This week we begin our media studies series on “The Hero’s Quest” by watching “The Hunger Games” (2012) the first in a trilogy of action dramas set in a dystopian future where teen Tributes fight an annual Battle Royale against teens from other Districts around their corrupt authoritarian nation-state. The government holds “The Hunger Games” as a grand entertainment of nationally televised blood sport, but also as a reminder and enforcement of the central government’s separation and oppression of the Districts. A smart, tough girl from the smallest and poorest District, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) initially volunteers to serve as Tribute in order to save her little sister from certain slaughter. Through hard work, kindness to others, and a steadfast dedication to her ideals, Katniss emerges victorious.
We might all intuitively recognize that her story follows the very model of a hero’s journey. But what are those key elements, those essential steps that let us know we are watching a true hero’s quest?
The Call to Adventure. The all-important first step in any hero’s journey is this call. It can be a literal call or a metaphorical one, but the result is the same. An interruption to the hero’s normal every day existence means they have to go on a journey to find something or rescue someone or solve a mystery. The object of the quest can be just about anything, but that moment when the hero hears this call is unmistakable. Think of a police detective answering the phone and learning that there’s been a murder. Or think of Luke Skywalker watching the hologram of Princess Leia saying, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”
The Hero’s Initial Refusal. Not always, but often, the hero refuses this first call. Maybe the hero is too busy or thinks the quest is pointless or thinks they don’t have the skills needed to complete the journey. The hero needs convincing. Sometimes the stakes are raised. Sometimes a mentor figure convinces the hero to step up. But whatever the catalyst is, the point here is that eventually the hero voluntarily accepts quest.
Finding a Mentor. Notice that I mentioned the mentor above. This figure plays an essential secondary role in any hero’s quest narrative. The worldly-wise teacher or coach prepares the hero for their journey. The mentor may or may not come along on the initial steps of the journey, but eventually they will fall away so the hero can prove themselves on their own. The mentor may also be the one who gives the hero the next essential element in any hero’s quest – the talisman.
Receiving a Talisman. As the hero begins their journey, they almost always receive a special, and sometimes magical, object that helps guide and protect them on their journey. This usually, though not always, comes from the mentor. It’s often an object that connects the hero to the past or to their home or to some essential part of their identity. Think of the light saber that Obi-Wan gives to Luke, telling him that it once belonged to Luke’s father.
Journey into the Unknown. The hero’s quest begins in earnest when the hero leaves behind the familiar world to enter into some version of the unknown, or the “underworld” – an enchanted forest, a magical land, or an overwhelming big city. In movies, this transition into the unknown can be established with scenes of the hero wandering, wide-eyed through strange new locations filled with outlandish characters. Think of the cantina scene in Star Wars.
Friends and Helpers. Once the hero has entered these new, uncharted territories, they quickly begin to meet new friends and helpers, people who will help them along the way in a variety of ways. Of course the hero will also meet adversaries, though telling who is a friend and who is a foe can be difficult at first. Note how often there seems to be a rogue-like character who seems to be a friend but can’t quite be trusted, or who initially seems like a scoundrel but who eventually turns out to be a loyal friend.
Trials and Tribulations. Once the hero has fully entered the realm of the unknown, they face a series of tests or obstacles that challenge many of their heroic traits such as strength, agility, intelligence, etc. As the journey progresses, more and more difficult challenges are faced and overcome, often with the help, and even the sacrifice, of friends and helpers.
All Seems Lost. Just as the hero seems about to achieve the object of their quest, they typically experience a major setback. At this point the hero often believes the challenge has become too great. But with some advice from a mentor or ally (often a remembered lesson from before), the hero rallies one final time and decides to face this seemingly insurmountable obstacle, come what may. The hero knows that even if they lose everything, they cannot surrender.
Final Test of Worthiness. The last hurdle faced in any hero’s quest appears as a challenge they cannot overcome through physical or mental skills alone. This final test strips away all their other attributes and questions the quality of their character. In the end, the hero must demonstrate worthiness, must show they are deserving of victory through their steadfast personal integrity. Above all else, a hero will never betray their core ideals.
The Ultimate Boon. Once the final test has been passed, the music swells and our hero can at last attain the object of their quest. This prize or treasure can be a physical item or a concrete possession, but more often than not it arrives as something less tangible – a removed threat, a solved mystery, a new realization about what really matters, or even just a profound sense of personal achievement.
Now, as you can see in the chart below, the endless cycle of the hero’s quest will start over from the beginning. There are always new heroes with new quests.