Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Great Guru Showdown, Part 6: Joseph Campbell

The Guru: Joseph Campbell
The Book: The Hero With A Thousand Faces
The Year: 1949

The History: Campbell traveled the world, learned six languages, studied Freud, Jung, James Joyce and James Frazer, translated ancient tablets, and defined the underlying structure beneath heroic myths from every culture. His 1949 book was hugely influential. His popularity surged in the 1970s, when his work was embraced by both new agers and Hollywood storytellers like George Lucas.

Outrageous Statement that Makes You Want to Reject the Book Outright: The first line has not exactly aged well: “Whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse … it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find.”

Areas Where It’s Less Than Helpful:

Campbell was a great man who humbled the world into seeing their myths from anthropological and artistic perspective, but attempts to apply his structure, derived from religious and foundation myths, directly to screenplays are very problematic....

  1. Campbell’s heroes start from a happy status quo, untroubled when the story begins, but this makes for very dull characters. There’s no volatile reaction between the character’s internal problems and the external action of the plot.
  2. Campbell’s very big on mentors, which I never see the need for.
  3. While Campbell’s circular chart is very elegant, how often do movie heroes, other than Frodo, actually “return with the elixir” to rescue their homelands? Movie execs quote this all the time, but I don’t think it applies.

Useful Wisdom:

  1. Obviously, we all owe Campbell for doing the research that proved there was such a thing as universal storytelling structure, and that it arose not from the genius of any one culture (as Aristotle would have it), but from the inherent needs of the stories themselves, with independent cultures all over the world discovering similar rules.
  2. One aspect of Campbell’s structure that I do find myself quoting a lot is the idea of “finding the special weapon in the cave” during the third quarter of the story (whether the special weapon is an object, a vital piece of information, or just a self-realization). A hero’s ultimate triumph should come from the failure of their original plan, not the success of it.

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