Hollywood Must Outgrow the Hero’s Journey

30/04/2014 14:34




by Skip Conover

“Bernstein reflects that adolescents are often overtaken by the new mental and emotional possibilities opening up in them and so easily identify with the warrior-hero.  This makes them very prone to the ideological euphoria of great aims and heroic sacrifices. In contrast, the mature adult is more aware of the limits of power and the importance of moral and ethical issues that hold life and society together, and is less easily seduced by glory.”  Nicholas Lewin, in [I]Jung on War, Politics and Nazi Germany: Exploring the Theory of Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.

 Hollywood has long known the secrets of the archetypes, as discussed by 20th century psychologist, Dr. Carl G. Jung.  The touchstone of great and enduring films has long been the archetype of the hero’s journey.  The “Star Wars"  franchise presented nearly the perfect example of the archetypal hero’s journey, and by so doing became a classic for all time.

 Archetype in art is essential for the financial success of all artists.  I have often argued that without understanding archetype, you may paint a lot of pretty pictures, but you will not break through to the important unconscious level of audience psyches.   

 The problem is, there can be too much of a good thing.  To the extent art informs the society about itself, perhaps things have gotten a bit out of whack, and that is reflected in our society itself.  

 We have no shortage of hero’s journey movies in our theatres these days, from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Thor: The Dark World” to “Elyseum.”  These and many others were probably called for after 9/11, while the country was engaged in two wars.  But the psychology they spawned is an immature one.  Such movies often end with the guy gets the girl or the girl gets the guy “and they lived happily ever after,” without ever exploring the fact that things change in “ever after” and the world doesn’t work that way.  

 The hero/warrior archetype has been constellated to a fair thee well in American culture, and may be largely the cause of our bipolar politics.  The heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan returned home with PTSD, and they haven’t been able to truly tell their story, because it is difficult for heroes to bring back and express the moral and ethical issues they faced in the real world.  They need help in advancing to the next natural phase of maturity, where those issues are more naturally embraced as wisdom in a fully mature individual and society.

 This sort of problem has created a kind of national neurosis in America, where many make a run at being a “hero,” but even when they achieve that title we throw around so casually in our daily conversation, they find something is missing.  At the same time, the American electorate is finding out that something is missing in our political heroes, such as they are.  

 Dr. Jung, among many others, taught us that a neurosis is often resolved in the psyche by outgrowing it.  The conflict never really goes away, but we simply gain wisdom and mature beyond it in such a way that we can acknowledge it is there, but we know that our real life and society, our children and the world, need something different.

 Yes, the artistry of Hollywood is very good at telling us what our psyches need at the moment.  When we go to see a movie, and we like it, the message of the movie reflects a projection of our deep unconscious.  When we see that a movie has a very big “box office,” we know that whatever that movie is saying resonates very deeply in the unconscious of the nation as a whole.  

 Who can blame Hollywood for relying on the hero’s journey for one of its major themes?  Blowing things up with gasoline makes for good video, and bigger and bigger guns, which are truly impractical in real life, even for benevolent police forces, make for excellent imagery.

 But we are in need of constellating a more stable and mature phase of our growth as individuals, as a nation, and as a species living on a planet with a unique set of features, which we, and our grandchildren, cannot do without.  How will Hollywood make it without all of those guns and gasoline explosions?  Fair question!

 We need more movies and other works of art—poetry, novels, paintings, whatever--which express the need to mature and answer more difficult questions, typical of our maturity as a species.  Pussy Riot might offer valuable material.  

 “Invictus” was one of those movies that accomplished the necessary.  If it had been a simple hero’s journey, it might have shown Nelson Mandela as “The Black Pimpernel,” harassing the authorities of, but it would have glossed over the boring years in prison, and ended with a couple of sentences printed on the screen before “The End,” about how he eventually won by becoming President of South Africa.  “Invictus” showed us the matured Madiba, taking the first few steps toward having an ethical and moral South Africa, rather than a bipolar country with the Afrikaaners always the threatened minority.  I’m not saying it is perfect still, but just imagine how bad it could have been if President Mandela were a different man; still living in his warrior archetype of youth.  

 “13 Days” was a movie with plenty of drama depicting a matured warrior, President John F. Kennedy, having passed through the crucible of his “hero’s journey” during World War II, applying every ounce of wisdom he could muster to avoid the final catastrophe, about which Dr. Jung warned when he said,

 “The world hangs on a thin thread, and that is the psyche of man…There is no such thing as an H bomb.  That is all man’s doing.  We are the great danger.  Psyche is the great danger.  What if something goes wrong with the psyche?  It is demonstrated to us in our days what the power of the psyche is; how important it is to know something about it, and we know NOthing about it.”

 “Contact” was a movie with a hero’s journey, but it left for the future the mature question for the hero.  What happens when the hero returns?  How do they convey what happened to them, and what it means?  Like Ellie Arroway coming back from her mission and testifying before Congress, how can you explain the journey?  Like the PTSD stressed “heroes” of Vietnam, Gulf War I, Iraq, and Afghanistan, how does one return from the hero’s journey and do something with the moral view and ethics that such an experience constellates and demands?  

 Those are the questions we need to answer now.  We need the wisdom those stories will constellate in our psyches.  How do we grow up as a species, and understand the horrors of our political positions on freedom, on the role of the warrior, on climate, on gender, on religion, and greatness as a nation?  

 The burning questions of the day beckon the forward thinking artist to show where we have erred, and where we can improve.  Admiral Yamamoto knew that a sneak attack would “wake a sleeping giant,” and constellate the warrior in all Americans. It is archetypally so!  It is up to art to constellate our maturity.  A very good place to start would be in Hollywood.

 Painters and other artists can express the passage from warrior to maturity too!  In this self-portrait I said everything I have to say about my experience in the Vietnam War, and the entire message is contained in the white of my left eye.  I think you will get my point!

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