For decades I knew that the pattern for myth as described by Joseph Campbell in "Hero with a Thousand Faces" could serve as a road map for strong plots.
Campbell, whose influence is most obvious in the first Stars Wars movie in 1978 outlined the basic structure that goes into most myths, assuring a young writer (such as I was then) might have a solid base upon which to build a story.
While I did not religiously adhere to Campbell's structures, many of my better stories over the years used his model as a starting point.
It is a model so fixed in the human psyche, all good tales might adopt them without reading a word of Campbell or the numerous other literary critics who have studied the foundations of myth. Indeed, most of these patterns can be gleaned from the same sources Campbell used: traditional folk tales, great mythological epics and other writers.
How Spielberg came upon them -- consciously or not -- may be a mystery, although his close association with George Lucas may well have allowed him to draw from the wisdom of the still living Campbell in the 1970s when Spielberg's masterpieces began to appear on the silver screen. Campbell lived on the Lucas ranch and influenced the earliest Star Wars movies.
The myth pattern shows clearly in many of Spielberg's films especially Jaws, ET, Close Encounters, Jurassic Park -- and most surely, Poltergeist.
Although Spielberg plays with an assortment of symbolic patterns -- as some of my previous essays have hinted at and delved into religious and environmental themes, he appears to have used myth as the foundation for his better films.
Campbell in defining myth, distinguished it from fable or fairy tale -- a distinction Spielberg's films do not as clearly divine. Spielberg, in fact, often appears to dance on the edge of the two, giving even his most solemn tales a playful air found most often in fairy tales.
For Campbell, the fable had a very narrow focus. The hero's interests are totally personnel, such as the goal of Pinocchio, a puppet seeking to be a real boy. In a fable, the hero sets out to satisfy a personal quest, such as getting gold, winning a girl or achieving admiration, but with no great social impact. In most cases, stories of this kind -- which are full of car chases, gun battles, and the typical stuff we might find featured regularly on television -- the battle is physical -- shoot out in the streets, getting even with a neighborhood bully or dealing with a family quarrel over some slight.
For those of us anticipating Spielberg's news film, War of the World -- which has the potential for mythological proportions -- the distinction is important.
In myth, there is nothing trivial about the mission the hero is called to face. The hero acts on behalf of a tribe, a nation or even a whole world. Instead of overcoming some neighborhood bully, the city may take on a corrupt city official, an evil spirit holding other spirits hostage in her house or even invaders from space threatening to turn humanity into a blood bank.
In a fable or fairy tale, the hero takes on extraordinary powers with which to overcome an enemy. In Myth, the hero usually rushes into danger to bring back something essential for the moral survival of the tribe or nation -- such as the rescue of the girl in Poltergeist who has become the moral center of that tale the way the mathematician was in Jurassic Park (both of which we will delve into more deeply in later essays).
The most vivid example in contemporary fiction may be found in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Hobbit, the hero goes off, has adventures and comes back with a fortune in gold. Although he has faced great dangers and seen marvelous things, he alone of his tribe has benefited. The heroes in the Lord of the Rings, however, make a similar venture, but return with the tools they need to save their own village. Because Peter Jackson's eliminated the last segments in his film adaptation, he removed the vital element needed to elevate his tale to myth, condemning his marvelous movie to an elaborate fable. Most what we see in movies and TV fall into what Campbell calls the fable category.
For most of his films, Spielberg does not make the same mistake -- although in almost all of his better films, Spielberg plays with the distinction, using physical confrontation the way High Noon does, while also making a moral message. Through careful attention to detail, Spielberg attempts and often succeeds to elevate his films from fable to myth.
