Summing Up The Seven Basic Plots: Part Three
“In truth, there’s only one story. In essence we have told one another the same tale, one way or another, since the dawn of humanity…All stories take the form of a Quest”. (Robert McKee, Story, 1999)
“No type of story is more instantly recognisable to us than a Quest” writes Christopher Booker in his opening to Chapter 4 of The Seven Basic Plots. Jason And The Argonauts. Raiders of The Lost Ark. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. A wave of cinematic examples come crashing into the mind when we hear the word “Quest”. And, of course, there are those also stories where the quest may not be about the journey to a far away place but towards or somewhere or something that the protagonist needs to restore order to their unbalanced world. In The Fugitive, Richard Kimble is on a quest to prove find the real killer of his wife and prove his innocence. A similar story unfolds in Memento but with a radically different approach. Just as the examples of quests in film are boundless, so too are how they can be realised them on screen.
“Life in some ‘City of Destruction’ has become oppressive and intolerable, and the hero recognises that he can only rectify matters by making a long, difficult journey. He is given supernatural or visionary direction as to the distant, life-renewing goal he must aim for”.
In the first instalment of The Hunger Games, we begin in fictional, post-apocalyptic Panem. Ruled and exploited by the tyrannical Capitol, two teenagers (one boy and a girl) are named each year to compete in the brutal “Hunger Games”, where they have to fight for survival against the “tributes” from another surrounding districts. When her younger sister is drawn in the ballot, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to go in her place. Previous winner Haymitch Abernathy becomes mentor to Katniss as she travels into the Capitol to begin her quest to survive the Games.
“The hero and his companions set out across hostile terrain, encountering a series of life-threatening ordeals…horrific monsters to be overcome; temptations to be resisted…the need to travel between two ‘deadly’ opposites…the ordeals alternate with periods of respite, when the hero and his companions receive hospitality, help or advice…the hero may also have to make a ‘journey through the underworld’ where he temporarily transcends the separating power of death…”
After sailing off on their quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason and the Argonauts encounter Talos, the gigantic “man of bronze”, and the fierce Harpies. Then, they come to the perilous “clashing rocks” but receive supernatural aid from the goddess Hera who calls Poseidon from the depths of the ocean to help see the Argonauts to safety. In Clash of the Titans, Perseus makes a ‘journey through the underworld’ to face Medusa, the hideous Gorgon who he needs to behead to rescue Princess Andromeda from the monstrous Kraken.
Arrival & Frustration
“The hero arrives within sight of his goal. But he is far from having reached the end of his story, because now, on the edge of the goal, he sees a new and terrible series of obstacles looming up between him and his prize, which have to be overcome before it can be fully completed and secured”.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and friends finally arrive at the Emerald City. At last, they’re ready to meet “the wonderful, Wizard of Oz!”. They think it’s all over, but it soon turns out that the biggest obstacles are still to come. The Wiz will only grant them their wishes if they bring the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West. So much for the Yellow Brick Road!
The Final Ordeals
“The hero has to undergo a last series of tests (often three in number) to prove that he is truly worth of the prize. This culminates in a last great battle or ordeal which may be the most threatening of all”.
Bruce Lee’s protagonist faces three final tests in the climax of Enter The Dragon. Along with his friend Roper, and a team of escaped prisoners, he battles an army of martial artists before a face-to-face confrontation with the villainous Han. Han then retreats then leads him to a final showdown in a hall of mirrors where Lee has to use both mental and physical prowess to outwit and defeat his opponent.
“After a last ‘thrilling escape from death’, the kingdom, the ‘Princess’ or the life-transforming treasure are finally won: with an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future”.
At the end of The Return of the Jedi, the final part of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, Luke Skywalker, Lando Carissian and their rebel allies manage to escape before the Death Star blows up. In fact, Luke has finally won numerous “life-transforming treasure” by the story’s end. He has redeemed his father Darth Vader and defeated the Emperor. The reign of the Galactic Empire is over and peace has been brought to the galaxy. Luke is reunited with his friends and sister Leia. Finally, watched on by the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda and Anakin Skywalker, Luke shares a quiet realisation with the viewer. Now, he truly is a Jedi.