Is Divergent a Hero’s Journey or a Heroine’s Journey?

The 2014 film Divergent (a loose adaptation of the first book in the young adult dystopian series of the same name by Veronica Roth) follows sixteen year old Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) as she navigates crises of self-identification and political conspiracies. In the film’s futuristic version of Chicago, citizens are separated into factions based on defining traits: Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (kindness), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (bravery). Some members of the society, however, are categorized as Divergent, meaning they have behavioral elements which correspond to more than one faction and as a result they are perceived as threats to the carefully organized system. Of course, our protagonist Tris happens to fall into this latter category.

Tris is assaulted by three masked attackers. Upon unmasking one of them, she realizes it is one of her closest friends. Her sense of betrayal is immediately apparent.

The film presents many of the same aspects of the novel that could be categorized as touchstones of a Heroine’s Journey. Tris, as a Divergent, seeks a sense of wholeness that her fragmented society denies her. She leaves home and the comfort of her mother’s unconditional love to pursue a life in the predominantly male Dauntless faction. She is betrayed by someone she had believed to be a good friend when he attempts to sexually assault her, which fundamentally shakes her worldview.

In repackaging the narrative as an action film, however, Tris’s emotional journey is weakened and her action-based journey becomes the main focus. This shift in perspective causes the film to be read most easily as a typical Hero’s Journey. Tris begins the film in the Ordinary World of her life in Abnegation, unaware of the existence of Divergents. Once she takes the requisite placement test all sixteen year olds must take, her Call to Adventure occurs when she is forced to choose between factions and expected to choose to remain in Abnegation. Her Refusal of the Call is quite clear: she chooses to leave.

Tris undergoes a typical training sequence with her mentor/romantic interest Four.

Upon arriving in Dauntless, she has a Meeting the Mentor moment when she meets a Dauntless leader named Four (Theo James), who takes her under his wing as he is himself an Abnegation-to-Dauntless transfer. (He will also become her love interest, despite the sizable age difference the film adds. In the novel, there is a year or two between them; in the film, it is closer to eight years.) Tris Crosses the Threshold into a New World when she begins engaging in Dauntless training, quickly Meeting Tests (physical fights that she initially loses), Allies (a few friends such as Al, Will, Christina, and Uriah), and Enemies (the bloodthirsty Peter and Eric).

She suffers an emotional Death when she is assaulted by Peter and Al, but this Death results in her Rebirth as a stronger, hardened member of Dauntless. Along the way, she learns of the plan to wipe out her former faction Abnegation by the intercession of her brother, with whom she is supposed to have no contact. This fear drives her for much of the film, and when it becomes clear that the Erudite faction intends to do much more than just wipe out the Abnegation by means of mind-controlled Dauntless soldiers, her status as Divergent allows her to escape unharmed. She ultimately proves victorious and Seizes the Sword while engaging in a battle with the Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet), whom she stabs and then injects with the same mind-control serum the leader used on the Dauntless.

By the film’s end, Tris’s journey is far from over, but with three films remaining in the series, it is clear that Hollywood intends to present her journey as a female Hero’s instead of as a Heroine’s.

The Heroine’s Journey of Viola Price

The difference between a hero’s journey and a heroine’s journey is often where the story spends its time and where and how it ends.   Hero’s journey films and books usually end with a moment of glory although in actual life the glorious moment may have been followed by a long-period of struggle and maladjustment to life after glory that evolves over time into a broader and deeper recognition of life’s complexities.  Given the attention given to some  recent hero’s journey films such as  American Sniper and Unbroken,  we’d like to discuss an interesting heroine’s journey film.

In the 2014 television movie A Day Late and a Dollar Short, based on the 2001 Terry McMillan novel of the same name, a dying woman seeks to provide the members of her dysfunctional family with a guide for living with compassion. Her goal is not mastery, or creating fairy tale endings, or a erecting a personal monument, but to positively contribute to those who will outlive her. The journey of Viola Price (Whoopi Goldberg) follows Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey path. Using compassion and empathy, Viola seeks to help her family members while she’s alive and after she’s gone while recognizing the limits of her control. The story also depicts complex conflicts that cannot be resolved in a fairy tale manner because there have already been consequences.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Whoopi-GoldbergAt the beginning of the film, Viola lives in the Illusion of a (semi) Perfect World. She lives  with her long term husband, Cecil (Ving Rhames) and dreams of traveling to Paris.  This dream quickly shatters. After suffering a severe asthma attack she receives news from her doctor that she has  congestive heart failure and that another asthma attack could kill her. This  news brings the Realization that her coping strategy of dreaming of a brighter future in Paris cannot save her and that she must figure out what is important to do in the time she has left.

