The 17 Steps of The Hero’s Journey and Their Manifestations in Film
Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a fantastic work of anthropology. In it he outlines the idea of “The Hero’s Journey”, which has 17 “steps”. Campbell postulates that all cultures share these 17 fundamental steps in their mythologies and stories. Storytellers have used Campbell’s ideas to make some of the most iconic literature and film in recent history.
This is not to say that every story features every step. This is also certainly not the only framework with which to analyze stories. The idea of there being a universal way of deciphering stories, and consequently better understanding the human experience, is not new. Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi claimed that there were 36 “dramatic situations”, renowned journalist Christopher Booker published his magnum opus work called The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories , and even Aristotle was publishing works focusing on how drama should be told and why.
This topic is large and it can get pretty deep. People get doctorates in these sorts of subjects, and it can range from using a simple plot analysis device like this one…
…to discussions of the collective unconscious and Jungian archtypes based in Greek Mythology and our subconscious.
This article will illustrate and explain each step of the Hero’s Journey, as proposed by Campbell, by discussing its manifestations in films. Some of these examples are extremely well known, some are not, and some are curveballs that you may not have thought of before. This article will also compare and contrast movies of different eras and genres to better illustrate these steps, as well as to differentiate between various frameworks. Sometimes The Hero’s Journey doesn’t really apply to a story. That doesn’t make the movie bad, nor does it make it good. Art is a human thing, and often times it cannot be put perfectly into a box.
This list is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, nor is it meant to provide picture perfect examples of each step. There’s always room for interpretation. Being aware of these different steps and different frameworks, however, really makes your film viewing experience that much richer.
1. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) and “The Call to Adventure”
It is important to note that Campbell asserts that the steps in the Hero’s Journey correspond to the “journey” we all take in becoming fully functioning members of society. They can be seen as representations of stages we go through while we “grow up”. The first step in the adventure of growing up is having the urge to actually go on this adventure. Why would we want to leave the comfort of our childhood homes? Well there are plenty of reasons.
Maybe there is some threat to our home, and we have to go out to stop it. Maybe there is something we must obtain or do in order to prove ourselves as full grown adults and as worthy recipients of something only adults have; a family of our own for example. Or maybe it is simply the curiosity and desire to grow as people. No matter what the motivation is, it calls us out of our normal lives into something new, mysterious, and wonderful.
The Call to Adventure stage is just that; the part of the story where an ordinary person, living in an ordinary place, is called away for whatever reason to go on a journey and return (or not return) later having accomplished what they set out to do (this is referred to as “the boon” by Campbell).
This stage is not just another word for the “inciting incident”, which is often used in other frameworks of analysis. Often times the inciting incident and the Call to Adventure coincide, but there is certainly a distinct difference that should be explained. An inciting incident is simply the ‘narrative hook’ that gets the story going. While a Call to Adventure is almost always the inciting incident, not all inciting incidents are calls to adventure.
There are hundreds of examples for this delineation. Take John Carpenter’s Halloween. The inciting incident in that story is when Michael Myers escapes from the insane asylum. It is at this point that the audience goes, “Oh snap! He’s gonna go APE on some unsuspecting and lustful teens who are neglecting their duties as babysitters!” Everything else before that was just exposition. This incident, incites the interest of the audience. No one cared that Michael Myers was some troubled kid. No one cared why he murdered his sister, or what his therapy sessions were like (Sorry Rob Zombie).
That scene is not a call to adventure. Michael Myers isn’t called to do anything here. If he was called to do anything it was years ago during his time in the asylum. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) isn’t called to do anything here either. You could argue she has her own call when Michael shows up to town and starts killing people, but the inciting incident of Halloween has nothing to do with Laurie arming herself with a phallic weapon to overcome a walking nightmare plaguing her town.
Not seen: An average person living an average life
Furthermore, in Star Wars: A New Hope, the inciting incident is the first scene of the movie. We get the fantastic visual storytelling of that space battle. We learn that there is a lopsided war going on between good and evil, and the side of good is in need of “A New Hope” (Ohh…I get the title now…). That first sequence is what gets the story going and the audience hooked. The Call to Adventure happens about a half hour later when Obi Wan asks Luke to come learn about the ways of the force.
We are going to talk about Star Wars later in another step, so let us return now to The Hobbit and discuss how this perfectly illustrates the call to adventure.
The Scene: An Unexpected Party
Bilbo Baggins wants nothing more than to be totally ordinary. His main points of pride are his garden, strict adherence to Hobbit culture, and making up new reasons to have 6 meals per day without being a professional body-builder. Basically, he doesn’t want to grow up and experience the world.
Until one day, a very strange wanderer claiming to be a wizard bids him join a company of dwarves and travel to a far off mountain to help reclaim their kingdom from a man-eating fire-breathing world-destroying megalomaniacal dragon.
Initially, Bilbo, as any sane person would, refuses this call to adventure (see next step), but is later called again when there is an ‘unexpected party’ at his house and he decides to not be a giant wuss, but rather someone who can easily be manipulated and guilted into things…er…I mean be an adventurer.
The dwarves bust in and give Bilbo a much needed dose of culture shock. Bilbo really understands that this proposition is real, and he has feelings of inadequacy. He sees a chance to make a difference not only for these dwarves, but maybe for himself too. He understands what he is setting out to do. His goals are clear, and he is soon off on a life changing and fulfilling journey.
Without this push, he would have just stayed at home and not changed.
Excuse me sir, is this the “Epic Biker Beard Party”?
