Archive for the ‘hero’s journey’ Category

How The Lion King Got the Hero’s Journey Treatment: Thanks to Synchronicity and Some Help from a Plagiarist

August 7, 2019

Rafiki Simba Sunbeam

One of the joys of my professional life is that I had a chance to influence the original version of Disney’s The Lion King, and I have a plagiarist to thank for it.

It was 1992 and I had been working in the story department of Walt Disney Studios, primarily on the live action side, with little involvement with the separate, closed-off world of animation.  I had developed a reputation as a guy with broad general knowledge and a talent for ferreting out good story ideas from folklore and history.  Unknown to my bosses, I was working out the secret code for generating movie stories, believing I had found it in the “Hero’s Journey” pattern of myth and folktales identified by writer Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I had discovered Campbell in film school at the same time the first Star Wars movie came out, and was convinced his myth-flavored memes had something to with the galactic cultural impact of the franchise.  As I entered the film business as a script reader, I found Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” concept a reliable tool for analyzing and troubleshooting contemporary movie stories as well as epic fantasies.

After working at Disney for some time, I set down my translation of Campbell’s ideas into the language of filmmaking, writing it up in the style of the corporate memos that were popular at the time and calling it A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces, a seven-page statement of the essential operations that create an effective story.

I distributed copies to my fellow script readers and a few executives at Disney but got little response.  One executive thought The Hero with a Thousand Faces was a novel I was trying to set up as a Disney movie project.

But before long, the corporate rumor mill buzzed with the news that the studio’s chief of production, Jeffrey Katzenberg, had come across a copy of my memo and recommended it at a meeting of top executives.  However, according to friends of mine who were in the room, the credit went to a mid-level exec who had plagiarized it by removing my cover sheet and submitting it under his name.

Katzenberg was excited about the memo.  By coincidence or synchronicity, he had encountered Campbell’s ideas at around the same time and thought my memo was a cogent restatement of his complex theory.  Boiled down to twelve bullet point operations, my spin on the Hero’s Journey was accessible to screenwriters and useful as a guideline for many of the studio’s projects, especially his baby under development over in Animation, then called King of the Jungle, but soon to become The Lion King.

As soon as I heard that Katzenberg was encouraging his execs and writers to pay heed to the memo’s message, I wrote him a letter, claiming authorship and asking for more involvement in the studio’s story-making process.  This was a bold and risky move, jumping over many levels in the chain of command and penetrating the sacred veil of the inner circle of power, which was as forbidding as the disembodied head of Oz the Great and Powerful.  To my amazement, he called me as soon as he received the letter, and told me there was a place for me in the recently-revived animation department.  They were on a roll after the success of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin and excitement was high over the next major project, Pocahontas.  But I was sent to work with the group developing King of the Jungle, considered to be the B team, with more modest expectations.

I wasn’t sure how far my Practical Guide memo had penetrated into corporate culture and was pretty sure I would have to do a job of salesmanship to explain the virtues of my way of conceiving a story, but this turned out to be unnecessary.  I could see as soon as I walked in that they had already digested The Memo, for there, on an official Disney Animation corkboard, was pinned the entire storyboard for King of the Jungle, with the twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey clearly marked as signposts.

I later learned Katzenberg himself had urged that his writers, directors and top animators read The Memo which seemed in his mind to be a good match for the needs of this story.  According to studio legend, the story that became The Lion King had a personal element for Katzenberg, reflecting in some way the deep emotions he remembered from a fateful moment in his own coming of age.  Of course, the script also drew on other sources, including Disney’s classic Bambi, a bit of King Arthur and even Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I was summoned to a presentation of King of the Jungle’s story board, acted out in the grand Disney tradition by directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff who took on the parts of all the characters while they referred to preliminary drawings pinned to long corkboards.  In the audience were some story consultants like myself, the writers and department heads and some Disney old-timers called in for their reactions.  The production was already pretty far along, with some scenes roughly animated and a few fully animated and colored, including the spectacular opening number, The Circle of Life.

When Allers and Minkoff finished their lively presentation, I joined in the discussion, making a few suggestions that seemed in the spirit of why I was there – to lend some mythic dimension to the story of the young lion king.  Although I feared it was too late to make changes to the beautifully animated Circle of Life number, I made a couple of suggestions that were taken to heart and found their way into the finished film.

