Years ago I attended the National Gallery for Art‘s Summer Workshop focusing on Mythology. I spent a week in Washington, DC with fifty other educators learning from academics, teachers, and visiting every museum in the District. One evening we attended the National Air and Space Museum to see an exhibit highlighting the Joseph Cambell’s The Hero Journey through the lens of George Lucas’ Star Wars. The exhibit paralleled two stories, making visible a plot structure and trope that plays out continuously in film and story canon.
Joseph Campbell, an American mythological researcher, wrote a famous book entitled The Hero with a Thousand Faces. As MythologyTeacher.com points out, “in his lifelong research Campbell discovered many common patterns running through hero myths and stories from around the world. Years of research lead Campbell to discover several basic stages that almost every hero-quest goes through (no matter what culture the myth is a part of). He calls this common structure “the monomyth.” It is commonly referred to as “The Hero’s Journey.'”
When George Lucas was writing his drafts of the early Star Wars movies he had read Joseph Campbell’s work and there is a clear structure of the Hero’s Journey in Lucas’ films.
Star Wars is not the only films that follows the Hero’s Journey. Many of Disney’s Films also use this plot structure in their animated feature films: Finding Nemo, Mulan, The Lion King, The Incredibles, and Moana. Additional movies include Shrek, and Kung Fu Panda. Major feature films like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Spiderman, Matrix, and The Hobbit also follow this trope.
I am using The Hero’s Journey with in my Media Literacy class to teach about plot structure, character motivation, and theme in the stories they write and films they create. I started by asking students to think about what qualities they associate with heroes. Are heroes born or are they made? Are there heroes in real-life or must they be larger-than-life? Who are the heroes in our society.
Students viewed short films about the Hero’s Journey to understand the monomyth. Then we brainstormed possible movies, books, and stories that would fit within this structure. Students were given a graphic organizer of the The Hero’s Journey to map out a text on their own. The graphic organizer on MythologyTeacher.com was clear and specific to help students articulate their understanding. I found out among my students that not many have seen animated Disney Films, The Hunger Games, or the new Spiderman Homecoming movie. With this in mind, I will be showing the class the movie Spirited Away by MIYAZAKI (2001), one of my favorite filmmakers.
Many of Miyazaki’s films follow the Hero’s Journey and are great to use with students. Once we view a film in it’s entirety together, we will discuss and plot out the Hero’s Journey in the film. Students will use this foundation for writing their own Hero’s Journey story that they will make into a movie. Additionally, students will apply the foundations of film knowledge (Types of Shots, Color, Sound, and Style) to effectively tell their Hero’s Journey story.