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What quality makes a hero? What single trait must a character possess before he or she can overcome all obstacles and find success by story’s end? At first thought, one might guess courage, or confidence, or perhaps perseverance, traits often associated with the noble and brave. However on closer inspection, the truth turns out quite different. Though courage, confidence and the like are helpful, they are not the true keys to cinematic victory. No matter who the character, or what trials he or she must face, a cinematic protagonist will not find victory until he or she adopts a quality made of far softer stuff. That quality is humility.
This conclusion was met by accident while studying the realms of fairy tales and folklore. Over the last century, North American storytelling—and by direct extension Hollywood storytelling—has been profoundly influenced by the Germanic folktales published in the 19th century by Joseph and Wilhelm Grimm (commonly referred to as Brothers Grimm). It is hard to find a child who was not raised on the tales of Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk, or Cinderella. In her book The Hard Facts of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Harvard Folklore and Mythology chair Maria Tatar points out that these well-known stories follow narrative patterns that run counter to commonly-held perceptions of heroism. Looking closer, it can been found that these patterns have been adopted with near universality by the fairy tale’s modern descendent, the Hollywood feature film.
As Tatar explains, the heroes of the Grimm tales are rarely brave knights or wise sages. To the contrary, they are often naïve fools, poor peasants, or helpless children. Without the skills or status to succeed by traditional means, these characters seem doomed to burden and misery. However, what these heroes do have is humility. Early in the tale, these heroes prove this quality through some act of compassion, self-deference, patience, or simple innocence. This act is then recognized by some benevolent and often magical force that rewards the hero with assistance, tools, or special abilities necessary to overcome his or her disadvantages, achieve the impossible and live happily ever after. Cinderella is a classic example. The heroine humbly endures a state of domestic slavery, doing chores so her wicked stepsisters may go to the ball. The Fairy Godmother pities Cinderella and rewards her humble heart by transforming her into a state through which the whole world can recognize her true beauty. The Prince falls in love and leads her away to a better life. Cinderella earns happiness not by acts of valor, but acts of humility.
If humility leads to victory in the Grimm tales, then it must also be said that pride causes failure. Indeed, Tatar also identifies an alternate pattern where the hero begins the story arrogant or haughty. In these cases, the hero’s pride must be broken. The hero is put through a series of humiliating tasks until he or she abandons the former attitude. By reaching a state of humility, the hero proves him or herself worthy of reward. Take for instance, The Frog Prince. A spoiled princess loses her golden ball down a well. An ugly frog offers its help, but only if she will reward it with a kiss. The princess agrees, but then runs away to avoid her end of the deal. In response, the frog puts the princess through a series of embarrassing episodes until she finally swallows her pride and gives the frog his kiss. To the princess’s surprise, this act of humility is rewarded. The frog transforms into a handsome prince. The two fall in love and are married. (Though both of these examples bring up gender issues outside of the scope of this article, this general pattern holds true for tales with male protagonists as well.)
Though feature films contain stories far more sophisticated than those found in fairy tales, the simple pattern of humility followed by reward repeats itself with shocking regularity in Hollywood film. The only difference is that Hollywood prefers the second pattern over the first. Though Hollywood protagonists may struggle against extreme physical threats, time and again the real barrier to success is the hero’s own selfish pride. Here, “pride” should be defined broadly to mean any purely self-interested motivation, be it great or small. As long as the hero continues to act out of self-interest, he or she will fail to obtain the ultimate prize. Story events then put pressure onto the hero until his or her pride is broken, and the hero reaches a state of humility. From the depths of humility, the protagonist achieves an awakening where he or she can now see the world uncluttered by selfish pretenses and find a clear understanding of what actions are truly necessary to overcome the conflict and find victory.
Rocky: Though the odds are stacked against him, Rocky Balboa refuses to admit how badly he stands to be humiliated by Apollo Creed. Then, his foolish pride collapses upon itself in the wee hours of the night. From this lowest point, Rocky finds a new path by which he can claim victory on his own terms.
Shrek: Shrek has fallen in love with Princess Fiona, yet rejects her out of stubborn pride. He seems destined to return to a life of isolation until Donkey shames him for this attitude and convinces him to come to Fiona’s aid.
The Sixth Sense: Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s professional pride causes him to reject Cole’s claim to see dead people. It seems Crowe will fail until he is humbled by evidence that proves himself wrong. Crowe converts into a believer and joins Cole’s side.
In any good cinematic story, higher ideals are at play. In order to succeed, the story requires its hero to surrender to these ideals and become their servant. However, at the story’s beginning, the protagonist only seems to care for serving his or her own interests. Because of this, the protagonist starts out not only incapable of victory, but also unworthy. To change this, plot events must act as a process of purgation. As long as the protagonist is motivated by selfish pride, his or her actions must be punished. Though the protagonist may find some minor successes, the story situation will continually grow worse and more difficult until, like their fairytale counterparts, the burden is too great to bear and the protagonist’s pride is broken. There, wallowing in the depths of misery, the hero experiences a moment of catharsis. The hero finally realizes how little his or her prideful interests matter compared to the higher ideals at play. The penitent hero then surrenders to the ideal and becomes willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Purified by this newfound humility, the hero is reborn as a worthy soul with the strength and spirit necessary to conquer problems by doing what is most right:
Casablanca: Rick refuses to help Ilsa and Laszlo in their time of need for little reason other than his wounded pride. However, Rick eventually realizes there is something far greater at stake. He converts, sacrificing his safe, protected world in order to serve the greater good.
Schinder’s List: Oskar Schindler begins his story interested only in exploitation. Yet Schindler grows ashamed when he must acknowledge the evil which surrounds him. In response, Schindler surrenders himself to the higher ideal, sacrificing every penny he has earned to save the lives of others.
