Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Hero Project #5: So What Is A Hero Anyway?

So you may have noticed that I’ve spent the whole week shifting around my definition of what a hero is, but I can’t ever nail it down. But the one thing that everybody seems to agree on is that it should be nailed down. Because of the bias towards sole protagonists, writing advice frequently contains variations of the one true way to determine who we’re really rooting for.

But does the one true hero exist? Let’s look at one of my favorite Hollywood blockbusters of the last decade: Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. Who’s the protagonist? I usually assume that the protagonist is the one who changes the most, the one who has the longest inner journey. That’s clearly Orlando Bloom’s character. He goes from hating pirates with a passion to declaring himself a pirate.

But Todd Alcott recently did a fantastic four-part analysis of this screenplay over at his blog. He declares that Keira Knightley’s character is the sole protagonist. She’s certainly the POV character for the opening scenes and her desire to be a pirate sets the whole story in motion. The movie is her wish fulfillment fantasy.

Of course, Johnny Depp is the one we like the most, and the movie does end on him getting what he wants, so maybe it’s him. After all, he’s the only one they bothered to re-hire for the fourth movie that’s currently in production…

But wait, on his own advice blog, John August recently declared that the protagonist is always the person who suffers the most. Well then it’s Geoffrey Rush! Actually, that makes a lot of sense: the other three are pursuing pleasure (Elizabeth and Jack want to go to sea, Will wants Elizabeth). Rush on the other hand is trying to make amends for his past, lift an evil curse, and save his whole crew, all while suffering horrible torments. Now that’s a hero’s journey!

So maybe there isn’t any one-size-fits-all definition? Next week, I’ll finally arrive at the point of all this: The Nine Types of Heroes!


christinembird said...

Some old questions in American lit:

Who is the hero of The Great Gatsby: Nick or Gatsby?

Who is the hero of Moby Dick: Ahab or Ishmael?

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M Kobs said...

The protagonist is the one who changes the most? ...or the one who suffers the most?

Who is the protagonist in Mary Poppins? ...or Silence of the lambs?

I prefer the definition of James N. Frey: "The term protagonist is not a moral term; it's a literary structural term and refers to a character who takes the lead in a cause or action."

Jack is the protagonist and do not change like Mary Poppins or James Bond.

And Jack is also the hero (a moral term). Right, the core of his intentions is selfish. He want's to get the Black Pearl back. But most of the time he makes detours because he self-sacrifices for others: saves the life of Elizabeth, helps Will to find her and finally he did both to help himself. He needs to be a selfish anti-hero in order to get the Black Pearl back but he acts most of the time like a (selfless) hero - that's his biggest problem.
He neither changes (like other comedy heros) nor gains new skills and he already has the magic compass.
Barbossa - the villain and antagonist - (who has stolen the Black Pearl) do not want to save his whole crew. He wants to kill Elizabeth for her blood. He shoots at one of his crew members just to see if he is alive again. Even Barbossa neither changes his 100% selfish character nor gains new skills.
Both - protagonist and antagonist - have all the skills needed prior to the FADE IN: They are clever and resourceful like every hero and villain should be.

A word about The Fugitive: The intention of the scene before his wife is killed wasn't to demonstrate some skills he may need but it shows three things:
1) he loves his wife
2) he selfless drives to the hospital
3) his name in the 911 call is misleading
We get a huge injustice and therefore a strong identification.
This hero has no time for training like Aang the last Airbender (or other Myth-heros on a journey). He has to rely on the skills he already has but he also has to learn a new way how to use them. In order to effectively adapt his skills to the new situation he probably has to change some of his character traits or simply his mode. Watch out for the midpoint.