Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Sage Calder.
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.
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.
According 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.
If 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.