monomyth

5 Films That Play Out The Monomyth

Monomyth diagram

A lot of people think that there are only a handful of stories out there to tell, and every script falls under one of those plots. One of those stories could be the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, a concept developed by writer Joseph Campbell in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Borrowing the term from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Campbell describes the monomyth as a recurring pattern shared by multiple famous works from different times and cultures. Needless to say, it is a concept with which any student enrolled in screenwriting school would be intimately familiar.

This pattern focuses on a single protagonist following a distinct arc, with many of the same beats on that arc. Figures that follow this epic journey include Moses, Jesus Christ and the Buddha. But it’s not just classic stories that use the monomyth—it can be found throughout modern pop-culture, and is the foundation for many of the superhero and Young Adult themed franchises dominating Hollywood right now.

Here, then, are just five famous examples of the omnipresent monomyth:

1. The Matrix

The first step in the hero’s journey is the call to action, where a seemingly normal person in a normal, mundane life is brought into the larger, more fantastical world. In this case, cubicle drone Thomas Anderson follows the white rabbit and ends up discovering the Matrix and the Real World. He gains amazing powers and saves both worlds as Neo.

Neo in his cubicle in The Matrix

2. Men in Black

Following the same path as Neo is NYPD Officer James Edwards, who finds out that aliens live among us when he joins the MiB as Agent J. A crucial component of the monomyth is supernatural aid in the form of a mentor or guide. Neo had Morpheus and Agent J had Agent K.

Will Smith’s lead character must enter the Belly of the Whale, the monomyth step where the hero separates fully from the normal world, never able to return. Edwards does this when his identity and even his fingerprints are erased, permanently becoming Agent J.

3. The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen is a recent example of the monomyth, a normal girl from humble roots who enters the strange world of the Capital and the Arena and uses her superior skills at archery, hunting, and problem solving to take down tough competition and an entire evil empire. While doing so, she must follow the Road of Trials, the first step of the monomythic second major arc, Initiation. This includes winning over sponsors and allies while impressing the Gamemakers during training, and then competing in the Hunger Games itself.

Katniss Everdeen with bow in The Hunger Games

4. The Lion King

While science fiction and fantasy often use the monomyth, it doesn’t mean it can’t be found in genres. One famous example is The Lion King, itself an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After Simba is cast out into the strange jungle world outside of his pride, he makes peace with his new life and surroundings, enjoying the good life with his two mentors, Timon and Pumbaa. This stage is called the Apotheosis, a period of recharging before the hero’s return arc, often after he or she has even died. In this case, Simba didn’t physically die, but his ties to his Pride have. This step follows Atonement with the Father, which Simba does much more literally while speaking with the ghost of his dad, Mustafa.

5. Star Wars

Luke Skywalker on Tatooine

Not necessarily the entire trilogy (or hexalogy, or soon-to-be ennealogy) but specifically episode IV, A New Hope, is a classic example of the monomyth. In the span of the first film, Luke Skywalker goes from an innocent farmer on a backwater planet to a wielder of the Force and the hero of the empire. He becomes the Master of Two Worlds, the penultimate step of the monomyth, when he joins his material piloting skills with his spiritual Jedi abilities to make a one-in-a-million shot to destroy the Death Star and save the day. This also becomes Luke’s Freedom to Live, the final step. Luke would have more training and would confront his father in the future, but when describing the monomyth, Joseph Campbell wasn’t thinking of the era of never-ending sequels and spin-offs. Nobody’s perfect.