Most of my notes involved the character of Rafiki the baboon who serves as a kind of comical Zen master and occasional life coach for young Simba.  At that point he was ill-defined as a mythic Mentor, failing to perform the essential functions of that archetype.  I thought of a couple of touches that would enhance his almost religious aura: anointing the infant Simba’s forehead to mark him as a chosen one, and having a shaft of sunlight shoot out of the parting clouds just as Rafiki holds up the baby to show the adoring animals, creating a sort of stained-glass window effect and giving the ceremony an endorsement from nature.  One of the directors, Rob Minkoff, thought it over and said yes, Rafiki already was carrying some mysterious gourds and maybe he could crack one open to anoint the cub’s forehead with its juice.  The shaft of sunlight idea met with general agreement – in fact there was a kind of spark of excitement in the room — and I spotted some of the animators sketching the scene on their drawing pads.  In the finished film, the shaft of light is timed perfectly to coincide with the climax in the musical composition, and the effect is quite dramatic.

It’s hard to say who is responsible for an idea in a film, especially in animation where hundreds of people are commenting, critiquing and trying out different solutions.  I may have been the first, the fifth, or the twenty-fifth to suggest something, but every opinion has weight, and even if you are chiming in after someone else expressed an idea, you are helping to influence the group’s ultimate sense of what’s right for the story.

I was happiest when the team took one of my notes and ran with it, usually transforming it into something excitingly different from what I could have imagined.  At one point I was asked to do a Hero’s Journey analysis of Hamlet since that was in the back of everyone’s minds in the conflict between Simba and his usurping uncle Scar.  I was also tasked to provide the writers with a list of the best-known lines from Hamlet, and they turned these into clever parodies of Shakespeare, with Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” becoming “Alas, poor wildebeest, I chewed him well.”  The choice of Jeremy Irons as the sardonic voice of Scar went a long way to giving his character a Shakespearian flavor.

Other touches that I thought would add some mythic resonance:  Feeling that Rafiki and Simba dropped out of contact for too long in the second act, I recommended that Rafiki should use his mystical powers to track down Simba and continue his training.  This was effectively translated into the visual language of animation with a scene of Rafiki sadly smearing a cave drawing of Simba because he fears the cub must be dead.  Then, in a later scene after Simba has transitioned into adulthood, Rafiki senses that Simba is still alive and adds an adult lion’s mane to the drawing before setting out to find him.

I also felt that Scar’s self-centered, cruel leadership should result in visible harm to society and the environment.  This was realized in the film by brief transitional shots that showed plants withering and waterholes drying up.  The idea survived into Julie Taymore’s theatrical version of The Lion King, where the effect was achieved by brilliantly simple stagecraft.  At the beginning of the second act, the lights come up on an empty stage, covered with a circular piece of blue silk fabric that represents a watering hole.  Then, it is slowly pulled from the center down into a small hole drilled into the stage floor, so that the waterhole seems to dry up before our eyes.  I got the shivers when I saw it.  The simple bit of stage magic was more powerful than the fanciest, most expensive movie special effects that you could imagine.

When I saw the fully-animated final version of The Lion King, it was clear that the directors, writers and artists had done their best to give the story some of the majesty and timeless quality of myth.  They confidently steered the story in the Hero’s Journey direction at the end of the second act, when Rafiki finds Simba and leads him on a vision quest to meet the spirit of his father.  Rafiki is at his best here as a wise-cracking Yoda-like teacher who issues knocks on the head along with pearls of wisdom.  The scene is another connection to Hamlet, mirroring a scene where young Hamlet confronts the ghost of his father, who urges him to confront the uncle who murdered him.

There was a lot of suspense around the release of The Lion King.  We all liked it but had no idea how it would play for an audience that didn’t already know the story.  Disney had been on a roll with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin all scoring solid hits.  Some wondered if The Lion King, an original story not based on a well-known fairy tale or children’s book, would fail to top them.  To everyone’s relief, it surpassed them all, becoming the most successful animated film ever, and for a while, the most profitable motion picture in history.  Why?  Mainly because people were enchanted by the talents of the animation team, the gorgeous renderings of the animals, the earthy, Broadway-influenced comedy of Timon and Puumba and the exuberant, African-themed music.  But there was also a secret sauce, the Hero’s Journey patterns that resonated for audiences in every culture around the globe.  The challenge of growing up and claiming your rightful place in the world is a classic Hero’s Journey motif that struck something deep in many people.  The familiar stages of the hero myth were not the only principles guiding The Lion King; some of Walt’s own heart and way of thinking steered the ship along with the team’s good instincts for comedy and a wonderful sense of fun.  But the Hero’s Journey definitely played its part and I can say that this is one case where it was applied consciously to make the work more accessible to a broad audience and give it a sense of magic and the powerful, primal rhythms of life.

