If you’ve ever picked up a screenwriting book or spent much time around anyone who works in the movie business, you’ve probably heard of the hero’s journey. There are numerous versions of this archetypal story pattern, but they all involve steps such as the hero receiving a call to adventure, leaving the known world on a quest, receiving help from various quarters, suffering ordeals and setbacks, finally getting what he came for, and bringing it back to the ordinary world from which he originally departed. The hero is also transformed during this process, achieving the kind of growth that gives plots a satisfying shape.
The schematic of the hero’s journey draws on the work of Joseph Campbell, a literature professor at Sarah Lawrence College whose best-known book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), argues that this basic hero’s journey or monomyth is shared by many cultures. Campbell became even better known after George Lucas cited his work as an inspiration for the Star Wars saga, and of course it’s featured explicitly or implicitly in much film and literary criticism today.
In 1988, PBS aired a six-part series, “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth,” each about an hour in length and consisting primarily of conversations between Campbell and Moyers, statements by Moyers about Campbell and his importance of his theories in understanding popular culture, and visuals (including lots of Star Wars clips!) relating to whatever Campbell is discussing. The interviews were conducted in Campbell’s home (they were recorded during the last two years of his life), and they’re surprisingly engaging for what is essentially a series of questions asked by Moyers and answered by Campbell. It’s obvious that Campbell really loves his subject, and he speaks at a level appropriate to the general listener, plus the illustrations and clips from popular culture projects bring the presentation to life. It’s also worth noting that Campbell didn’t think of the hero’s journey as just a narrative structure for fiction or an archetypal cultural pattern,, but also felt it was a useful idea that could help ordinary individuals go on their own journeys of self-discovery.
The series opens with news clips showing modern-day heroes, among them Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Jesse Owens, Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Mother Theresa, and Terry Fox. The inclusions of any women in this opener is worth noting, because Campbell is on record as asserting that the hero’s journey only applies to men, while women don’t go on journeys but are a reward for the returning hero. Most of the heroes cited are male, and the abstract idea of the hero is consistently referred to with male pronouns. Of course, that may have been the state of the field when Campbell began his research, but I can’t help but wonder if the male bias in this story structure is one cause of the persistent preference for male active (and even speaking) characters in mainstream American film.
The six episodes in the Campbell/Moyers series are “The Hero’s Adventure” (an introduction to the concepts and their usefulness), “The Message of the Myth” (a study of creation myths in various cultures), “The First Storytellers” (Campbell’s interpretation of how humans use myths to explain basic process of life), “Sacrifice and Bliss” (a discussion of heroism in modern society), “Love and the Goddess” (a discussion of love over the ages), and “Masks of Eternity” (a discussion of the experience of God in various cultures).
Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber as a three-disc set: two discs contain the six television episodes, while the third contains extras. These extras include the documentary Finding Joe (79 min.), two extended conversations from Bill Moyers Journal (57 min. and 46 min., respectively), and selections from “The Mythology of Star Wars” (14 min.), a conversation between George Lucas and Bill Moyers.