You’ve probably heard people cite to Star Wars: A New Hope – Episode IV as an example of “the hero’s journey.” And by “people,” I mean heavyweights like George Lucas and Joseph Campbell themselves.
And maybe you noticed that Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Episode VII felt very familiar to the original.
I thought it would be fun to look a little deeper at the similarities of A New Hope and The Force Awakens, and then see how the similarities of the two films compare with the Master Outline.
In other words, let’s look at the common story elements of A New Hope, The Force Awakens, Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone, Twilight, and The Hunger Games. Whew!
Similarities in Star Wars
Both A New Hope and The Force Awakens open with some brief, helpful info-dumping, and we learn about the evil Empire / sinister First Order at work against the Rebels/Resistance’s goal to restore peace.
This primes the viewer for a theme of good and evil. The text-crawl leads us into the opening scene that takes place before we meet the hero– and is almost like a prologue– think of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone!
In A New Hope and The Force Awakens, stormtroopers descend on what was previously a secure good guy camp/ship.
Starting the action with this significant event is seriously attention-grabbing (consider if the movies had opened on Luke or Rey moping around the desert).
In Chapter 1 of the master outline, we have a scene card to open the story on a bittersweet celebration. These are the three key points for why it worked in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight:
- First, something important is already going on. We don’t have to wait for the Hero to find some action because we are already trying to catch up; we are curious to figure out why the day is special. Sounds like a hook to me.
- Second, we are immediately on notice that there are life-or-death situations ahead. These beginnings introduce us to the Villain or evil force, so we know what is at stake. Plus we see the characters sacrificing themselves for others, which stirs our empathy towards them.
- Finally, the celebratory day foreshadows the Hero’s final confrontation with the Villain.
Harry ends up fighting Voldemort upon his attempted return to power. Bella confronts the evil vampire, even though Edward has tried so hard to keep her alive. Katniss takes on the Capitol when she forces a two-person win of the Hunger Games, and by extension she rebels against the Reaping Day.
While the Star Wars opening scene is more bitter than sweet, it does begin with action, life-or-death stakes, and introduces us to the Villain.
The opening scene is not a total loss for the good guys:
- Leia manages to get her secret info into R2-D2.
- Poe manages to get his secret info into BB-8, just in the knick of time.
As the little droid heads off, we are left with the anticipation that it might just be the “herald” character archetype, ready to invite the real hero of the story on an adventure.
This anticipation will make the introduction to the hero more meaningful when we get there.
But first, we see the very serious stakes when the only character we care about so far gets caught by the villain!
- Leia is captured by Darth Vader.
- Poe is captured by Kylo Ren.
For our character card on villains, we looked at how the villain has an over-the-top evil appearance. We also discussed how the villain is a control-freak who loves ordering around minions.
This all rings true here, though one big distinction is that Darth Vader and Kylo Ren are large in stature instead of tiny! (Later we’ll also confirm that the villain’s track record for evil is decades old. The hero is battling a legacy!)
Finally, we meet the hero! Luke lives on the desert planet Tatooine and Rey lives on the desert planet Jakku.
Here are some of the elements in chapter 1 of the master outline:
- Show that the hero’s parents are dead/unavailable: Yep, Luke is an orphan living with his aunt and uncle, and Rey is living alone.
- Introduce the hero’s everyday goal: Luke wants his uncle to let him enroll in the Imperial Academy. Rey wants to sell enough scrap metal to feed herself until her family returns.
- Explain how the hero’s life is missing love/friendship/care: Luke has to stay and work on the farm instead of joining his friends. Rey is obviously very, very alone.
- Theme card: socioeconomic tension (show the hero is poor): Luke’s family is not well-off, as shown by the fact that they buy used droids and can’t hire more help for the farm. Rey is very poor and a full day’s work barely gets her enough to eat.
- Symbolism: the hero is “marked” by an actual symbol: Luke and Rey are both “marked” by the Force! But we don’t technically know it yet.
- In A New Hope, we see Luke cleaning up his droids and having dinner with his aunt and uncle.
- In The Force Awakens, we see Rey selling scrap metal to earn a meal, and then watch her eat it alone.