The Matrix: Neo is told all of humanity depends on him for salvation. However, Neo is reluctant to take on this responsibility. It is not until Neo and his friends are in the greatest danger that Neo finally abandons all resistance and surrenders himself to his destiny.
Compare all of this to what Joseph Campbell writes in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces, one of the most celebrated works on the subject of myth and legend. In his concept of the Monomyth, the heroes of legend must undergo an essential trial known as “The Atonement with the Father,” where the “Father” represents the Universal Creator, or more abstractly, whatever source of truth or wisdom governs the story world. Unless this atonement (or at-one-ment, as Campbell likes to call it) is achieved, the hero will never grasp the truth of the world around him or her, and will remain a flawed mortal destined to fail by self-induced blindness. However, the trial of atonement seems monstrously impossible, as it seems the Father has set the entire world against the hero. However, this is actually an illusion. The Father is benevolent and wishes to be one with the hero, but this cannot happen until it teaches the hero one inescapable lesson. As Campbell writes:
For the ogre aspect of the father is a reflex of the victim’s own ego…and the fixating idolatry of that pedagogical nonthing is in itself the fault that keeps one steeped in sin, sealing the potentially adult spirit from a better balanced, more realistic view of the father, and therewith of the world. Atonement (at-one-ment)…requires the abandonment of the attachment to ego itself; and that is what is difficult.
In simpler terms, the hero will never gain the wisdom he or she needs to succeed unless the hero willingly rejects his or her own ego, essentially throwing away their old sense of self along with its previous cares and concerns and starting anew. If the hero can accomplish this, “The hero transcends life with its particular blind spot and for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned.” In short, the hero’s old self which saw the world in terms of “me” must die, and be replaced by a new one with a far more profound understanding of the world in terms of a cosmic “we.” This is the same process which occurs in varying degrees in every Hollywood film when the protagonist is transformed through humility.
Even when cinematic protagonists seem humble-minded from the start, they always begin their stories motivated by some form of self-interest. Large or small, these interests belong to the pride of the ego and must also be stripped away. Success cannot come to the hero until every last stitch of self-interest has been cast aside to make way for the higher ideal:
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: Though Frodo seems a humble soul, he does not want the burden given to him. He wishes to deliver the One Ring to another as soon as possible so he may return home. However, Frodo is humbled when he learns that only he can resist the ring’s power. Only he is capable of saving Middle Earth. Faced with this, Frodo surrenders his personal concerns for the greater good.
The Shawshank Redemption: Though shy and soft-spoken, Andy Dufrene behaves as if he is above the world that imprisons him, so much that he dares challenge the Warden’s power. Enraged, the Warden crushes the spirit out of Andy. From this lowest point, Andy realizes his pride means nothing, and the only way to escape his prison is not with his head held high, but on his belly like a worm.
The Bourne Identity: For most of the film, Jason Bourne acts out of self-interest. He wants to know who he is and why he was left for dead. However, Bourne grows ashamed when this quest puts the innocent in harm’s way. Though the decision may kill him, Bourne stops running from Treadstone, out of a selfless desire to end the danger he has brought to others.
In most of these examples, the protagonist finds humility at or around the end of the second act. This gives the hero ample time to regroup and make a final push to victory. Yet in some cases, the protagonist stubbornly hangs on to one last shred of pride until the final moment. Because the hero has not yet offered full surrender to the higher ideal, victory still hangs in doubt. Then, like a deathbed conversion, these protagonists realize the error of their ways at the last second and throw themselves upon the mercy of the universe. This act of humility saves the protagonist, allowing an escape from the darkness and into the light:
Star Wars: Though Obi-Wan has instructed Luke on the ways of the Force, the impatient farmboy still tries to win the final battle through his own ability. It is only once Luke seems doomed that he finally heeds Obi-Wan’s words and gives full surrender to the Force.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Despite the battle of good versus evil, Indiana Jones’ real motive has been the selfish desire to see the Ark’s treasure with his own eyes. But as the Ark is opened, Jones finally realizes they have been toying with power far greater than themselves. In a last-second act of humility, Jones closes his eyes to what he is not worthy to see. Because of this, Jones is spared while Belloq and the Nazis perish.
American Beauty: Throughout his story, Lester Burnham has been motivated by a selfish lust for his daughter’s friend Angela. Yet when the opportunity finally arises to make good on this desire, Lester is humiliated to find how wrong he has been about Angela. Lester pulls back, avoiding cinematic damnation, and comes out a better man.
However, some protagonists are not so lucky. As the proverb states, “Pride goeth before destruction,” and there will always be protagonists foolish enough to hold onto their pride for too long, achieving humility only after they have met irreversible defeat. Thus, it is pride that causes Tony Montana’s ignoble death in Scarface, Charles Foster Kane’s final isolation in Citizen Kane, and Salieri’s madness in Amadeus. All protagonists meet humility eventually. It is an inescapable part of Hollywood storytelling. The only difference between victory and failure is the point at which this transition occurs. So in conclusion, what quality makes a hero a hero? A hero lacks pride, ego, and selfish interest. A hero is willing to commit sacrifices, not for personal gain, but in service of a greater good. A hero is humble. Cinematic stories again and again portray the process by which one becomes such a hero. Every “character arc” found in well-made Hollywood films is nothing more than a variation upon the simple transition from pride to humility, from selfishness to selflessness. Each story retells a moral lesson we have been taught since childhood. To succeed, one must first be humble. MM
This article originally appeared on the website Creative Screenwriting. Creative Screenwriting is “the best magazine for screenwriters” (The Los Angeles Times), publishing daily interviews and craft articles from the foremost writers in film and TV.