Image by Barbarian Factory / Patrick Connan
How does Jaws follow Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey breakdown?
Welcome to another installment of our new series A Hero’s Journey Breakdown where we explore Joseph Campbell’s mythological storytelling structure and how iconic films fit into that mold.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. For this series, we define the stages in simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
Here we turn to the Steven Spielberg classic Jaws.
Note: As with any application of story structure or formula, this is just a hindsight interpretation and implementation of The Hero’s Journey to this cinematic tale. There can and will be variances.
The Ordinary World
The hero, Amity Police Chief Brody, awakens at his new home on Amity Island. He’s happily married with two sons.
His normal daily routine as chief of police is handling arguments about children karate-chopping picket fences. The tourist season is upon the island, so things are hectic as everyone readies for the influx of people.
Call to Adventure
Brody discovers the body of a missing young woman.
The medical examiner details that it could be a possible shark attack. Brody is alarmed, knowing that the beaches are going to be full amidst the rise in tourism. He tells his deputy to retrieve what is needed to create signs warning swimmers not to go into the water.
Refusal of the Call
When the mayor catches wind of Brody’s efforts to keep people out of the water, he pressures Brody to take no action.
The medical examiner has changed their story — a result of pressure from the mayor and the island board — stating that the girl could have been killed by a terrible boating accident.
Brody can’t believe what he’s hearing. He knows that he’s been defeated and takes no further action.
Meeting the Mentor
In this hero’s journey, there are two mentors.
After a young boy is killed by a shark attack, Brody meets Quint, a veteran fisherman that offers to catch the deadly shark for a high price.
Later on, Brody meets Hooper, an oceanographic expert that Brody called in for help.
Brody and Hooper determine that the girl was, in fact, killed by a shark.
They later rip open a shark that fishermen caught, which the mayor and everyone else believed to be the culprit of the attacks. There is no body of the young boy that was attacked — the shark is still out there.
Crossing the Threshold
Brody, Hooper, and Quint embark on a journey out to sea to hunt down the Great White that’s been terrorizing the island.
Brody undergoes many tests as they set out to sea.
He’s afraid of water and knows little to nothing about boats, let alone shark hunting. As he throws bloody chum into the ocean waters and gripes about the job he’s been assigned to do, he is confronted by the Great White for the first time, soon after declaring to the others, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
This leads to a thrilling series of actions where they attempt to mark the shark by attaching hollow barrels designed to float the shark up to the surface. One barrel isn’t enough as the shark effortlessly pulls it down beneath the waves.
The three men later bond while comparing stories and scars. Brody quickly learns that these two mentors of his are allies as well.
Quint shares his story about being on the ill-fated U.S.S. Indianapolis.
This solidifies the dangers of sharks and what they may be up against.
It’s then that the shark returns, damaging the boat’s hull and disabling the power. They work through the night to repair the engine.
When the shark resurfaces the next day, they strive to bring it up to the surface with more barrels — to no avail.
Brody begins to call the Coast Guard on the radio, but Quint — obsessed with killing the shark — smashes the radio.
The shark returns and Quint harpoons another barrel into it. They tie the line to the stern cleats, but the shark drags the boat backward, swamping the deck and flooding the engine compartment.
Quint heads toward shore to draw the shark into shallower waters, but he pushes the damaged engine past the safety limits and the overtaxed engine fails.
The boat is slowly sinking. Hooper insists that he use his shark cage to get into the water and jab poison into the shark’s system.
The attempt fails. The shark attacks the cage and Hooper is thought to be lost.
Soon after, as their now sinking boat takes on water, the shark attacks and kills Quint, leaving Brody all by himself.
Brody can no longer rely on his mentors. They’re gone. He must use his recently accrued knowledge of shark hunting to find a new approach to the dilemma at hand.
As he’s close to being eaten by the shark himself, Brody desperately grabs one of the pressurized scuba tanks that Hooper brought aboard the boat and jams it into the shark’s wide-open mouth.
Brody now has a plan. With the air tank embedded within the mouth of the shark, he may be able to take the rifle and shoot the tank, destroying the shark in the process.
The Road Back
He has a chance, but he’s not out of the water yet. In fact, the boat is sinking. It has toppled onto its side and the shark is now closing in on Brody.
Brody no longer has time to fear the water. He pushes that fear aside and is now resurrected as the sole person that is going to stop this beast.
Hooper is gone. Quint has been eaten alive. It’s up to him and him alone.
The shark surfaces once again as Brody climbs up the rapidly tilting mast. He holds Quint’s rifle in his hands as he leans against the mass, which moves closer and closer to the surface of the water as the boat sinks. He takes aim and shoots, missing with each attempt until he manages to hit the tank dead center, causing the tank to explode inside the shark’s mouth.
The shark is pulverized.
Brody has successfully killed the Great White that has been hunting the shores of Amity Island. And if that wasn’t good enough, he sees that Hooper has resurfaced — alive.
Brody and Hooper swim atop a makeshift barrel raft, headed back to the shore that can be seen far off in the distance. It’s a sure bet that they will be welcomed back as heroes, bringing their knowledge of Great White shark hunting back with them for future sequels.
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