To understand what makes a popular book or movie, look no further than The Hunger Games. A bestselling novel, first in a series by author Suzanne Collins and adapted for the screen by Collins and Gary Ross, this franchise proved to be one of the biggest literary and cinematic juggernauts of the past ten years.
The plot of the movie hews pretty close to that in the book, and I thought it would be interesting to show you how The Hero’s Journey structural model plays out in the narrative.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story, here’s the setup: In a future world made up of 12 districts, in penance for an uprising against the government in the past, each district has to offer up a male and female, between the ages of 12 -18, in what’s called “The Reaping.” Once these male and female tributes are chosen, they are taken to The Capitol, dropped into a frightening environment, and must fight to the death until a lone victor emerges.
This battle, which is televised, is called The Hunger Games.
The protagonist is Katniss Everdeen. Notice how simple her goals are in the story… Her emotional need is to protect her little sister Primrose. Her immediate goal in the story to satisfy this emotional need is to win The Hunger Games so she can go back to her district and protect her little sister.
ORDINARY WORLD (we set up the character in her ordinary world)
We see Katniss in District 12. It’s the day of the reaping. Her little sister Primrose has had a terrible dream that she was picked. Katniss says not to worry, it won’t happen. She goes hunting with her friend Gale. He wants to run away and go against the system. She says it’s hopeless to fight back against The Capitol, and she’s never ever having kids.
CALL TO ADVENTURE (the character faces a challenge/adventure to undertake)
At the reaping, Primrose is selected. Katniss throws herself forward as a volunteer, to take her sister’s place. The boy chosen from their district is Peeta Mellark. Prim tells Katniss she has to win and come back to her. Katniss promises that she will.
REFUSAL TO THE CALL (the call is dangerous, so they back away from it)
There is no refusal to the call in this story. Katniss loves Primrose so much that there can be no refusal. Her fear is trumped by her love for her sister.
MEETING WITH THE MENTOR (the character seeks guidance)
On the train on the way to the capitol Katniss and Peeta meet Haymitch. He’s a drunk and a loser. He’s also their mentor. Peeta asks how they can win sponsors who can help them during the battle. Haymitch says, “Embrace your imminent death.” Later he tells them, “Make people like you.” Katniss also meets other mentors here. Effie, who represents the government, tries to help them in her own way, and when Katniss arrives at The Capitol, she meets Cinna, who dresses her. He’s kind, admires how she’s sacrificed herself for her sister and tells her to embrace the costume he’s designed for her.
CROSSING THE FIRST THRESHOLD (the character commits to the adventure and steps into “the special world.”)
That night, in the opening ceremony, Katniss and Peeta ride on a chariot and are presented to the crowds. Their costumes light on fire. The crowd is wowed.
There has been some tension and conflict between them, but as they ride in the chariot, they commit to the adventure. They hold hands and lift them up high. “We’re doing this.”
TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES (as the character pursues her goal, people try to help her, others try to stop her)
Training begins. We learn the rules of the games, and the tributes all check each other out. Katniss can hunt well, and Peeta is strong, but they’re up against people who have been training for this their whole lives.
Haymitch tells them during their skill demonstration for the sponsors, to “Try to make them remember you.” When it’s Katniss’s turn, she’s forced to do something drastic to get their attention. They notice her archery skills.
APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE (the character comes to the edge of a physically or emotionally dangerous place)
The games begin. Katniss and Peeta separate. She goes off by herself. Kids get killed right away. It’s a total bloodbath.
That night she sees all the tributes who have died projected on the sky. The next morning she discovers that Peeta has aligned himself with the strongest group, lead by Cato (who has trained his whole life to win this.) There’s a huge fire, she runs, gets burned. Haymitch is able to get a sponsor to send her some cream. Cato’s group finds her. She climbs a tree to escape, and they can’t get to her. Peeta tries to protect her by saying, “Let’s wait her out. She’ll have to come down sometime.” Cato says “Yeah, we’ll kill her when she comes down.”
Rue, a young tribute about the same age as her sister, signals to her from another tree, points to a bee hive above Katniss. The bees are poisonous and if they sting you, cause hallucinations. Katniss climbs up, gets stung, cuts down the hive, and the bees swarm Cato’s group and drive them away. She’s tripping, wandering around. Peeta tells her to run.
Rue gets her to safety, takes care of her stings. They bond. They decide to create a distraction to steal some food from Cato’s group.
(Do you see how this section is getting darker? She’s injured, Peeta has joined the enemy, she gets burned, stung, and most importantly, she’s bonding with a little girl character who is an “echo” of her sister.)
ORDEAL (the character is the furthest from her goal. all is lost)
Katniss and Rue’s plan to steal the food backfires, Rue is trapped and shot. Katniss watches her die (see how her greatest fear, the loss of her “sister,” is playing out here through Rue?)
Katniss covers her in flowers and makes a beautiful grave. For the first time since we’ve seen her, Katniss breaks down and sobs.
REWARD/SEIZING THE SWORD (the character decides to try one more time to achieve her goal)
She stands up from Rue’s grave, turns to the cameras and gives a revolutionary salute to Rue’s district. This serves as a call to action and Rue’s district starts to revolt against The Capitol. (see how she’s changing from hopeless to angry at the government and fighting back?)
The guy who runs the games, Seneca Crane, knows that President Snow (the bad guy) will want to kill Katniss for doing this. To prevent this, Haymitch encourages Seneca to give the audience something to root for (young lovers.)
Seneca announces that there can now be two winners, as long as they come from the same district.
Katniss searches for Peeta, finds him. He’s injured, is probably going to die. She brings him to a cave. They kiss. She races to get him medicine.
It works. They could go home!
THE ROAD BACK (race to the climax)
They hear cannons. A couple of other kids die. Now there’s only Katniss, Peeta and Cato left.
The organizers unleash a pack of beasts on them.
The only way to survive is to climb a structure that has slippery walls that the beasts can’t scale. All three of them race to try to get there.
There’s a huge fight on top of this structure between Peeta and Katniss and Cato. Cato grabs Peeta and threatens to throw him to the beasts below. Katniss nails Cato with an arrow and he falls to the beasts. They’ve won! But they find out that the rules have been changed again. There can be only one winner.
Katniss pulls out some poison berries, tells Peeta to trust her. He does. Everyone watches on TV, distraught. They both are going to die. Their deaths will look horrible for The Capitol and perhaps arouse more unrest. Just as they are about to eat the berries, the Games Announcer shouts, “Stop!” He proclaims they are both winners!
Katniss has transformed. At the start of the movie, she refused to fight back. Now she’s using her brain, manipulating President Snow’s system to fight back and save them both.
RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR (the character brings back her hard-earned wisdom to the ordinary world)
Katniss and Peeta head back to District 12 and are crowned the winners. She plays nice to quell President Snow’s anger. But what will happen now? What’s the elixir? Katniss is radicalized against The Capitol. The districts are starting to rebel. And President Snow is worried… (great ending to the first book in a series and movie franchise!)
Take Action! Could you use The Hero’s Journey to create the structure for your own best selling novel or blockbuster screenplay? Start with your main character’s emotional need and the immediate specific goal he/she pursues in the story to satisfy this need. Add one bad guy with a goal in direct opposition to your protagonist’s goal and watch the conflict fly.
Have fun using The Hero’s Journey to plot your novel or film!
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