Off Mike Recap: The Hero's Journey

Off Mike Recap: The Hero’s Journey in Recent Movies

The Off Mike podcast features my in-process thoughts about a large number of topics.  In order to continue the conversation, I will present a written version of the key thoughts of these podcasts.

This podcast features Mike and Sally talking together about the hero’s journey as they’ve seen it in recent movies.


Welcome to the newest edition of the Off Mike podcast. Today we’re going to look at some of the films we’ve seen over Christmas and New Year’s. Sally and I probably see as many films during the year as we do at Christmas, but the Christmas films are the big ones.

We’ve seen lots of films, and we thought we’d look at them from the point of view of something we’ve talked about before here on the podcast—the hero’s journey.

The hero’s journey was first introduced to the world academically through the work of Joseph Campbell. Then, through his interaction with people like Bob Dylan and George Lucas, people became more aware of his work. George Lucas had quite a long relationship with Joseph Campbell.

What Joseph Campbell noticed was that many cultures—he would say just about all of them—had a similar story and narrative structure that defined who their heroes and heroines were. The people they imitated and emulated had stories that followed a similar structure.

We’ve talked about that story:

being recapitulated in the life of Jesus

being owned by the life of Jesus

being fulfilled in the story of Jesus

and being redeemed in his story.

We thought we would look at the hero narrative from the point of view of the movies we’ve seen.


What was your favorite movie this Christmas?


I liked a lot of them. I liked Rogue One. I thought La La Land was very good.


It’s just wonderful.


I liked Genius, about the life of Thomas Wolfe. And I don’t know if I could say I could say I enjoyed it, but I liked Silence. It’s by Endo. He’s the greatest contemporary Japanese novelist, and he wrote this amazing story that’s very similar to the story that Graham Greene wrote about the Mexican Revolution called The Power and the Glory about the conflicts between state and faith. Silence is an amazing story, and we’ll get to that in a minute.

But let’s start with La La Land, because you liked that one the most.


I liked it because it was such a great medium—the singing and the dancing.


And of course Ryan Gosling.


And as the icing on the cake, he goes and gives that speech at the Golden Globes, where he says I’m just up here singing and dancing while my wife is at home.


He uses this phrase “standing on the shoulders of mountains,” which is kind of a half quote from Sir Isaac Newton. When asked why he was so clever, Newton said, “If I see further than mountains, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Gosling chose not to call his wife a giant…


I think that was a wise move.


He called her a mountain. He said, “I’m dancing, and she’s there having a baby and looking after the house and keeping everything together.” And if people didn’t love him before with his matinee idol looks, they love him now.

And I must say, I’m absolutely in awe of the way he played the piano, and almost in awe of the way he danced. And the girl that was with him, Emma Stone, was brilliant in dancing. She was just a natural dancer.

I thought La La Land was very good. I thought it would be quite challenging for millennials to watch. I’ve been wondering how long it would be before the millennial generation’s shibboleth—by which I mean the edifice of their vision of life—would begin to crumble. Because really, what La La Land is about, I think, is the question of the millennial generation’s vision of life.

Their vision of life is that you can basically have it all

You can have an amazing career

You can have amazing relationships

You can have amazing…

And this movie basically says you can’t. Either you have a really good relationship, marry the right person and raise children with them, or you get a job, and that becomes the focus.

Really what it says is that you can’t have 100 percent focus on all things.

I think that’s why Family on Mission has had such a long and profound influence on millennials, because I think they can see that the integrated life—awhich is not having it all, but a life where you may have to sacrifice a lot of what you hoped for in exchange for the objective and the desire of living this balanced existence with relationships and work and hopes and expectations and all of that.


Just because it’s a dream and just because it’s a passion…

In the end—and I don’t want to give away the end—she reflects on what it’s actually cost her. I think that’s a very good reality check.

But the only thing I would say is, she is still successful. It’s still unrealistic.


I thought it was a really good movie, and it deserves all the accolades that it’s gotten.  It’s a musical. You start watching with the people in the traffic jam, and you think, “How’s this going to work?” But it does.

In terms of hero’s journeys in the arc of the narrative, there’s the inciting incident which draws them together, which is the traffic jam. That gives them the opportunity to go into this world of challenge, to discover and work with allies, to find mentors, to come against the antagonist of the real world. The antagonist to me appears to be the cynical realities of the world.

They take on those challenges, and they see the benefits of those challenges, but it’s not the hero’s journey that they expected. It’s not the outcome they expected or the conclusion.

The hero’s journey in Joseph Campbell has 14 stages. In most of Hollywood’s model, and playwright’s model, it has 12 stages in three acts. Simply put, those three acts are:

  1. The calling
  2. The challenge
  3. The completion

In La La Land, you see the calling, and you see the challenge they wrestle with together, but they seem to separate in the challenges and go their separate ways, and therefore don’t complete what they could do together. It’s kind of interesting.

It makes you feel the loss of it.


It’s sad.


On to Rogue One with Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, I thought was marvelous.  The reason I thought it was marvelous was that, if you have had your entire adult life defined by a particular story like Star Wars, you want as much of that story to fill out that picture as possible.

