Archetype & the Hero’s Journey in Film

Archetype and the Hero’s Journey in Film

The Hero/ine’s Journey structure in film is perhaps the strongest, most meaningful methodology in storytelling for the cinema. It utilizes archetypes and motifs that have universal appeal to moviegoers of all ages. It relies on myth structure, and informs Jungian theories of human individuation and behavior, a branch of psychoanalytical psychology that asserts the existence of a “collective unconscious.”

The union of psychology and mythological archetypes occurred naturally in the friendship and professional relationship between the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and Greek scholar of Classicism and Myth studies, Károly Kerényi. It was Jung, and his close associate, Kerényi,[1] who introduced a system of hermeneutics to the study of mythology. Their work revised an aversion to and lack of myth understanding prevalent in the Victorian Age by demonstrating the power and purpose of story to describe the collective, universal truth of the human condition through the use of archetypes. This artful system of study focused on a full understanding of the intention and meaning behind appearances in myths.[2]

Jung’s fundamental theory revolves around the existence of what he called the anima and animus, deeply embedded entities of the human psyche. His revelations of the anima and animus are the formal foundation of much scholarly thought on issues related to men, women, relationships, and other aspects of the processes of psychological development and individuation. The animus is “the personification of the masculine principle in women” (Edinger).[3] The anima is, likewise, the “personification of the feminine principle in men” (Edinger). The structure of his theory is this: that all men have an anima and all women have an animus, and these “other” entities reside independently in the subconscious of every human, bringing either great harm or balance to the waking individual.

Jung’s wife Emma, herself an author of many texts on the use of archetype in fairy tales and other works related to the theories of her husband, described the animus and anima this way: the masculine principle, or animus, is that which expresses power, strength, energy, courage, and aggression. The feminine principle, or anima, is characterized by second sight, an intuitive relationship with the elemental, closeness to nature, prophetic tendencies, openness to the unconscious, and less aversion to irrationality (Jung, 3).

These most basic of Jungian principles lack only a visual expression to complement their academic definition, and archetypes from myth and folklore provide such balance. For instance, the archetype of the Crone, or Wise Woman, is expressive of a woman with a strong, but balanced animus that strengthens her expression of wisdom and knowledge; likewise, the mythical figure of Persephone becomes an archetype for the death and rebirth cycle of the feminine, a feature distinct to the Heroine’s Journey structure in storytelling.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler describes the Hero’s Journey as a pattern that can be found everywhere in the mythologies and folklore of the world, and represents the many archetypes of humanity. As a structure for storytelling and filmmaking, he credits it to the depth psychology of Carl Jung and the mythic studies of Joseph Campbell, and asserts that it provides “a complete instruction manual in the art of being human” (ix).

From Campbell to Vogler, however, there is little about the Hero’s Journey that applies to the feminine. This aspect of archetypal story structure has seen enormous revision and growth in both the literary and film industries. According to Vogler, the Hero’s Journey looks something like this (variations are common):

A Hero is described in the ORDINARY WORLD, where he is CHALLENGED OR CALLED TO AN ADVENTURE. He expresses RELUCTANCE to this call, perhaps he even REFUSES THE CALL, but a MENTOR who will encourage him enters the story and entreats the hero to CROSS THE FIRST THRESHOLD. Here, the hero will enter a Special World where he encounters TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES. While in this other world, or previously unknown circumstance, he will APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing the second threshold, where he endures an ORDEAL. Overcoming the ordeal, he will then take possession of the REWARD and be pursued on the road back to the ORDINARY WORLD. Crossing into the ordinary world is the third threshold. Here he will experience a RESURRECTION that reflects some kind of transformation resulting from the experience. Once back in the ordinary world, the hero will return to the place of his original dilemma  – the RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, or solution – a boon or treasure to benefit the ordinary world (Vogler, 26).

The Hero’s Journey is powerfully expressed in scriptwriting for film, in which there are three acts: Act I is fulfilled by the first five steps in the process; Act II, in which the Crisis occurs, covers steps six through nine; and Act III, the Climax and Resolution of the film, covers steps ten through twelve.