From the beginning, ET has the tone of a fairy tale, one is both playful and magical, then gradually become more and more earnest. Even Spielberg's clues are delightfully deceptive. While we can take the trail of Reece's Pieces that eventually lead ET back to Elliot (as well as the evil witches in the guise of scientists) as an allusion to Hansel and Gretel, might as easily see it as a allusion to the desperate trail of flowers left by Ceres when Pluto takes her to the Underworld. Spielberg -- as future essays will show -- has used elements of both the fairy tale in AI when the mother leaves the robot child in the woods and modeled poltergeist after the Ceres myth. Spielberg is always tricky, since he constantly plays off established expectation, having Elliot whistle for ET as if calling a dog, and ET purring like a cat.
Spielberg, however, is unambiguous in his Frankenstein-like message of Science out of control, having the girl child allude to the theme of the story when mother proposes to call in the dog catcher to deal with the still as yet undetermined creature in the shed.
"They'll experiment on it," she says, alluding to the film's critical scene that makes the message profoundly clear-- when Elliott frees the frogs. Yet as early as the opening scenes, Spielberg alludes to this progress gone wrong with something as simple as a single shot of a pickup truck's tail pipe spewing pollution. This accumulation of hints gradually elevate the tale to the level of myth, making his more than a personal conflict, but one that affects human and alien kind.
For me, Spielberg's genius is his ability to transform the ordinary fairy tale and take it to the next level, a fascinating process even when he doesn't completely succeed such as in AI.
This evolution from the personal to the greater public good resigns supreme in most Spielberg films and what separates his work from those what might imitate him. Close Encounters, ET, Poltergeist, Jaws and Jurassic Park all have this transition without the peachiness that we might find in other moral tales.
Close Encounters -- of which I've written previously and will beyond doubt write again-- is not so much about a group of outcasts, but of a heroic character, who becomes a mythological hero showing others the way to follow. This communications engineer -- who cannot even communicate with his family -- ironically communes with gods. He suddenly acquires the resourcefully to outwit the Army and the ability to lead others to the mountain.
While Spielberg appears not to have elevated a fairy tale in Close Encounters, he set about creating a myth in much the same way, building scene upon scene, using allusions to The Bible, cartoons and other media to shape his tale right from the beginning. In Jaws, he frequently used mythological elements to construct his own myth, making clear from the start that this was no mere fabulous tale of a single hero, but a life and death struggle of a community. So deeply seeped in traditional imagery, Spielberg could have hardly failed to elevate this tale. Where as Close Encounters has shades of the Promethean myth, Jaws drew on one of the most primitive of human myths, man's struggle with the sea -- and the three heroes that went to tame it did not do so for their own glory, but for the good of the community.
This aspect of the greater good is what separates Jurassic Park from its follow-up, Lost World, and why the second film seems so flat when compared with the first. In his alteration of the Mathematician's philosophy from the one depicted in the book, Spielberg created a prophet cautioning against the excesses of science in meddling into the domain of the gods. So that conflict became more significant than it might otherwise have been, embodying the whole of humanity. The same can be said for Poltergeist -- which is as close to a modern rendering of ancient myth as I have found in film.
Spielberg apparently is not unkind towards those like me that need to be hit over the head from time to time in order to see his meaning. In each of his better films, Spielberg provides us with one or more scenes that announce the elevation from ordinary tale to myth.
In ET, the scene with the frogs performed several functions, but one of them was to show the wider scope of the tale -- and how the actions of misguided science affected greater body than the select few associated with ET.
In Jurassic Park, the mathematician's speech put us on notice, telling us that the conflict the characters would face involved larger human issues than the mere personal ambitions of a few.
Close Encounters had many such scenes, but were summed up when the French scientists simply stated, "These people were invited."
In Poltergeist, the burial of a bird tells us we are viewing something that goes beyond the usual tale and defines a moral aspect to this story.
How Spielberg will elevate War of the Worlds to myth remains one of the mysteries we will only discover when the film finally arrives on the silver screen. How will the deeply personally troubled Ray Ferrier become transformed into a hero of humanity? Will there be a single scene that hits us over the head, or will Spielberg build towards that conclusion through a steady pattern of scenes?
We shall see.