I was 19 years old. I went to the largest cinema in London to see this movie everyone was talking about but no one could explain to me. I sat in the theater, and when that star cruiser came overhead, it changed my life. It’s not like it was a spiritual moment, but from the point of an aesthetic moment, it was amazing to me.

And it’s a classic hero’s journey. George Lucas had spoken to Joseph Campbell. It’s a classic hero’s tale of Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. They get the call, the get the challenge, and their mentor Obi Wan Kenobi is not only a physical mentor but a spiritual one—feel the force and all that.

What Rogue One is about is where the rebels get the plans for the Death Star. Felicity Jones’ character goes through the same process:

She’s called out of obscurity

She moves from one world (a desert world) into another world (the world of the federation)

She takes on these amazing challenges that she’s been ably gifted to take on

She has the antagonist, the mentors, the allies

And she comes through the challenges and sees the completion of her victory

What we see in the first Star Wars movie is the sharing of the blessing from getting the plans. Everyone benefits—the whole galaxy.


In a sense, it is the clearest hero’s journey.


George Lucas is totally wedded to the idea. And it’s utterly definitive for our culture. There’s very little that would convince me that Star Wars is not the most important cinematic metanarrative. There’s not another franchise that’s even close.

It’s a bit like when the book critics look at the great books of the 20th century, and they say Ulysses and To Kill a Mockingbird or whatever. But if you want to look at the book that had the most powerful influence on culture, you’d have to say Lord of the Rings. Without Lord of the Rings, we wouldn’t have any fantasy or video games or maybe even any sci-fi.

If we’re talking about great literature, Genius, the movie with Colin Firth and Jude Law and Nicole Kidman and Laura Linney. Nicole Kidman I think is brilliant, and the two male characters are as well. Colin Firth is brilliant in it. And he’s not playing Bridget Jones’ Diaryanymore…


I did see the new Bridget Jones movie on the plane.


He’s liberated from that kind of two-dimensional character. He has all of these matinee idol roles, as has Jude Law as well. They’ve come of age, the two of them. Why don’t you tell them what the movie is about?


The movie is about the editor of a well-known publishing house who gets a manuscript of an unknown writer called Thomas Wolfe, and he absolutely loves it. He’s completely enthralled by the book. It’s about their friendship and how he tries to help Wolfe achieve the most he can with the book, and how that relationship changes both of them.

I think the journey of the writer is the interesting one, because he goes through that stage where he becomes extremely selfish and very self-indulgent.

I love the line, because he gets to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, who says to him, “You may find other editors, but you will never find another friend like him.” That’s really good. It’s about the mentor truly going through the journey with his apprentice.


The tragedy, of course, is…


Don’t give the game away.


It’s history, so everyone knows that Thomas Wolfe dies. He dies in California on the beach, and it’s a tragedy.

Here’s the thing—is tragedy ultimately defined by a hero that does not complete his journey? Is that tragedy in the sense that they go into the other world, into the battle, into the desert, and never make it out. I think that’s the true tragic tale. That is the case with Thomas Wolfe.

In a way, you’re left questioning if Wolfe is the genius or if the editor is the genius. That’s the name of the movie.

But you’ve got these amazing characters like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Amazing literature and photography. It’s amazing. That’s a great film and I really love it.

Let’s do one more before we finish. Let’s do Endo’s Silence.

The main characters in it are Portuguese Jesuit priests who make their way to Japan in the wake of St. Francis Xavier, who goes to Japan, starts this great revival, and then leaves and goes to China and dies.

What these priests are trying to do is deal with the Japanese state—a feudal system in Japan—making a decision that Catholicism and Christianity in general is anti-Japanese.


You can’t be Japanese and a Christian.


At least you can’t be Japanese and a public Christian. That’s one of the great complexities of the story. It’s basically a true story, and it explains the presence to this day in the islands of Japan of the hidden Christians who have lived in isolation in those islands for 300 or 400 years.

It’s an amazing story of those Jesuit priests who suffered so much at the hands of their persecutors and how they dealt with the challenge of them and their witness being the reason for other people’s death and torture.


It’s a very complex moral question, isn’t it.


It’s one thing for you to suffer for your faith. It’s another thing to knowingly cause the suffering and death of other people—awful, long, drawn out, terrible death.

For me, the complexity still reveals the hero’s journey. As you watch the movie looking for the narrative elements of the hero’s journey, you find them—especially in its last phrase where Martin Scorsese, once the screen goes black, says,  “In honor of Japanese Christians.” I don’t know whether it’s a redemptive thing for him…


I can’t think that he could co-produce that movie without it having some effect.


They do say that Pope Francis saw it and said that it’s the best Christian movie that he’s seen for many a year.

Martin Scorses was the same guy who did The Last Temptation of Christ, which was enormously controversial and I think entirely self-indulgent. But in this, he kept very close to the book. I think he did a very honest interpretation of the book. It might be that he agrees with me that, in the end, Rodriguez is in the end is a heroic figure even though it appears he has become apostate, but really has done the right thing.


I really loved it.


There’s some movies. I’m sure we’ll come back and talk about some television some time, and some interesting books.

I hope you found our Off Mike interesting. We will back in a couple of weeks to share our latest offering.

Mike BreenComment