This structure of storytelling is evident in hundreds of successful films, including such titles as Basic Instinct, Unforgiven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Titanic, The Silence of the Lambs, Chinatown, Fantasia, Glory, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It spans film genres from biography (Driving Miss Daisy) to comedy (51 First Dates) to Science Fiction (I, Robot), and many more.

The medieval text of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is a good example of a literature-to-film transition in which the heroic journey is balanced between the masculine and the feminine. The text is primarily the tale of Tristan and his heroic struggle to gain Iseult, the prize. In essence, the romance is lopsided in his favor, and the character of Iseult grows more shallow and distant as the story progresses toward its tragic end. The translation of this tale, however, brings to light the modern concept of a Heroine’s Journey and provides other naturally supportive archetypes for Isolde’s role that give dimension and reality to the story.

To fully understand the significance of both the Hero’s and the Heroine’s Journey structure in translating ancient and medieval tales for today’s film, it is important to have some understanding of the Heroine’s Journey structure also. It differs greatly from that of the Hero’s Journey, and echoes Emma Jung’s definition of the feminine aspect, or anima. In the language of psychology, it is a path of transformation or healing for the feminine, usually manifested through archetypes within stories, legends and myths. The journey represents the real psychological and emotional experiences of women and girls as they go through the different stages of life, and involves several stages of growth that cycle repeatedly throughout life.

It begins with a SEPARATION FROM THE FEMININE (when a woman denies herself in an attempt to identify with the masculine – or make a place for herself in a patriarchal society). Then follows the DESCENT AND INITIATION (when the feminine awakens to a sense of spiritual aridity – or death to herself – and voluntarily returns to the dark, primordial inner self to reclaim that which was lost). The final experience in the growth cycle is the ASCENT (the rebirth of the feminine as she returns to the light with new knowledge and wisdom about herself and her world).

The journey occurs without ceasing in the life of the feminine, the descent usually marked by extreme conditions in a woman’s life such as death of a loved one, job change, children leaving home, etc. The purpose of the journey is to initiate a spiritual and intellectual growth wherein the feminine learns to accept and direct the course of her life.

Key to the successful use of the Hero/ine’s Journey structure in filmmaking and storytelling is the fact that it is not a formula, but rather a form. It appears across a wide spectrum of films that bear little or no resemblance to one another; for instance: The Big Chill vs. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Peter Pan vs. Jaws. Notably, not even the genre of films is the same in these examples. The concepts and principles that bind these films together as heroic journeys is, rather, the masculine and feminine principles, as they occur regardless of a character’s gender, and the universal archetypes that figure predominantly in the development of the characters.

There are strong arguments by Post Modern critics who assert that the “collective unconscious” and gender do not exist; yet, it is clear that, on some level, movie audiences are deeply moved by, even subconsciously connected to, films structured around the Hero/ine’s Journey principles and relevant archetypes. In fact, stories like this are often the most memorable to audiences – the subtextual content of their messages taking root in the unconscious minds of viewers whose thoughts, actions and lives become subtly influenced, even guided, by the growth and evolution of archetypal patterns. As long as film has the power to motivate individuals and communities, Archetype and the Heroic Journey will remain a valid structure through which storytellers can shape the world.


Jung, Emma. Animus and Anima: Two Essays. Woodstock: Spring Publications, 1985.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 2nd Ed. Studio

City: Michael Weise Productions, 1998.

[1] b. 1897, d. 1973. One of the founders of modern studies in Greek Mythology and co-founder of the C.G. Jung Institute of Zürich. He held a doctorate in Classical Philology on Plato and Longinus and Aesthetic Theory in Antiquity from the University of Budapest.

[2] Definition of hermeneutics interpreted by C. Moustakas in his 1994 text, Phenomenological Research Methods.

[3] For an in-depth discussion see Dr. Edinger’s “An Outline of Analytical Psychology” – first published in Quadrant: A Publication of the Jung Foundation for Analytical Psychology, Inc., New York, N.Y., 1968.