Read This Before You Watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark”

This week, our exploration of the hero’s quest takes a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). This classic action/adventure movie introduces us to Indiana Jones, one of all-time great heroes in cinematic history. Whether or not you’ve seen this one before, you’re in for a great ride!

As you watch, be sure to look for all the characteristic elements of a hero’s journey, including the Call to Adventure, the Talisman(s), the Mentor and/or Sidekick (we might see both this week), the Trials and Tribulations, the moment when All Seems Lost, the Final Test of Worthiness, and the Ultimate Boon.

Now that we have a good handle on how the hero’s quest progresses and what key elements to look for, I’d like to add a couple new terms for us to use when we’re talking about movies. These new concepts definitely apply to a hero’s quest, but these are terms that can actually be used to describe any type of narrative. I want these terms to be familiar to you because they’re ones that you’ll see commonly used by screenwriters and novelists, actors and directors, film critics, media studies people, literary scholars, and really anybody who spends time discussing stories and how they work.

The first term new term is Protagonist, which basically just means the main character. In the hero’s quest, this is the hero obviously, but as a vocabulary word this one is useful to us because it applies to any main character, and not just a hero. If the title of a movie is somebody’s name, it’s a good bet that’s the protagonist. You can sometimes have more than one protagonist like in Romeo & Juliet, but usually there’s just one. So, we would still say that Judy Hopps is the protagonist and hero of Zootopia even though her sidekick Nick is right there on the poster with her. We know from the very beginning that the story is mostly about Judy.

The second new term is Antagonist, which describes the main rival or opponent to the protagonist. The antagonist is usually another character, but not always. It can also be a monster or some other major figure or element. In any case, the antagonist introduces many challenges to the protagonist throughout the whole narrative arc. Interestingly, the antagonist can often seem a lot like the mirror image of the protagonist, almost like an evil twin, or the darkness to the protagonist’s light.

The final new term I want to introduce this week is Major Dramatic Question, or MDQ as screenwriters like call it. The major dramatic question isn’t something that any character will actually ask in a movie. It’s sort of like the invisible secret question behind everything that makes a story go. It’s one of those things we are aware of every time we get into a story and care about what happens. But it’s unspoken until we can identify it and say it out loud to ourselves.

I know that all sounds super complicated and difficult, but the question is usually really easy to spot once we know what to look for. It’s the main yes or no question at the heart of the story’s conflict. Will Luke Skywalker rescue Princess Leia? Will Katniss survive the hunger games? Can Judy become the first bunny cop on the ZPD?

See, these are basic questions, but they are the secrets to why we care about what happens in a movie. Notice that in each case, the question has a simple yes or no answer but we want the answer to be “yes.” The conflict in the story makes us worry that the answer might be “no” because of all the challenges blocking the protagonist.

Again, it’s not that hard once you get the knack of it, but learning to recognize and identify the major dramatic question in a movie or a book is a powerful and important skill. I’m including the MDQ as a bonus question this week, so give it a try.

Okay, those are our three new concepts: protagonist, antagonist, and major dramatic question.

Now go make some popcorn and watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you get into it, there are several sequels you can watch this weekend. Most of those are pretty fun too. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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