When The Force Awakens hit theaters, despite an overwhelmingly positive reception, it seemed to receive one very particular criticism. It was too much like the original Star Wars, enough so that some were accusing it of feeling like it was little more than a rehash. This is interesting because the driving force behind Star Wars is, and always has been, mythic storytelling. George Lucas followed Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, so intently that Star Wars is now considered the perfect example of the hero’s journey.
The Force Awakens seeming “samey” to some they’re not wrong. It comes down to two reasons, 1) it follows the same mono-myth structure and 2) Star Wars made lots and lots of money, which meant everyone wanting to make a big blockbuster movie tried to copy its success. This means everyone has seen this story before and they have seen it over, and over, and over again for nearly forty years.
However, using a tried and true story structure doesn’t have to be a bad thing. We rewatch our favorite movies because we enjoy them even though we might be able to mouth the script along with the film. Even more important we sit by our children’s bedsides and tell them the stories we loved ourselves. In the time of ancient Greece people would gather around to hear the Illiad recited and no one, except for the very young, wondered how that story ended. Stories used to be a way for people to get educated and learn lessons to take with them during their everyday lives. Ever wondered why The Return of the King seemed to take forever to end? The massive battle is over, Frodo and Sam have dumped the ring, the bad guys are defeated; why is there still so much story left?
This is due to a theory of storytelling called Freytag’s Pyramid, or dramatic structure, where a story is broken down into five sections:
- Rising Action
- Falling Action
Before people started getting their education primarily from schools, they would get them from stories. The falling action occurred over a longer period so lessons could be imparted to the listeners. Now, modern stories hit the climax and then move quickly to the conclusion.
Does Star Wars fit?
- Exposition – The Title Crawl
- Rising Action – Luke, Leia and Han’s adventure until we get to-
- Climax – Death Star Attack
- Falling Action – Boom! Death Star is destroyed
- Conclusion – Medal Ceremony
Very tidy. See how short the falling action is? It takes us straight to the payoff of the medals.
So, what about Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey? Is The Force Awakens just another tired retread of this story structure the original movie has already used?
Have a look at the first five plot points Campbell lays out for the hero’s journey:
The Hero and Their Ordinary World
Luke is stuck on Tatooine.
Rey is stuck on Jakku.
Call to Adventure
Luke receives Princess Leia’s message.
Rey rescues BB-8.
Refusing the Call
Luke will not leave his aunt and uncle behind.
Rey doesn’t want to leave for fear her family won’t be able to find her.
Luke has Obi-wan urging him on his journey.
Rey has Han, Chewbacca, and Finn urging her on her journey.
Crossing the First Threshold
Escape from Tatooine.
Escape from Jakku.
Pretty hard to argue with. Is it the same? No, for one big shiny reason. Rey is a woman. How does that matter? Well, Joseph Campbell himself said: “There are no models in our mythology for an individual woman’s quest.”
With all due respect to Campbell, he’s full of it. There is a feminine version of the hero’s journey that works alongside the masculine, or “typical” hero’s journey: The Wizard of Oz.
I remember one time I was riding the bus and three young men behind me were loudly talking about action movies. I was eavesdropping because when you’re loud on the bus that’s what every other bored person is going to do to you. One abruptly proclaimed, “There are no female action heroes.”
This young man also is full of it. Recently, there has been a veritable swath of female heroes of the action variety, and with the release of Rogue One it doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. This is unprecedented in the history of storytelling.
One of the big differences between the masculine and feminine comes right at the beginning of their tale when they are in their ordinary world. Luke is on Tatooine and years for “so much more than this provincial life” and dreams of becoming a pilot at the Imperial Academy. Rey sits on Jakku which, shockingly, looks like an even worse place to live. Rey, however, isn’t trying to leave. She stays because that is the “good” thing to do and if she simply waits long enough she will be rewarded.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy lives in a black and white world. It’s monotonous but she endures. In Aliens, Ellen Ripley is angry with the bureaucratic decisions being made and how the horrific death of her former crew has been brushed aside but she initially doesn’t have the motivation or desire to change it. In Rogue One, Jyn is happy assuming her father is dead and she is stuck being nothing more than an urchin and
While gender equality is a huge thing in today’s day and age, we must pay respect to the fact that there are the masculine and feminine. They are present in both males and females, but in storytelling they generally are “typecast.” Luke is the masculine. Rey is the feminine. And thus their stories are different. Their journeys are different. Their movies are different. Now storytelling will forever be different.
Do you agree? Disagree? Comment below to let us know!
Follow us on Twitter to stay up to date with everything @ClashingSabers: