It’s the common thread woven throughout all storytelling. A lens that can be applied to any film or work of literature where each story will look the same. This arc of character and plot development is called the hero’s journey, and it’s everywhere.
In part one of this series, we learned what the hero’s journey is and the steps a character must take in order to fulfill their quest. We also learned that this story arc is relatable to us because our lives follow a similar pattern. If you still aren’t convinced that the hero’s journey permeates the fictional world, here are five great examples of a hero’s journey from different classics.
Spoiler Alert: If you are unfamiliar with any of these books or movies, skip them! We discuss the entirety of the story, including the end.
Examples of a Hero’s Journey in Five Stories
This 2009 sci-fi blockbuster became the top-grossing film of all time just 47 days after it premiered. Its success is largely due to the incredible Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) characters and visual effects that are vibrantly convincing. Underlying messages and morals such as the importance of a peoples’ culture and land conservation accompany the film. While all of these elements play a role in the resounding praise of this film, there’s another reason people loved the film: the main character followed a typical hero’s journey.
Jake Sully starts out as a paraplegic former Marine. He is chosen to be a bodyguard for a research team on a search for a new energy source on the planet Pandora. While on their mission, Sully meets Neytiri, a native of Pandora, and is quickly accepted by her and her people. Sully is then faced with the moral choice to continue his work with the team he came with, and thus destroy the sacred native land, or join the native tribes and fight back against his own people. In the end, he helps save the land and its people and makes a permanent transition from his human body to the able-bodied avatar.
Sully’s time on Pandora is the perfect example of a hero’s journey:
- Separation: He is called to his adventure as a bodyguard, separating himself from his otherwise ordinary life
- Initiation: The initiation stage involves his meeting Neytiri and his introduction to her native tribe, and his moral dilemma of helping the natives of Pandora or staying with his team
- Return: His return is marked by the triumph of the natives. He returns to the tribe, physically changed from a human to one of their own, and mentally a new being with a new purpose
2. Marvel’s Spiderman
Another dominating movie franchise is Marvel’s The Avengers and the superhero spin-offs that it consists of. The movies have been a force to be reckoned with in the box office. However, each character had their start as a part of a comic book. Perhaps one of the most classic of this comic-book-hero-turned-movie-star is Spiderman.
The most recent adaptation of this beloved character is in the Marvel Avenger movies and the spin-off hits. In case there is any question that he is a hero, here is his journey in three steps:
- Separation: After the iconic spider bite, Peter Parker discovers his spider-like powers, prompting his new superhero life. He needs to adapt to life as a teenager with superpowers and fight crime at the same time
- Initiation: Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man) and the other Avenger superheroes recruit him to help them in their battle against their extraterrestrial enemies
- Return: In the end, Spiderman returns as Peter Parker to his normal high school life, but is changed by the knowledge of his bigger responsibility as a superhero
Marvel’s Avenger version of Spiderman follows the classic hero’s journey, but we can see a major emphasis on the introduction of a mentor throughout Parker’s adventure. Iron Man serves as a father-like figure and helps Parker not only navigate his newfound superpowers but also how to harness them and use them for good.
3. The Wizard of Oz
A beloved novel-turned-film story that includes wicked witches, ruby slippers, and flying monkeys. This film is known for its brilliant use of color to separate real life from the fantasy world of Oz, as well as its iconic song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Dorothy’s journey, however, is different from other examples of a hero’s journey because she is a woman. (In part one we learned about the difference between a hero and heroine’s journey, and Dorothy’s yellow-brick-road path embodies a classic example.)
- Separation: After the twister drops her house in the magical land of Oz, and coincidentally on top of the Wicked Witch of the East, all Dorothy wants is to return home to Kansas
- Initiation: On her adventure, she meets three iconic friends, the scarecrow, the tin man, and the lion. They ultimately help her defeat her enemy, the Wicked Witch of the West and find the Emerald City
- Return: Dorothy returns home to her family in Kansas only to realize she’s been on an incredible independent adventure
Like Spiderman, Dorothy also has a mentor: Glenda. She advises Dorothy to seek the Wizard of Oz at the end of the yellow brick road.
The key to a heroine’s journey is overcoming society’s expectations of women. Dorothy does this several times throughout the film, like when she longs for adventure when the expectation is that she lives on her family’s farm. Or the expectation that her new, male friends will help her when she ultimately helps them. Finally, when Dorothy returns home on her own, proving she doesn’t need to rely on her uncles or anyone else to get what she wants.
The other stages of Dorothy’s quest make it one of the many examples of a hero’s journey, but it is this power that she finds as a woman that distinguishes her as a heroine.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird
This Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is at once a coming-of-age story and an attack of racism in the depression-ridden South. The main character and heroine, Scout Finch, grows up conflicted between how she feels and how other people think she should feel.
- Separation: When Atticus, Scout’s father, and a prominent lawyer, agrees to defend a black man in court, the implications are felt by the entire family. The two kids are alienated at school for their father’s decision
- Initiation: Their initiation stage takes up the bulk of the story. Atticus remains a prominent mentor to Scout and her conflicted societal views. The elusive Boo Radley remains a friend and helper although never showing his face. The conflict of this novel is woven throughout the story. Scout struggles to understand the racial views of those around her. There is also major discontent from the Maycomb townspeople surrounding Atticus’s decision to defend a black man
- Return: In the end, Scout finally puts a face to the name when Boo Radley saves her and her brother from a man who disapproved of their father’s case in court. She also realizes that regardless of what other people think, it’s better to do the right thing than cave into societal pressures
Scout can be seen as a heroine on her journey because she defies the expectations of her as a young girl. She also disregards what society thinks of her interactions with black people. She sees no problem with her father defending a black man in court. Although she can feel the discontent from those around her, Scout understands that a person deserves equal treatment despite their race, and she spends most of the novel making that point.
Disney characters and movies follow the hero’s journey.
- Separation: Aladdin lives as a poor “street-rat” until he fatefully meets the Genie in the Cave of Wonders. With the Genie’s help, Aladdin is transformed from poor bread-stealer to Prince Ali in order to win the heart of Princess Jasmine
- Initiation: Aladdin is confronted with not only Jafar, the hand to the Sultan but also the moral struggle of living a lie in order to impress the person he loves
- Return: In the end, Aladdin realizes no magical genie power can truly give him what he wants. After defeating Jafar, he admits to lying about who he is and why he felt he needed to be someone he wasn’t
The emphasis of the return in Aladdin’s hero journey is what is important. He met the Genie and was pushed into this magical adventure as Prince Ali. With the Genie at his side as his mentor, he is able to defeat Jafar, but he realizes the Genie can’t help him with everything. The lesson Aladdin learns about being himself in order to get what he wants is important. It proves that he has had what he needed all along—that is all he will ever need.
The Moral of the Story
From comic books to blockbusters, Pulitzer-Prize novels to classic films, these works have seen varying levels of success. Some were the biggest movies of all time and some were classic novels that are still read generations later. Despite the details in each piece, all of these stories follow the same narrative archetype—the arc of the hero’s journey.
These examples of a hero’s journey are five of many, but they are also proof that this story arc can be applied to any piece of film or literature. I encourage you to apply this arc to any and all of your favorite stories—including your own life.