2. George Lucas’s Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and “The Refusal of the Call”
In this step of the journey, the hero decides, for whatever convenient reason, not to go on this journey. This is metaphoric for refusing to grow-up or embrace change and the result of which is stagnation in development.
Nobody likes a man-child. Everyone tends to look down on grown adults who refuse to act their age and reject responsibility. We have all had moments though, where we didn’t really want to leave and grow up. Part of us did sure, but some part of us didn’t want to leave our friends and loved ones for the unknown. If we always chose what was easy and safe, we never would have left living in caves. We would have been bogged down in stagnation, complacency, and ignorance. Accepting the call to adventure is accepting the desire for more knowledge and the ability to benefit others around you. Rejecting it is accepting death in our development.
Now, not every refusal of the call is an impetus for a manifestation of death, however, death shows the hero that there can be no life for them where they are now, and they are thus compelled to start their quest.
The Scene: The Destruction of Luke’s Homestead
After Luke is rescued from ISIL Sand People by Obi-Wan, and having refused to join Obi Wan in going to Alderaan to train in the force because he has to “help with the harvest” (ironically the same thing every girl ever said to Luke when explaining why she could not go on a date), Luke comes back home and realizes that everyone he knows and loves is dead. He now accepts the call to adventure, and starts his journey. Initially he wanted to join to learn more about his father (and therefore himself through family history), and learn about this mysterious thing called ‘the force’. He also talks about joining the rebellion and seeking adventure outside the boring life of the farm. Now, he has nothing holding him back. In fact, he might even have more motivation through feelings of revenge.
If this did not happen, Luke would just be a basement dweller at his Aunt’s house…like all of us
Another great example of this is in Sam Rami’s Spiderman (2002) when Peter Parker refuses to fight crime and lets the criminal escape after robbing the sleazy fight promoter. Peter is then hit with the death of his uncle, who was like a father to him. It is very clear that this moment of death, spurs Peter onto the path of fighting for justice and using his powers for good. He learns very quickly that selfish indulgence of his powers leads to death.
You know what is odd…why did they give him a pillow to rest his head on…but nothing to try and stop the bleeding?
3. John Milius’s Conan the Barbarian (1982) and “Supernatural Aid”
This is where our hero is equipped with tools necessary to defeat the evil that they will encounter later on. How could Perseus have defeated the Gorgon monster Medusa without the weapons given to him by the Gods? Or how could James Bond save the world without the amazing gadgets given to him by Q-Branch? Grounded in reality, how can we succeed in the world without gaining knowledge and harnessing skills passed down to us through our society?
The Scene: The Tomb of the Atlantean Sword
Conan has recently been released by his owners and literally sent out into the wild to fend for himself. At first this seems great! Finally, our hero can begin his quest for revenge. Except for one problem; he has no equipment or supplies.
Even though he is fueled with battle hardened combat skills from the gladiator pit to exact revenge on Thulsa Doom for the murder of his family, his first act of freedom includes running for his life from a pack of wild dogs hell bent on making him their next meal.
Our great and powerful hero, seemingly powerless against some mangy mutts, is at a low point. So low in fact, that in an attempt to escape, he accidentally discovers a cave and falls beneath the earth. There he discovers the tomb of an ancient king, perhaps once not unlike himself, and receives the Atlantean sword! He uses this sword to empower himself (as phallic objects normally do in stories), and embark on his quest to solve the riddle of steel and exact revenge. (Note the obvious symbolism in descending beneath the earth and arising again more powerful, this comes up a lot and not just at your local Sunday School.)
4. Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and “Crossing the First Threshold”
Here our hero journeys outside of his ‘normal’ world and enters the exotic world of his journey. This step often involves magic to cross the threshold between worlds. However, it can be a boat ride from England to Normandy and you can be met by a hail of bullets like in Saving Private Ryan.
Here we, as well as the hero, are introduced to all the players in the new world. We learn the rules of the world, its layout, what is at stake, and so much more information. This is particularly potent in Sci-Fi and Fantasy films, where the hero is often a “Fish out of water”, and things can be explained to him and see for the first time. We, likewise, learn and experience all of it with the hero for the first time.
The Scene: Diagon Alley
Harry and Hagrid have just used magic to cross from the normal world into the bustling world of wizardry. Harry’s jaw is practically on the floor as he looks at all the new sights, sounds, people, animals, and strange shops around him. It truly speaks to the skillful writing of J.K. Rowling. Harry has no idea how any of this works, or where he should go, or who he should associate with, or anything else at all. He and Hagrid, while moving forward through the streets (and thus the plotline where Harry acquires and learns important things), drop a lot of expository dialogue in this scene and it introduces a vast new world for the hero and the audience.
5. Jonathon Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and “The Belly of the Whale”
The hero is deep in this new world at this stage. They experience the dangers and mysteries first hand, and learn how to endure them in order to later harness and focus their strengths to accomplish their ultimate goal. Courage and steadfastness are paramount for the hero at this stage. The first threshold is majestic and wonderful, but this stage is often fraught with dread and terror.
The Scene: Clarice in the ‘Belly’ of the Insane Asylum
The whole plot of this movie hinges on Clarice Starling getting advice (supernatural aid) from Hannibal Lecture (mentor) in order to stop Buffalo Bill before he kills again (her boon). To get to this source of great power, she must travel through a rouges’ gallery of the criminally insane. She, and the audience, witness just how different and dark this world is that she must enter, literally and metaphorically. She is now far from the safe FBI training grounds, and stares down the edge of an abyss full of real monsters.