Rags To Riches

Front cover of The Seven Basic Plots (2004) by Christopher Booker
The Seven Basic Plots (2004)

Cinderella. That’s probably a word that springs to mind when you hear “Rags to Riches”, the second archetypal story pattern explored by Christopher Booker in The Seven Basic Plots. In the third chapter to his epic volume, Booker agrees and cites plenty of other examples. The Ugly Duckling. Pygmalion. Dick Whittington. Aladdin. The list is pretty much endless.

What about film? We don’t have to look too hard to see the “Rag to Riches” plot- the bedrock of many of our fairly tales favourites — dramatized memorably on screen.

Initial Wretchedness At Home & The Call

The Italian Stallion’s first screen fight takes place in a less than glamorous location

We are first introduced to the young hero or heroine in their original lowly and unhappy state, usually at home…they are overshadowed by malevolent ‘dark’ figures around them, who scorn or maltreat them. This phase ends when something happens to call or send them out into a wider world”.

Sylvester Stallone’s original Rocky is often deemed a “Cinderella story” and it’s an apt description. The story of Rocky is a perfect crystallisation of the “Rags to Riches” plot, particularly this initial stage. Despite emerging victorious from his bout with Spider Rico, the Italian Stallion’s first screen fight is far from celebratory. Rocky wins ungracefully, is booed out the ring, called a “bum” and takes a smoke back to the grimy locker room where the unmoved Rico chides him as just getting “lucky”. Later, at the end of the same act, he receives a direct invitation to fight Apollo Creed for the heavyweight championship of the world. That’s some call!

Initial Success / Out Into The World

Having fled to London, Oliver Twist finds a new family in Fagin’s gang

Although this new phase may be marked by new ordeals, the hero or heroine are rewarded with their first, limited success, and may even have some prevision of their eventual glorious destiny. They may make a first encounter with their ‘Princess’ or ‘Prince’, and may even outstrip ‘dark rivals’; but only in some incomplete fashion…

The penniless orphan Oliver Twist comes to London to seek his fortune in Olivier! What he does find is something he’s been cruelly deprived of throughout his young life — friends and even a surrogate father figure (of sorts, anyway!) in Fagin. In the classic Lionel Bart musical, he even enjoys a memorable musical number alongside the lovely Nancy.

Almost a decade after the book publication of Oliver Twist, came Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, another Victorian fireside favourite frequently adapted for the screen. Arriving at Thornfield Hall, in her first position as a governess, Jane meets the irascible Mr Rochester. Despite the initial awkwardness, a quiet affinity develops between the unlikely couple and humble, plain Jane finds herself favoured by Rochester over the rich, but impassably shallow, Blanche Ingram.

The Central Crisis

Orson Welles reveals the skeletons in his cupboard to his bride-to-be in the classic 1943 film of Jane Eyre

“Everything suddenly goes wrong. The shadows cast by the dark figures return. Hero or heroine are separated from that which has become more important to them than anything in the world, and they are overwhelmed with despair. Because of the earlier lift in their fortunes, and because they are so powerless, this is their worst moment in the story”.

Let’s stick with Jane Eyre. All of the many screen adaptions of Charlotte Bronte’s novel will include one of the ultimate “Central Crisis” in all fiction. Seconds before Jane and Mr. Rochester are wed, the mysterious Richard Mason interrupts proceedings to announce that Rochester is already married. Jane has barely any time to grieve before a seething Rochester escorts the church party back to Thornfield to reveal “The Madwoman In The Attic” — Bertha Mason, the insane wife Rochester was tricked into marrying. A devastated Jane flees Thornfield. Rochester is left heartbroken. Now, is that a Central Crisis or is what?

Independence & The Final Ordeal

Luke Skywalker prepares to destroy the Death Star in the original Star Wars

As they emerge from the crisis, we gradually come to see the hero or heroine in a new light… As this develops, it must be at last be put to a final test, again usually involving a battle with some powerful dark figure who stands, as a dark rival, between them and their goal…”

Star Wars incorporates several of the seven basic plots. “Rags to Riches” is one of them. Farm-boy Luke Skywalker dreams of following in his late father’s footsteps and fighting against the Galactic Empire. After his aunt and uncle are murdered by Stormtroopers, he joins the mystical Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi to save Princess Leia from her imprisonment in the Death Star, the deadly battle-station of the Empire. In the spectacular climax, Luke joins the team of rebels in an all-out aerial assault on the Death Star. Soon, Luke finds himself the last man standing, with Darth Vader closing in on him. It’s now up to Luke to “blow this thing and go home”. Inspired by Kenobi from beyond the grave, Luke trusts in his feelings, lets go and fires. The Death Star is destroyed. The insignificant farmer from a desert planet is not only a hero. He’s a Jedi knight in the making.

Final Union, Completion & Fulfilment

The final shot of the first Rocky

Their reward is usually a state of complete, loving union with the ‘Princess’ or ‘Prince…The story thus resolves on an image which signifies a perfect state of wholeness, lasting indirectly into the future”.

We’ll finish off where we started with Rocky. The fight is over. Rocky has survived 15 rounds with Apollo Creed. He might not have won but he’s achieved something that no one else has done before. The “bum” from Philadelphia has “gone the distance” with the heavyweight champion of the world. Even more significantly, he’s won the love of the painfully shy Adrian. Few film endings capture such a powerful moment of final union, completion and fulfilment within their final shot.

The Screenwriter




Screenwriting and storytelling enthusiast. Here to educate, entertain and enrich those curious about the world of story.

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The Screenwriter

The Screenwriter

Screenwriting and storytelling enthusiast. Here to educate, entertain and enrich those curious about the world of story.

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