Upon realizing that her time  is limited, Viola undergoes an Awakening and Preparing for the Journey be realizing that she must try to heal family competitions and strife  before she’s gone. “There’s a whole lot of mess I gotta clean up before I go,” she says in one early moment in the film. “I can’t have them killing each other after I’m gone.” Her worries are well-founded, for  it quickly becomes apparent that the large Price family is falling apart at the seams. Each family member presents a great challenge to her which she is determined to overcome through sheer force of will.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Ving-Rhames Then Cecil walks out on her for a woman who is younger than their children. In her Descent,  Viola discovers that the other woman is pregnant, which causes her  to ask how long the affair has been going on. She is also worried that Cecil will abandon their troubled family for a new one once she’s gone.

In what is a small measure of success, Viola successfully convinces Cecil to reconnect with his children.  At a party she also learns that his mistress appears to have been pregnant for longer than Cecil says he has been going out with her, and that she may have told him he was the father in order to give her child a father but the  baby may not be his. Viola doesn’t gloat upon her small taste of success; instead, upon seeing how much Cecil cares for this other woman, she encourages him to make things work with her.

Meanwhile, their  adult children’s personal and relationship difficulties continue to sprial  downward. The oldest daughter, Charlotte (Tichina Arnold), is bossy, overworked, and angry. Viola  sees herself in Charlotte and  worries  about the future of her daughter’s marriage when she witnesses Charlotte  snapping at her husband. She encourages Charlotte to be more attentive which leads Charlotte to realize that her husband is sneaking around. Charlotte has forgiven her husband for a prior affair on the condition that he mend his ways,  but she finds him meeting secretly with his prior mistress.

Viola’s second daughter, Paris (Anika Noni Rose), is an anxiety-ridden, pill popping television host who is also a single parent that has given up on sex and romantic love, and has a troublesome seventeen year old son.  Paris and the oldest daughter, Charlotte, also have a highly contentious relationship Hoping to ease some of her rigidity, Viola introduces Paris to a handsome gardener who works in the neighborhood.  He shares many of Paris’s interests and has also been through pill addiction of his own, but Charlotte wants nothing to do with him.  When she learns her son has gotten his sixteen year old girlfriend pregnant, she appears on the edge of another relapse.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Tichina-Arnold-Ashanti-Bromfield-and-Kimberly-EliseThe youngest Price daughter, Janelle (Kimberly Elise), is flighty, clueless, and headstrong.  A remarried widow and  mother to a reactive fifteen year old, Shanice, she cannot see her daughter’s  pain, although Viola quickly notices Shanice’s diversionary  behavior and finds indications of self-harm. Shanice, as it turns out, is being molested by Janelle’s new husband. Janelle throws her husband out but does not win over her daughter by doing so.

The only son in the family, Lewis (Mekhi Phifer), is an unemployed, divorced alcoholic who often gets arrested for petty crimes . Viola feels great remorse about the fact that he has been characterized as a wasted genius his entire life and the feeling that she “failed [him] as a mother.” If Viola does not quite believe that all if lost, moviegoers certainly have; this family’s trials seem too profound for  a positive outcome.

Support for Viola’s  mission takes many incremental forms When Lewis unwittingly stumbles upon the funeral plans that Viola has been preparing in secret, he follows through with her request that he spend more time with his son and  learns that his son is being beaten by his ex-wife’s new husband.  Although he initially makes the ill-advised move of attacking the stepfather, a violation of his probation, the film suggests that he will learn from his mistakes and take a larger role in his son’s life. Charlotte who is initially furious when she thinks her husband has been seeing his old mistress learns that the other woman had a child as a result of their affair, and that her husband has been helping to support the child.  And Paris begins to soften and edge toward a relationship with the sober gardener.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Mekhi-Phifer-Kimberly-Elise-Anika-Noni-Rose-Ving-Rhames-Ashanti-Bromfield-and-Tichina-ArnoldBefore any of the repairing is complete, Viola dies.  But after she has passed, it is revealed that she left a series of letters that the quarreling family members are instructed to read to one another (Paris to Charlotte, Shanice to Janelle, and Cecil to Lewis). Each letter has been written to inspire both recipient and reader to view the other in a different light. For example, in the letter read by Paris, Viola views Charlotte’s husband’s responsibility to his out-of-wedlock son as a sign of  growing maturity and responsibiity rather than as a threat to their relationship. Viola urges Paris to trust her son’s feelings for his girlfriend as Viola trusted Paris when she, too, became pregnant at a young age.  After each has had their Moment of Truth from Viola  Cecil open his letter from Viola in which she writes, “I’m leaving this wayward family to you. You’re in charge now.” In the end, loving relationship and difficult realities are united, and  relationship f appears to have the upper hand.  The film intercuts the reading of these letters with shots of the family embracing one another, caring for one another. Viola, now as spirit, observes, “I don’t know if all this hugging and kissing you’re looking at is what will be or what I hope will be. But either way? It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Journey of Christopher Vogler

While researching hero and heroine journey arcs, I came across a piece by Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood Development Executive, who claims to have played a central role in ensuring that the hero’s journey narrative has dominated American movies over the last thirty years.

