Monomyth: James Cameron and ‘the hero’s journey’
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
The monomyth and films (especially blockbusters)
Borrowing a term from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Joseph Campbell asserts there is a monomyth common to all cultures, the journey of an archetypal hero that happens to be found in all world mythologies. His idea of the hero’s journey has stirred controversy over the years with many suggesting it’s too male-centered or even rejecting it altogether, finding it to be so general it’s rendered meaningless.
I’ve always read Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ in less literal terms. A hero may be either a male or a female, of course; and temptations come in all shapes and forms. There have also been many subversions of the monomyth. If not, novels, plays and films would be terribly dull. But the general outline is this: the hero is called to action, experiences the road of trials, and finally returns to the world transformed.
It’s a storyline particularly well suited to films. The darkness of the cinema with its larger than life screen takes the audience to another world even before the film begins. The monomyth narrative then takes the audience further into the ‘unknown’. The two-to-three hour adventure concentrates the action and underscores catharsis in a way that most novels cannot.
Many filmmakers acknowledge a debt to Campbell. George Lucas, for example, has said he relied on the hero’s journey in creating Star Wars. The Wachowski brothers used it as a model for The Matrix series.
It’s undeniable that James Cameron also relies on this structure for his films. When Sarah Connor flees the nightclub with Kyle Reese, she is responding to a (rather urgent) ‘call to adventure’. In Terminator 2, John Connor has enough sense to take off on his motorbike when he sees a policeman is after him. The flight soon becomes deadly: when the Schwarzenegger robot drives up and puts out a gloved hand as an offer of help, John grabs it and escapes. His journey begins and his ‘supernatural guide’ appears in the same moment. Not responding to the call means annihilation. In Titanic, young Rose responds to the call when she reaches for the hand of Jack Dawson, who talks her out of a suicidal leap from the stern of the famous ship. Afterwards, she attempts to bring him into her world, but this fails; both are so unhappy and out-of-place in the stuffy air of the first class dining room. He takes her down to steerage, where she drinks beer, dances on a table, laughs out loud, and enjoys freedom for the first time.
By following Jack into what serves as ‘the belly of the whale’, Rose shows her willingness to be transformed. What follows, of course, once the ship hits the iceberg is well known. For Rose, it is ‘the road of trials’ along which she is tested and burnished. Like Sarah and John Conner, Rose survives. There is a moment when she might return to the world of her mother and her fiancé, but she has been too altered by the experience for this to occur. She takes Jack’s name, becoming Rose Dawson. She learns to fly an airplane and rides a horse along the beach and takes up pottery. Poor Sarah Conner is also transformed, but her return to the world is fraught with misunderstanding. Her son, John Conner, is the ultimate gift to the world, but in order to prepare him for his role, Sarah is seen to be insane.
Avatar follows this same storyline. There is never one moment the audience doesn’t know what’s going on. Many critics have panned the film, saying it’s predictable, derivative, the common fare.
I disagree. Rather than being dull, the familiarity of the storyline is comforting. The hero’s journey is always simple. Before it begins, we know how Titanic ends. What is interesting about the film is that we are brought into the terrible drama of a sinking ship, witness to thousands of individual tragedies unfurling around Rose and Jack. We know Rose survives; she is an old woman when the story opens. The question becomes: how?
There are many clues in the Terminator films about the future of the world, we know at least one terrible ending, although—and this is the point of the film—the hero is in a position to offer salvation if the characters achieve their ends. Because the story is a familiar one, we are free to concentrate on the shifts back and forth in time. The future is not set, we learn, and may always be influenced.
Even Avatar, the most lovely and ambitious of Cameron’s films, unfolds in the familiar way. Because of his DNA, Jake is uniquely qualified to become part of the ‘experiment’ on Pandora, but because of his lack of experience as a scientist, he’s viewed with suspicion. Rather cynically, he responds to ‘the call to adventure’: he’s closed up in a capsule and awakens in a different world. And this world transforms him. His allegiances change. His ‘return’ becomes impossible in human terms, but completely reconcilable in Pandoran terms (even this is known early on).
The complexity of these Cameron films has nothing to do with the complexity of the story. It’s in the grand philosophical ideas: free will versus determinism; class supremacy and petty ownership; pristine nature versus colonial greed. It’s in the small moments: the mother reading to her children; the musicians playing as the ship goes down; the humanity of Jack’s sacrifice. It’s in the fact that Jake has two bodies but one soul. He resides in two worlds at the same time, which means there’s double the danger, double the chances of dying. These details become the unique poetry of the stories.
And, because Cameron is a master of special effects, and because we know what’s going to happen already, we are free to focus instead on the tricky ideas of characters traveling between other worlds, between past and present, human and alien. We marvel at the special effects, the commitment to continuity, the magnificent scale. Simple though the stories may be, given the success of his films, Cameron is onto something.