To complete the story, people want to know what happened to the plagiarist.  I have forgotten his name; I don’t hold a grudge and in fact I thank him, because without the irritation of having my work stolen and presented at the highest levels of the company, I might never have had the chance to make my modest contribution to The Lion King.  Many people knew about his plagiarism and he might have endured slight damage to his reputation, but I doubt it.  At the time, I offered this prayer I learned from an old screenwriter, a veteran of Warner Bros. glory days: “O Lord, may they get exactly what they deserve as soon as possible.”

My memo lived on, spreading virally all over Hollywood by the primitive means of fax and copier, becoming part of Hollywood lore and eventually becoming the cornerstone of my book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, about to be re-published with a 25th anniversary edition by Michael Wiese Productions.



Hero’s Journey Short Form

February 24, 2011

I just got an email from a graduate student wondering how the 12-stage outline of the Hero’s Journey I describe in “The Writer’s Journey” might be shortened for commercials or short-form Web content.  The question about a streamlined version of the narrative comes up often, in regard to short films as well as Web content and games.   I’m of the opinion that we have so many ways of communicating the stages of the human journey in short-hand images, and the audience is so quick at picking them up, that we really don’t need to omit anything, but I can see the value of stripping the experience down to its absolute essence.  So here is my most streamlined version, aimed at preserving the essential experience of the Hero’s Journey, some suspense about the outcome and a little bit of challenge and growth for the hero.

1. The Ordinary World can be communicated efficiently in a single image.  The backstory of the hero can be assumed based on what we see about his/her appearance, behavior, social status, etc.

2. The Call to Adventure, IMHO, is essential.  The audience needs to know there is something at stake, something happening that the hero must react to.

3. Refusal is useful to establish fear, suspense, and to tell you something about the hero, but it’s not strictly necessary.  So cut that from your abbreviated Hero’s Journey.  Or, acknowledge it quickly and efficiently, with a single look of doubt on the hero’s face, quickly overcome.

4. Meeting the Mentor, again, is useful but not necessary.  It can be implied by the hero’s belief system, indicated with a glance at some talisman or symbolic object that suggests the hero’s source of inspiration, or it can just be left out altogether.

5. Crossing the Threshold is fairly important, signalling that the hero is now committed to the adventure.  But in a really compressed version, you could just skip this step and the next two (Tests/Allies/Enemies and Approach), and cut directly to the Ordeal.  As with all the steps, there is a quick short-hand way to represent this movement — the hero simply crosses a bridge, goes up a flight of steps, enters a new room.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies allows the hero and audience time to marvel at the new world and to build personal connections.  In the short form, the hero may simply glance at the wonders of the new world and move on directly to the ordeal.

7. Approach is used to deepen character and relationships, create suspense and give the heroes time to bond and prepare for the Ordeal.  None of this may be necessary in the super-short form.

8. Ordeal is absolutely essential.  There’s no story without it.  Ideally this should be a difficult test that threatens the hero’s life or sense of self, and that makes the audience think the hero has died or failed.

9. Reward is also vital to our sense of a story.  There must be some consequence for the hero’s action.  THE STORY CAN END HERE.  This is acknowledged in the fairy tale theory of story construction offered by Vladimir Propp.  (I write about this in a chapter in my new book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.)  Sometimes the hero just kills the dragon and claims the princess, and that’s that.  If you take the off-ramp at this point, the Reward takes on some of the qualities of the Return with the Elixir, summing up the theme of the story and giving the audience a moral viewpoint on what happened.

10.  But many stories extend the narrative and create suspense about the final outcome.  That’s the job of THE ROAD BACK, where some new development or challenge arises, or where the hero has to summon willpower to finish the job despite further resistance.  (In Propp’s sample of 103 Russian fairy tales, many of them continue at this point with episodes describing the hero’s journey to the court of the king and his efforts to claim his reward.)  The Road Back is not strictly necessary to fulfill the contract of the Hero’s Journey, but it’s amazing how it asserts itself even in the shortest versions of the narrative.  Often it’s expressed as a chase scene, with the hero fleeing from or chasing villains, and we only need one shot of the hero running to get all the benefits of this step.