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero's Journey

Sylvester Stallone in Rocky IV, an example of the Hero’s Journey

According to Vogler, while studying cinema at the University of Southern California, he came across Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s with a Thousand Faces.  Having seen Star Wars, he recognized the similarity between the plot of that movie and  Hero’s Journey arc described by Campbell and wrote a paper for a class theorizing that a key to the Star Wars’ success was its tracking of  the hero’s journey.  Later, when Vogler began working  as a story analyst at Fox and other Hollywood studios, he applied his theory to the scripts that came across his desk.  He also talked with several of his colleagues who apparently found his ideas interesting, but not earth shattering.

However, before long Vogler got a job at Disney which had a strong corporate culture under Michael Eisner’s and Jeffrey Katzenberg’s leadership. Vogler reports that memos were a big part of Disney’s corporate identity, and everyone who worked at Disney at that time had to learn the memo art form, following the example of Katzenberg, an absolute master.

Yoda-in-Star-Wars-Episode-1According to Vogler, the discipline of writing succinct development notes and story coverage and research memos kindled within him a desire to “once and for all” get all of Campbell’s ideas down as creative principles and to use them as building blocks for constructing stories and tools for troubleshooting story problems.  He took time off from his job as a story analyst and spent a week in New York with his friend, David McKenna, watching movie clips, then came back and wrote a seven page memo which he refers to as “The Memo that Started it All” and sent it to Disney executives.

At first not much happened but Vogler had faith, picturing his memo flying off fax machines all over town.  And sure enough some people began to take notice.  Before long a junior executive at Disney saw the memo and tried to pass it off as his own.  Vogler, alerted to the usurpation by a colleague, immediately sent a memo to Katzenberg  asserting his status as true owner and asked to be elevated to story development.  Katzenberg immediately called Vogler and put him  to work  doing research and development for The Lion King.  When Vogler arrived he found “the Memo that Started it All” had preceded him, and the animators were already outlining their story boards using the Hero’s Journey stages. Thereafter Vogler’s  memo served as a springboard for numerous other hit movies,  his own book, and a teaching gig at UCLA.  According to Vogler,  people continue to attribute special powers to the  original seven-pager, and at one point, a museum dedicated to screenwriting requested a copy for a display of milestone documents and books in the history of screenwriting.

The-Lion-King-the-lion-king-33799433-1920-1080If Vogler’s description of his success and  formative role in  American movies sounds a little contrived, perhaps its because Vogler’s story of his own success so neatly tracks  the steps of the  tale on which he has made his fortune– complete with entry into new world (Disney) absolute master mentor (Katzenberg), enemies and allies (the usurping junior exec. and Vogler’s loyal colleague), success that nearly goes off the rails twice (first when the memo goes unnoticed and a second time when the junior exec. tries to appropriate Vogler’s memo), and his kinsmen’s final affirmation  of  special powers and his place as an enduring leader of the screenwriting tribe.  Of course, it’s possible that some people experience life in exactly this fashion.

To be sure, the hero’s journey is the narrative pattern for Disney children’s movies and many American coming-of-age films and weekly television dramas. (However, many American films made prior to 1970 also follow the hero’s journey pattern, and many critically acclaimed films made in and out of the United States have more causally complex  or ambiguous patterns and themes.  To see an analysis of Academy Award winning films that follow and don’t follow the hero’s journey pattern, click here.

And, you  might also ask yourself,  what if a woman had written the memo?  And then, written another memo about what  happened to her when that young junior executive  passed off the ideas of a lowly female story analyst as his own?  Might her  second memo have plotted a  different, heroine’s tale?

We will never know.  Instead, we have this website.   We may have some catching up to do, but we are not starting from scratch– as future blogs and other pages of the site illustrate,  women such as Maureen Murdock, Victoria Schmidt, Carol Pearson, and Jean Shinoda Bolen have covered much ground that we hope to expand upon.  We  invite you to  join the conversation and contribute your stories as well.