Star Wars: The Force Awakens + The Hero's Journey

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
[IMPORTANT! This discussion includes SPOILERS!]


I've mentioned before that one of the things I really noticed about The Force Awakens wasn't simply that it was derivative in many (often positive) ways of the original trilogy - but also that, like the very first Star Wars film, the story was structured on The Hero's Journey.

Joseph Campbell came up with idea of distilling epic myths from around the world into a basic, common narrative framework. He called the result The Hero's Journey.

George Lucas was one of Campbell's students, and applied this idea for an epic structure to the first Star Wars film (often retrospectively referred to as A New Hope - technically it's proper title).

That's one why many people, after watching the original Star Wars, were left with the feeling that they'd seen a modern legendary myth, set in space - the story was specifically written to convey that impression.

(I'm not going to digress into how the previous Star Wars films relate to The Hero's Journey - the short answer is that they sometimes use elements, but not always successfully, and never as wholly as the first Star Wars film itself.)

[NOTE: Details of the Hero's Journey can be found here: hero's journey]

The key elements of The Hero's Journey are:

1. The Ordinary World - introducing the main character, their situation, and conflicts

2. The Call to Adventure - something happens (an Inciting Incident) that forces change and the leaving of the Ordinary World

3. Refusal of the Call - the hero tries to resist the Call to Adventure in some way

4. Meeting up with the Mentor - the hero meets a figure who will impart important knowledge to prepare for the adventure.

5. Crossing the Threshold - a point of no return to the Ordinary World

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies - often a number of incidents in themselves, which test the hero's abilities to successfully complete the adventure, not least through opposition and friendships

7. Approach - the previous develops in a specific big challenge to prepare for

8. The Ordeal - often a journey to a figurative underworld, this is where the hero confronts death

9. The Reward - the hero escapes the Ordeal with an important treasure

10. The Road Back - the hero must return the treasure to complete the adventure

11. The Resurrection - the hero is forged by a test of tests that resolves previous conflicts

12. Return with the Elixir - the hero returns with a key part of their treasure to complete the adventure

Note that these are elements, and they are not necessarily equal in scope or importance. For example, Refusal of the Call might only be a single line of dialogue in a story. Conversely, The Ordeal could be an extended sequence of many scenes.

The point isn't that each element must be used equally, as much as that applying these at least in part and together can make a story stronger - by bringing it closer to the structure of an archetypal epic.

Now let's look at how Star Wars 1 and & compare for The Hero's Journey.



So how did this apply to the original Star Wars film? The story there focused on Luke Skywalker, and this is my interpretation of his Hero's Journey:

1. The Ordinary World - Luke is introduced as a farm boy on the desert planet of Tatooine

2. The Call to Adventure - Luke buys the droids R2D2 and C3PO, and suddenly sets off the appeal for rescue by Princess Leia

3. Refusal of the Call - Uncle Owen insists that Luke stays for another season. Luke will also refuse Ben Kenobi's offer to train him as a Jedi.

4. Meeting up with the Mentor - Luke encounters Obi Wan Kenobi

5. Crossing the Threshold - The death of his adoptive parents means that Luke determines to join the Rebel Alliance and become a Jedi like his father

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies - Mos Eisley, the introduction of Han Solo and Chewbacca as allies, and escape from the space port.

7. Approach - Literally, the approach to the Death Star

8. The Ordeal - The Death Star is a literal underworld in that, if this was an actual moon, Luke and his allies would be deep under its surface

9. The Reward - Luke escapes the Death Star, with a heightened awareness of the Force provided by Ben Kenobi's sacrifice

10. The Road Back - Luke, with Leia and Han, brings the stolen Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance

11. The Resurrection - Luke joins in the attack on the Death Star, and through his new found abilities in the Force, is able to destroy it

12. Return with the Elixir - Luke has the potential to become a Jedi



So how does The Hero's Journey apply to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

Here the central character is Rey, who may or may not be Luke Skywalker's daughter. This is my interpretation of how her story arc fits The Hero's Journey:

1. The Ordinary World - Rey is introduced as a scavenger on the desert planet of Jakku

2. The Call to Adventure - the arrival of BB8 and Finn are followed by at attack on her home by First Order stormtroopers.