As we learned previously, “sending the hero on an enjoyable errand is a nice way to establish a baseline ‘normal day,’ so that the reader will understand how much the hero’s world is rocked by the upcoming invitation to adventure.”
Finally, we learn one more thing about Luke and Rey: they are pilots! Maybe this skill will come in handy…
Let’s check back in with R2-D2 and BB-8.
After traveling through the desert alone, the droid is temporarily captured–
- R2-D2 is captured by Jawas.
- BB-8 is captured by a Teedo.
But the droid meets the hero soon enough:
- Luke and his uncle buy R2-D2 (and C3PO) off of the Jawas.
- Rey takes BB-8 away from a Teedo. For Rey especially, this is a nice little “save the cat” moment.
The hero soon realizes that the droid has information that it is not sharing.
The droid is a herald character archetype who brings the adventure to the hero:
- R2-D2 wants to find Obi-Wan.
- BB-8 wants to reconnect with Poe and the Resistance.
We placed the herald bringing an invitation to adventure in Chapter 2 of the master outline.
The hero does not immediately agree to make the droid’s mission his own. Instead, he takes a short trip with the droid while staying on his own home planet.
We’ve seen this before– In Harry Potter, Harry also takes a short trip with the herald (Hagrid) when they go Diagon Alley. In The Hunger Games, Katniss takes a short trip with the herald (Effie) to the training center.
This trip serves as an opportunity for the hero to asks questions and learn new information without info-dumping the reader/viewer.
At some point early on, the droid gets attacked by scavengers.
- R2-D2 is zapped by the Jawas. Later, when the Sand People attack Luke, R2-D2 hides.
- BB-8 is caught in a net by more scavengers.
Naturally, a rescue scene is in order…
Surprise! Someone the hero has not met yet emerges to do the rescue!
- Obi-Wan rescues Luke from the Sand People, while R2-D2 is hiding. This is how Obi-Wan meets Luke.
- Finn attempts to rescue BB-8 from the scavengers. This is how Finn meets Rey.*
There is an interesting difference between A New Hope and The Force Awakens here: while the scene is similar, the character roles are not. Obi-Wan ends up filling the mentor character archetype role, whereas Finn ends up more like a sidekick archetype or even a “buddy love” hero.
However, both serve a similar function at this moment, which is to provide the hero with even more information about the droid’s mission. Now the hero is really starting to anticipate danger ahead.
*Finn doesn’t actually need to rescue BB-8 because Rey can handle herself! BB-8 recognizes that Finn is wearing Poe’s jacket. We previously noted that sharing a jacket was used as a sign of friendship in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight.
The hero refuses the call to adventure. This is a classic scene on the hero’s journey.
- Luke knows he has to stay on Tattooine to help his uncle with the moisture farm.
- Rey is determined to stay on Jakku and wait for her family.
I don’t believe that Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight use this scene in the beginning of the first book. Harry Potter expresses disbelief that he is a wizard, and Katniss hopes that her name will not be selected to be a tribute, but I never felt these were full-fledged refusals.
Later you could say that Harry Potter refuses the call to be the chosen one, or that Katniss refuses the call to lead the revolution. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.
Despite the hero’s refusal of the call, circumstances change when the fight becomes personal.
- In A New Hope, stormtroopers attack some Jawas while looking for R2-D2, and then bomb Luke’s home, killing his aunt and uncle.
- In The Force Awakens, stormtroopers in TIE fighters begin attacking Rey, Finn, and BB-8.
Perhaps Harry Potter and Katniss do not refuse the call because the fight is already personal to them– Voldemort killed Harry’s parents 11 years before, and Katniss is stepping up to protect her sister from an oppressive Capital (which she may also blame for her father’s death).
I’ll leave you with some words from J.J. Abrams, the director of The Force Awakens:
This movie was a bridge and a kind of reminder; the audience needed to be reminded what Star Wars is, but it needed to be established with something familiar, with a sense of where we are going to new lands, which is very much what 8 and 9 do. . . . So we very consciously – and I know it is derided for this – we very consciously tried to borrow familiar beats so the rest of the movie could hang on something that we knew was Star Wars. – J.J. Abrams via IGN
We’ll continue working through the similarities of A New Hope, The Force Awakens, and the master outline in a future post. May the force be with you!