11.  Even in the short form, there is room for a Resurrection, a second visit to the death-and-rebirth territory of the Ordeal.  For example, the hero might seem to fail at the Ordeal, quickly learn his lesson, and come back for a second match with the opponent, at which he may seem to die and be reborn all over again.

12.  Return with the Elixir is the audience’s takeaway, and in a highly-compressed narrative could be a freeze-frame ending or a little visual treat that sends the audience away laughing or nodding in recognition.  Or you pop in a surprise image that shocks the audience or suggests a future development.

SO…the absolute bare minimum, I would venture, is

1. an implied Ordinary World,

2. an efficient Call to Adventure,

3. a distinct Threshold Crossing,

4. a death-and-rebirth Ordeal(or Resurrection)  and

5. a Reward (or Return with the Elixir).

In reality, almost always the other pieces are either implied or present in truncated form, and the audience will labor mightily to fill in any blanks you leave.  For example, the audience will fill in a wild night of partying if you just show a teenager sneaking into the house at 4 in the morning.

Hope that clarifies.  The ancient world believed firmly that a single image, a statue or a vase painting, could convey the whole drama of a great story, so we have permission to cut this sucker to the bone.

The 48-hour Sunday

September 1, 2010

Again I say, very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.


This weekend I had one of those impossibly long days, a forty-eight-hour Sunday, caused by flying back to L.A. after a trip to lecture in New Zealand.  We crossed the International Date Line somewhere around midnight Sunday, automatically re-setting the clock to midnight Saturday and starting Sunday all over again.  Of course I wasn’t really gaining anything — just getting back the day I’d lost when I crossed the Date Line from East to West, ten days before.

I travel quite a lot these days, or at least this is a busy season after a couple of years of not much travel because of the world recession.  I’m beginning to think that there is an element of time travel in flinging your body thousands of miles at three hundred miles per hour, five miles up in the sky.  I notice that though all air travel is damaging to the body, it   feels  a bit easier, a little less stressful, to travel from West to East as I did on the return flight, because you are traveling in the same direction as the rotation of the Earth.  You go where the Earth is going, you just get there a little faster.  That’s not too hard on the human frame, just accelerating your movement through time a bit.

But in the other direction, flying fast from East to West, you are traveling against the rotation of the earth.  In effect you are going backward in time, against the flow of the time stream, and that seems to be much more punishing on the body.  The outward-bound flight from L. A. to Auckland was noticeably harder to recover from than the homeward-bound flight.

Jet lag aside, the trip to New Zealand was great fun and very eye-opening.  First it must be said, New Zealanders are nice.  Also thoughtful, considerate, helpful, compassionate, reasonable, and responsible, but primarily nice, and all the rest seems to stem from that.  They reminded me of the people of Portugal, who were also open to human interaction in a way that I don’t see or experience very often in Los Angeles, where people are more guarded.  It was refreshing to feel this openness in both countries, and I think it has changed me and how I deal with other people.  I like it.

Kiwis are also smart people, at least the ones I met.  I had good crowds full of intelligent people at both my events.  The first weekend I was in Auckland to give a one-day workshop on Friday sponsored by the Romance Writers of New Zealand, a lively and whip-smart group made up mostly of women, as you might expect.  I have always had a romance going for the romance writers and I hope I make their hearts throb a little.  They were the first audience to really “get” me and my act, and they took the ball and ran with it, creating their own heroine’s journey templates to craft more intricate, realistic and emotional plots.  The Kiwi romance writers gave me another hour on Saturday to talk about “the power of inspiration” and I Mused about how Memory is the mother of the Muses in Greek mythology, and how writers have to cultivate and harvest from their memory banks.  I finished with a version of my “Trust the Path” story that always chokes me up.

I had an interesting discussion with one of New Zealand’s most successful romance writers, Stephanie Laurens, about how certain things we write, the best things, have the power to make us feel the same emotion every time we read them.  The same is true in the movie editing room.  Sometimes you get the right combination of music and image, the right catharsis from an actor, the right punchline for a joke, and it works on you every time, making you cry or laugh, giving you a shiver down the back, even after viewing it dozens of times.  That’s a “keeper”, a bit you know will have to be in the book or the movie.

A lot of advance work had been done for this trip by the able organizers of my events, and so there was a lot of “press”, meaning I got interviewed about seven times for various media.  The process opened my eyes a bit about how things you say in interviews and on your blog are seized upon, condensed and interpreted by future interviewers.