3. Refusal of the Call - Rey insists that she must return home to Jakku and wait for her family to return

4. Meeting up with the Mentor - the arrival of Han Solo

5. Crossing the Threshold - finding the lightsaber, and speaking with Maaz, revealing that Rey needs to look to the future and not the past

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies - Maaz's complex on the planet of Takodana, which actively mirrors the interior of the Cantina Bar on Mos Eisley in the first film, but sees the attack by the First Order, and counter-attack by the Resistance

7. Approach - Rey has been drip-fed information about the Force, but now faced with dark Jedi Kylo Ren, succumbs to him

8. The Ordeal - Inside the starkiller planet, another figurative underworld like the Death Star, Rey is interrogated by Kylo Ren

9. The Reward - Kylo Ren's use of the Force on Rey awakes her own latent abilities in it, which she uses to escape to safety

10. The Road Back - Rey manages to return to the company of Han and Finn

11. The Resurrection - After Finn is struck down, Rey is able to consciously tap into the Force to temporarily defeat Kylo Ren

12. Return with the Elixir - Now able to piece together the map at the centre of the quest, Rey returns the lightsaber to Luke Skywalker

Curiously, in both Star Wars and The Force Awakens, the Refusal of the Call is underlined the most after the Meeting up with the Mentor: Luke turns down Ben Kenobi's offer to return to his family; Rey asks Han Solo to return her to Jakku.
Is this in the right place now?

Anyway, very well observed. I'm pretty sure it was outright stated that the structure would mirror ANH (which also mirrored TPM), and I was a little disappointed with just how similar it was, but this is a great analysis from a thematic angle.

'Tests, Allies, and Enemies' is what I consider 'off to the big city' to start the adventure proper. It's where a new setting introduces new characters and new obstacles to be overcome, and I always see it as vital to keeping a story fresh once the audience is yay far in.

Haven't seen the movie yet but wondering how these elements which I have been reliably informed are in it, fit into the heroes journey.

1 When Luke finally admits to Darth that following some experimental time travel work and gender reassignment surgery he is in fact Vadar's Mother!

2 When Jar Jar Binks finally admits to the galaxy that he is in fact the supreme sith evil overlord and assumes the throne!

Cheers, Greg,
Oops! Reposted this to right forum.
Is this in the right place now?

Apologies, yes, I wasn't sure where the best place for this thread was at first. :)

In terms of additional events/symbols, I'm thinking of "Threshold Guardians" and similar elements. Additionally, I've seen the Hero's Journey broken down into additional elements:
Star Wars A new hope Hero’s journey

There's also an existing theory of the Heroine's Journey:
hero's journey

I'm not sure whether the Hero's Journey really needs separating into the masculine and feminine respectively, but it's certainly something for discussion. For example, does Rey's journey work better in the Joseph Campbell version, or the Maureen Murdock one?
I think you have made the case very strongly indeed Brian. ---- It also seems to me that this is the pattern that many, many of my favorite books follow.
Excellent analysis. (y)

I heard that George Lucas didn't have very much to do with The Force Awakens though. I heard that they rejected three of his own story ideas for the screenplay. The screenplay is credited to Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), JJ Abrams (Lost and Super 8) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story:3 and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.) George Lucas gets a credit for characters only. He probably could sue if they already hadn't paid him 4 billion dollars for LucasFilm.

According to IMdB although The Hidden Fortress (which also employs the Hero's Journey) was a major influence on A New Hope, his favorite film from Akira Kurosawa is Seven Samurai (a major influence on The Magnificent Seven, which also employs very formulaic story elements.)
But, for me, in a trilogy the hero's journey should be considered over the three stories, not just the one. I think when you do that with SW it becomes much stronger.
I'm not sure whether the Hero's Journey really needs separating into the masculine and feminine respectively, but it's certainly something for discussion.

It's strange that the heroine's journey you link to mentions separation from (and then reunion with) the feminine, but the hero's journey doesn't, as (from memory) Campbell says in his book that this is the basic purpose of male initiation and the underlying purpose of the hero's journey -- to separate from the childhood sphere of women, and then, through the quest, to rediscover that sphere as an adult male. From what I've read, it's almost always boys that undergo initiation rites in early societies, not girls, and this is partly because they are seen as needing to detach from one sphere and enter another -- from the female to the male, the world of the mother to the father -- while girls are not.

If you accept this underlying premise, then it makes sense as an initiatory tool that the hero's journey should be different from the heroine's, and I think it does make sense even in modern society: not because there's an inherent difference in roles or qualities, but because of a different route to adulthood.
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Reading through your outline of the Hero's Journey, I could see how it fitted the two films.
Not surprising they stuck to that successful arrangement, then?
I did enjoy the film a lot, as did my kids.. we just went with it & loved the alien planet-vistas & characters. I thought Rey was a character you could 'get behind' throughout the film. All in all, not a bad job & we loved the SFX.
Have you any thoughts on how they're approaching the next one? Will they follow the same formula as they used for TESB do you think? Or go off on a new tangent? It's clear the following is huge, the next film will be just as well supported, they could take a fresh direction..
My guess, --- The series now goes largely in a direction unknown, outside of the fact that there will continue to a battle between the dark side and the side of light.
I hope so Parson. This was the movie that the fans wanted and was always going to be derivative, but they have planted enough new seeds that they can, and should, explore new territory
My guess, --- The series now goes largely in a direction unknown, outside of the fact that there will continue to a battle between the dark side and the side of light.

