My roommate and I got into a heated argument today. I was in the living room watching what was admitted a very generic, forgettable movie (Whip It!, 2009). He watched a few minutes of it and picked up on how clichéd the storyline was. Basically, Ellen Page plays a high school aged girl who is stuck in a small town and desires to escape via roller derby. Of course, there are obstacles to her maturing beyond her small Texas town, mainly parental guardrails. Of course, at the end, the parents realize that their idea of happiness differs from their daughter’s idea of happiness and all is resolved relatively cleanly.
I didn’t put a spoiler warning before this brief synopsis because greater than 75% of films and stories in general share this archetype: the Hero Journey, characterized by Joseph Campbell. The Hero Journey is one in which a seemingly unsuspecting character is called upon to do something heroic. This can be taken literally as in superhero movies, for example. However, heroism comes in many forms and the epiphany of finding a way to escape a life in which you feel trapped is also a valid call to arms. After the hero has received his or her mission, the hero must overcome several obstacles, whether they be costumed villains or disapproving parents. At times, the hero will feel as if there is no hope of achieving the goal. At this point, two other characters of the archetype come into play: the mentor (a revered elder such as Gandalf or Dumbledore) and the helper (best friends and sidekicks such as Samwise Gamgee or Ron and Hermione). The hero relies on either or both of these people for help in surmounting the obstacle. At the end, the hero receives the boon for his or her troubles, but must also be able to reconcile his or her pre-journey life with the person he or she has become. The difference is clear in the superhero movie: Peter Parker must keep his identity secret to protect the ones he loves, but he knows that inside he can no longer sit by and idly watch bad things happen as he did before. It may require a quick costume change, but Peter Parker is still the driving force behind Spider-Man. Likewise, the teenager that has come of age must go out into the unsheltered world, but keep a root in the small town where his or her parents still are.
There are variations on this archetype, the superhero and the teenage coming-of-age that I have mentioned in addition to the epic, the sports saga, the political drama and even the romantic comedy (finding love is absolutely a journey!). So, why do we keep paying to hear the same story over and over? I argue that it is because the hero journey is what each of us are engaging in every day and we need to know that it is not all in vain, that we will have friends that have our backs, and that it is possible to achieve our goals. This story is so important that it must be told from every perspective possible. We see ourselves in these heroes and yearn for the triumph they achieve.
Thus, the stories despite sharing identical frameworks are necessary, but are they still entertaining? Just because every hero journey is significant does not mean that they will all translate well onto film and therein lays the need for a talented filmmaker. The scaffolding of the film is unoriginal, but it can be built upon in unique ways. Some films rely on special effects (Avatar) while others rely on snappy dialogue (Mean Girls, Juno) or a message that extends beyond the ability of the hero to complete the journey. Unfortunately, Whip It! had none of these differentiating factors and thus will most likely fall into the bucket of innocuous films that will be forgotten. On the other hand, we have Kick-Ass, a movie that borrows heavily not only from the Hero Journey archetype, but also unabashedly and reverently from superhero movies in general. It calls upon the tried and true themes of avenging someone’s death, sons making fathers proud and the power of the ordinary citizen. What Kick-Ass had was a host of characters that make the movie enjoyable to watch even though we already know the story. Especially outstanding, is 13-year old Chloe Moretz, who steals every scene she is in as the precocious crime fighter Hit Girl.
In some respects, I feel bad for filmmakers. There are few original stories left to tell and thus, they must rely on creativity to engage us. The permutations upon this archetype could possibly be infinite, but with passing time it gets increasingly more difficult to find that magic ingredient. So, has Hollywood become unoriginal? The answer is no; Hollywood was always unoriginal. More importantly, though, it is finding original ways of telling unoriginal stories.