I noticed that anything negative or critical I had said, or anything negative an interviewer had said, was picked up and passed on by subsequent interviewers.  In a print interview for an Auckland newspaper a couple of weeks before the events, I had complained about some changes that were made in translating parts of  Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series into the film directed by Peter Weir.  From that point on, interviewers reading up on me assumed that I hated the movie and tended to throw me questions like “You really hated “Master and Commander”, didn’t you?”

In fact I loved the movie, saw it several times, and will see it again with great pleasure.  No one loves the underlying material more than I do — I have read my way through the 20 novels in the series three times over and am embarking on my fourth voyage of adventure.  Fans of a literary series like M & C or Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings are notoriously fussy and protective, and always find things to be disgruntled about in the film adaptations.  I was bemoaning the loss of some levels in the movie version — the fact that in the world of the books,  the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin, is not only a doctor and a naturalist, but also a valuable intelligence agent, the fact that he is not only Irish but Catalan, the fact that a formidable American opponent was changed to a French enemy in the film.  But I know, as someone who has worked in movie development and has assisted in adapting many novels to the screen, something is always lost in translation.

In another instance of the media’s tendency to repeat itself, especially when negativity is involved, one of my radio interviewers picked up on the initial print interviewer’s dismissal of one of my keystone movie examples, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, as a not particularly good film.  I hope people didn’t think I agree with him.  I like that movie, was very moved by it at the time, and referred to it often as a structural and emotional model when writing development notes on other projects when I was working for Disney and Fox studios.

My swipe in this blog at one little part of “Julie and Julia” was also noticed and reanimated by one of the Kiwi interviewers.  There’s another movie I liked and enjoyed, and I was only noting one element that didn’t quite work for me.  To be fair, the same interviewer also picked up on my ecstatic and unaccountably tearful reaction to “Mamma Mia!” and encouraged me to talk about the positive experience I’d had.

Now that I know how the media machinery works, I will be more conscious when commenting on movies and books.  I suppose one can manipulate the press — by tossing out a few negative comments about something, you can almost guarantee it will be brought up by future interviewers and article writers.

After being treated very nicely by the Romance Writers in Auckland, I took off for a few days and drove the gentle, hilly length of New Zealand’s North Island, taking five days to reach Wellington at the island’s southern tip.  Along the way I sampled the wineries, marveled at geothermal vents, and struggled with driving on what to me is the wrong side of the road.  I made a quick stop at a fascinating replica of Stonehenge that’s been plunked down in a sheep field, a project of local astronomy buffs to create a working Southern hemisphere version of the monument, accurately predicting solstice sunrises and other cosmic events.

In Wellington, a bustling, hilly city on a bay,  reminding me of San Francisco, I did a one-day workshop for a local film initiative, Script to Screen.  The audience were a mix of seasoned professionals and students, many from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Wellington’s Victoria University.

The Saturday event for Script to Screen was held in a very special place, Sir Peter Jackson’s post-production facility known as Park Road (because it’s on a street called Park Road).  It’s housed in an impressive-looking building that could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  My lecture was delivered in a beautiful theatre in the complex, supposedly an exact copy of an old San Francisco movie palace.  It was certainly lush and fantastic, done up in romanticized Moorish style with gilded mythological figures and touches of Alhambra-esque architecture.  The ceiling twinkled with fiber-optic stars, representing the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere.

I had a good response from the Wellington audience and was able to explore some of the more sophisticated aspects of the hero’s journey, such as the tragic option, in which the hero fails to learn his or her lesson or slides back into unhealthy behavior after a brief victory.

I held a four-hour workshop with the students from Victoria University on Sunday, a real highlight of my trip, arranged by their professor, David Geary.  The students were very bright and seemed hopeful about the world of storytelling they are entering.

Now I’m back on the ground in LA, prepping for the next trip — to London for the Raindance seminar.

Sept. 11-12, 2010 Workshop in London

September 1, 2010

Very soon (September 11 and 12) I will be in London to present a 2-day Writer’s Journey Master Class hosted by Raindance:

If you’re within reach of London, as are many of my friends and fans in Europe, please come and hear my latest thoughts about 3-D, polarity as an engine of story construction, techniques for building characters, and many other treats sampled from my upcoming book, MEMO FROM THE STORY DEPARTMENT.  I’ll also present my templates for story design and character building, drawn from the hero’s journey in myth and movies.