suffering from indiscriminate violence, torture, and murder as thousands of prisoners of war were forcibly moved to prison camps. We wondered what Joseph Campbell would see in his story.

So, having heard so many heroic Salinas Stories like this one for the last year, we created this film series to take a look at the stories told to the national ear, where they come from, and how they relate to our own stories.

As we thought about all of this we began to see stories in a different light.

We also began to wonder if other people could see any, or all, of these various components that all come together to form a perfect story. One that takes you the reader/viewer/listener on a journey, teaches you something, and then sends you back out into the world to put what you’ve learned to use.

We wondered if people knew how deeply rooted in our culture these story elements are? Is what author Joseph Campbell observed in every culture he visited, and laid out for anyone to see in his book, visible to you in any way? Can you point it out in your favorite stories? Can you point it out in your own life? Do you come from another culture, and recognize any of these elements in the stories you grew up with? What do you think of The Hero’s Journey?

If you’d like to borrow a copy of the book from our Library or to check on its availability click here

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