How to Write a Screenplay that Gives the Finger to Mythic Structure

September 20, 2012 • Culture Dept.

Long before Harry Potter stroked his wand and yielded yet another sequel to his magically inflating franchise; eons before Frodo became the ring-bearer to his own tripartite wedding of myth and special effects; and far, far away from the uneasy alliance between a Sarah Lawrence College mythology professor and the advent of the blockbuster—there was a Swiss psychiatrist named Carl Jung.

The preeminent cartographer of the collective unconscious, Jung, by apocryphal accounts, developed his much ballyhooed notion of archetypes (elemental, psychically-charged patterns inherent in the unconscious) while examining the ill-fated attempts of alchemists to transmute base metals into gold.

The alchemists’ inadvertent byproduct was a record of their religious and philosophical preconceptions, various cultural conjectures and deeply rooted symbols—a font from which Jung began to extrapolate the diverse properties of our collective unconscious.

While endeavoring to understand dreams, art and other expressions of the unconscious, Jung isolated such archetypes as the Hero, the Mentor and the Quest. Understandably, these concepts have become a convenient shorthand for those who ply the screen trade. They reach a cinematic apotheosis of sorts in the recently published The Journey of Luke Skywalker: An Analysis of Modern Myth and Symbol. The book’s author, Steven A. Galipeau, M.A., M. Div., is a Jungian analyst in private practice on the outer fringes of Hollywood in Studio City, California.

Several Decembers ago, the affable, pony-tailed Galipeau presented a lecture at the C.G. Institute of Los Angeles dubbed Fairytale and Myth in Film that examined the archetypal themes resonating throughout the first Star Wars saga, The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter flicks. It was a cogent, well-deployed examination of Jung’s work as refracted through the prism of popular culture.

As can be expected, the talk attracted a fair number of would-be screenwriters—an ambitious lot disposed to discussing their own writing rather loudly, apparently on a quest for the Philosopher’s Stone of screenwriting. But did they find it?

A Good Mentor is Hard to Find: Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung & Christoper Vogler

Screenwriting, as proffered by the entertainment industrial complex, is necessarily formulaic and rigorously calculated down to what kind of action should occur by a specific page number. Practitioners are always on the lookout for credible blueprints upon which to model their efforts, but their unwitting man behind the curtain of consciousness this particular night was a serious scholar, not a script wizard. No Robert McKee, he. At $20 a seat, however, it seemed reasonable to at least expect some pointers.

“Film is like an artificial dream,” Galipeau announced in an early segue into his material, which elicited a chorus of haughty “Hmms” from the screenwriters. It was as if they each, individually felt it necessary to second the motion, to signal to the world that they were indeed “getting it.”

This annoyance occurred anytime Galipeau made even the slimmest connection as when he said “Leia is Luke’s anima projection, literally projected from R2D2,” which yielded a torrent of rapturous “Ahs” (as did the rather off-hand observation that Luke frequently gets knocked unconscious—hmm, unconscious).

By far Galipeau’s most vociferous enthusiast was an oafish, ear-cuff-clad, half-Orc who histrionically howled every time the scholar mentioned Harry Potter’s “he-who-must-not-be-named,” by name.

As the lecture carried on, the wannabes could be spied tugging their goatees and guardedly fishing each other’s eyes, whilst covetous glints flared behind their own wire-framed lenses. Greedily, they shielded their notes with yellow, globular fingers—lest their hastily scratched insights end up in a compatriot’s screenplay.

This was their sacred knowledge:
1.) All mentor figures have beards—unless they are puppets. Obi-Wan had a fleecy chin, ditto Gandalf and Dumbledore. Yoda, a puppet, is clean shaven.
2.) All short, green, puppet or computer-generated characters (see also Dobbie, Potter’s self-flagellating house elf, or ring-junkie Gollum) have terrible grammar and frequently refer to themselves in the third person. This last observation is not Galipeau’s, but appears true nevertheless.
3.) Hobbits is tricksy.

Screenwriting, now Quicker, Easier, More Seductive

Later, when Galipeau rolled out ye olde Jung chestnut “Dream the dream onward,” the aspirant screenwriters looked suddenly relieved. It was as if the notion was some sort of benediction, if not a pardon, like they took it to mean “there is but the one dream to rule them all”— or more specifically, there is “no need to re-invent the reel, steal to your heart’s content.”

Alas, no longer will one have to feel shame when outlining a screenplay straight from the table of contents to The Hero With a Thousand Faces. For that matter, one can wantonly throw Joseph Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythology aside and openly the how-to tome The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Its author, Christopher Vogler, is Campbell’s lesser, Hollywood shadow—a cross pitch of Campbell and ancient screenwriting guru Syd Field.

Vogler’s made-for-the-screen redux of Campbell’s magnificent book is essentially The Adventure Hero Cycle for Dummies, and is, as Yoda said of the Dark Side, “Quicker, easier, more seductive.”

Who can blame Vogler’s readers for wanting to take the shortest short-cut? So long as they don’t mistake the map for the journey, the road signs for the terrain, right? Perhaps they are the new alchemists, every misstep a new pathway in the unconscious as they stumble into psychic quarters beyond even those charted by Jung. In fact, maybe we should applaud their efforts, give their cause a hand. After all, Luke gave up a hand for his cause—or perhaps like Frodo, we should just give them the finger.

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