I very much agree. IMO with The Force Awakens Disney specifically aimed for a film to bring the old fans back on board, while also aiming to appeal to new ones. I think now that Disney has our attention - and a degree of gratitude for doing so - they'll aim to strike new paths.

It's also worth noting that Disney are committed to six films, with one being a trilogy (The Force Awakens being the first in this), and three standalones - one of which takes place during the building of the original Death Star, another that may be about a young Han Solo, and I'm not sure of the third but I'm sure I've seen something about Yoda mentioned.

Either way, The Force Awakens might be accused of being rushed, but the other films have plenty of time to get into shape.
I didn't know about the standalone films, they could be interesting.

I understand the mechanics behind it all, but I still find it a little perplexing that to get the old fans on side again, the best they could do was to release a new skin on A New Hope. But i do agree now said fans are happier, that they might try some new stuff, so that the next installments won't be direct derivatives of episode 5 + 6, I'm looking forward to the new directions they can take the cast of interesting characters.
I'm reasonably convinced they'll continue to be derivative - I think it's clear where it's going already (I think mirroring is the key word...)

If the next standalone really is set during the building of the Death Star, then we're due for some Darth Vader screen time, and possibly the Emperor, too. That means plenty of opportunities for accusations of being derivative again - heck, the story itself could draw on Return of the Jedi in some way.

However, as the stand alone would be like an Episode 3.5, it would also provide a chance to better connect with the prequels. I know those films have their fans, and there must be some characters Disney can pull out of the hat to help bring those fans on board for an all round crowd-pleaser, which will again suffer from allegations of being too retro. I would imagine they have sense enough to avoid using Jar Jar Binks again, though. :)

However, whether they apply The Hero's Journey to any of the other films remains to be seen. Star Wars certainly isn't the only epic to use that formula - after all, Campbell distilled it from the existing literature. I haven't tried to apply it to any other Star Wars, so it would be interesting to see if any could make it work. :)
While I think you're probably right, and that the hero's journey is something that viewers/readers tend to enjoy, I'm not sure that it really helps very much apart from to show how similar the two films are. I think we can get a bit TV Tropes with this. I also find the hero's journey very loose, and some of the heroine's journey I just don't understand at all. I'm not saying that you're wrong at all, just that the hero's journey doesn't help me much as a structure.

Personally, I think Star Wars has got itself into a bit of a rut in terms of the villains and what happens to them. There is always a master and an apprentice, but why? It is disappointing to think that the Emperor, who seemed like Satan when I first watched Return, was actually just some bloke, corrupted in a (perhaps realistic, but dull) cycle of Sith abuse. Like Pinhead from Hellraiser, the less explanation, the better. Once a villain has been tempted and failed, and tempted and succeeded, I'm not sure how many more variations there can be on the theme. Someone once pointed out that it's lovely for an arch-villain like Vader to change and seek redemption, but what about the planets he destroyed? Is there a Spandau Prison that he would be sent to?

Also, the Jedi seem a bit duller and more feeble the more Star Wars I see. Their wisdom feels more and more New Age and less actually wise. You can see why people join the dark side, when the light is so insipid. It's like a pop-culture version of Zen. I know this is the wrong interpretation, but it feels as if anyone with any real enthusiasm or fire to them is written off as "headstrong", as if it's something to be grown out of. While I'd like to be able to do Jedi stuff, I wouldn't want to be one of them. It would be terribly dull.

So I hope that they do go off in a new direction. I hope that it isn't a Firefly-light story about rogues in space, with endless cantinas and wacky crime lords, but I do think that there is a limit to the number of times I can see a duel with laser swords. I've not reached that limit, but I know it's there.
I haven't tried to apply it to any other Star Wars, so it would be interesting to see if any could make it work. :)
It's nowhere near as clear cut as A New Hope, but I'll pitch a possible version for The Empire Strikes Back:

1. The Ordinary World - Luke is on Hoth

2. The Call to Adventure - Ben calls Luke to Dagobah.

3. Refusal of the Call - Instead of immediately leaving, Luke decides to stay on Hoth and help his friends evacuate.

4. Meeting up with the Mentor - Luke meets Yoda

5. Crossing the Threshold - Just as it looks as if Luke's blown his chances, Ben turns up to change Yoda's mind, and Luke dedicates himself to becoming a Jedi.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies - Training with Yoda, whilst Han et al are dodging Asteroids.

7. Approach - The cave that Luke goes into on Dagobah

8. The Ordeal - Inside, Luke finds Vader and on killing him, sees his own face

9. The Reward - Luke has a vision of Han, Leia and Chewie in danger

10. The Road Back - Luke goes to Bespin, to find them

11. The Resurrection - Vader's back - and this time, he wins.

12. Return with the Elixir - Luke now knows who his father is.

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