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Myth and the Movies

A number of years ago my then agent Julian Friedmann commissioned me to review Stuart Voytilla's book 'Myth and the Movies' for what was then ScriptWriter magazine (which went on to become 'Myth and the Movies' explores and re-applies Joseph Campbell's famous observations about the 'monomyth' of drama - the Hero With a Thousand Faces. I was impressed by the 'Myth and the Movies' to the extent that I'm republishing my review of it now. If you want to be a screenwriter, or are pro screenwriter looking to refresh your knowledge of the craft of screenwriting, it's well worth a read.

‘Myth and the Movies’

By Stuart Voytilla

Review by Nick Green

Stuart Voytilla claims that mainstream films are the conduits through which classical myths are carried, and in which they endure. They preserve the imperative that light must triumph over dark, and that the dragon must be slain. In this, films (children’s stories aside) are unique. Other media may explore narratives that blur or rebuff this notion, but the multiplex is the place we go to revisit the oral traditions of the hunter-gatherer.

Voytilla backs up this claim empirically, as any decent theorist should. His evidence is an analysis of 50 films in 10 genres: Action Adventure, Western, Horror, Thriller, War, Drama, Romance, Romantic Comedy, Comedy, and Science Fiction and Fantasy. Common sense, (or just presumption), tells us that the classic myth – hero saves heroin by slaying dragon – only applies to the action-based genres, but Voytilla shows us that most of the nodes of mythical structure can be applied to most films in most genres.

Myth and the Movies builds on the work of (but isn’t dependent on) Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey: this book in turn expanded on the work of Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Carl Jung and Heinrich Zimmer, Campbell pared away cultural differences to reveal that all myths in all countries and times tell a similar story about similar characters. For us those characters are Indiana Jones, Will Kane (High Noon), John McClane and Clarice Starling.

Cleverly, Voytilla shows us that in the telling of the cinematic tale the Hero will journey through 12 distinct stages. We meets him or her in their (Voytilla’s capitals) ORDINARY WORLD, where we identify with their normality and foibles. The CALL TO ADVENTURE disrupts the Hero’s ORDINARY WORLD and challenges them. In the REFUSAL OF THE CALL the Hero may shy away from the CALL through fear and/or the preferred familiarity of their ORDINARY WORLD. The risks that lie ahead are now made clear.

The Hero now MEETS THE MENTOR. The MENTOR may be a person (Obi-Wan), a map or document (Indiana), or a strict moral code to which the Hero feels bound (Will Kane). CROSSING THE THRESHOLD commits the Hero to the Journey: there is no way back, however much the Hero might want it. In this SPECIAL WORLD – the world s/he must endure for the entirety of her/his quest or adventure - the Hero may face TESTS, encounter ALLIES and confront ENEMIES. The Hero needs to know who s/he can trust – those who feign trustworthiness are called, alluringly, SHAPESHIFTERS – and whom s/he must fear: now is the time for this knowledge; soon it will be too late.

The Hero may now APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE: he must prepare for the Ordeal ahead; strategies must be planned, the Enemy weakened, if possible. The Hero now engages in THE ORDEAL, a trial by fire in which he or she is tested to the utmost. In surviving this, the Hero is granted the REWARD: this may be a magical sword (technology), enhanced insight or an emotional/erotic encounter.

Now begins the ROAD BACK: cigarette break over, the Hero recommits to the long and unavoidable Journey Back to his ORDINARY WORLD, which for her/him will never be the same. S/he now faces THE RESURRECTION: the Hero is the greatest distance from sanctuary; s/he is near to death. S/he may taste death here, and be cleansed by it (changed). S/he may be obliged to sacrifice himself to the needs of his OUTER PROBLEM – to save the world, or the greater needs of those around her/him.

The RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR is the Hero’s final Reward: this ELIXIR may be a magic substance, love, or just enhanced awareness; the ELIXIR often enables the redress of the ORDINARY WORLD.

For each film, Voytilla draws a schematic of its mythic structure using symbols for each stage. The moment at which that symbol becomes relevant is pinpointed to the minute. In drawing together so many examples, (and guess what? – they were all successful films), Voytilla’s revelation of the absolute need for script structure is trenchant yet obvious. When you watched these films, you always had a sense of what he’s saying, but it was never clear: they just felt right.

Unpretentious (thanks be), and concisely written without being arcane, Myth and the Movies is a Herculean, passionate achievement that would serve well as a filmmakers’ reference. Goldman’s gossip is wisdom-rich and you gotta love him, but this is study, and like it or not, we all need to go to school.

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