Making Ancient Tales Modern

By Mark Broatch

Writers have always tapped into old stories, from Shakespeare to Hollywood. But it still takes talent to give a 3000-year-old tale fresh life, says Hollywood consultant Chris Vogler.

WHEN BOOKS are made into films, audiences expect much of the texture to be lost, but often also jettisoned is much vital plot and character detail, says Hollywood story consultant Chris Vogler.

"It's kinda sad, because they will buy the book to make a movie out of it because it is a world and because it has all the texture, but then they want to pull all the teeth out of that."

Vogler is particularly scathing about Master and Commander, the Russell Crowe/Paul Bettany film set aboard a British frigate in the early 19th century. The story was "scotch-taped" from more than one book, which fans of the Patrick O'Brian novels will know, but that's the least of it. Bettany's character was actually a spy who led a secret life battling Napoleon. And the makers "feared the stupidity of the audience" by changing the nationality of the ship from American to French "because people wouldn't like it if we were fighting the Americans". However, Vogler accepts that it's difficult to please devoted fans of books – he has read all 20 of the O'Brian books three times.

The Writers Journey with Christopher Vogler Occasionally film-makers get it right. The Harry Potter series has done the best in "giving you the book" – in translating a complete world created in print into believable images on film, Vogler says, "since Gone with the Wind". And a film can be as good as, though different to, the book it was based on. "One of the films I'm most proud of working on was [Terence Malick's] The Thin Red Line, based on a wonderful book, a harrowing book about World War II in the Pacific." One of Vogler's bosses on the film pointed out that stories have many forms: the book, the script, the editing version, and the film the audience sees. "And they're all independent works of art."

Vogler, who's coming back to the Raindance Film Festival in September says writers have always tapped into old stories, from the ancients to Shakespeare to Hollywood. Vogler calls himself an "excavator", sometimes delving through manuscripts that are 3000 years old. Theophrastus' book of 30 character types from 300BC was quickly picked up by playwrights and reportedly later by the likes of George Eliot. Stories often incorporate mythological archetypes.

Twilight, for instance, is about supernatural shapeshifters, he says, which represents something in the archetypal Jungian system. "We hardly know ourselves let alone other people. We all have the ability to morph or change shape to a surprising degree. Psychologically we can be quite slippery. Those movies are about exploring those boundary lines, when we get to tinker with our identity. It's a benign way to exorcise [those dark sides of ourselves]."

An Officer and a Gentleman from 1982 is a minor classic, he says, based on mythological training periods such as that of Hercules. "I've got no place else to go!" spits out Richard Gere's character Zack Mayo, wet, caked in mud and at the end of his tether as he battles to become an aviator. That's a touchstone moment, says Vogler. They may not be brilliant movies, he accepts. "But for some good reason they're just good templates with simple turning points."

Vogler, whose fluid citation of film and myth might remind some of story guru Robert McKee, also points to The Warriors, a Walter Hill-directed film from 1979 as a modern story from ancient sources. It's a "complete lift" from Xenophon's Anabasis, in which an army of Greek mercenaries (an out of town gang) must fight their way out of hostile territory in Persia (the Bronx) and back home (to Coney Island). I remember it probably because of its ageless theme. And that's precisely why Tony Scott (Top Gun) is looking to remake it for next year after many years of trying. An update would certainly fix the gang members looking like the cast out of West Side Story.

Vogler studied journalism before enlisting in the airforce. It was there he made documentaries on the space programme and GPS system. He then went on to film school at USC, the alma mater of George Lucas, where he says his greatest talent was butting in to conversations and pointing out how a film script might be improved. It was there he read Joseph Campbell and other writers on myth and legend. He went on to write The Writer's Journey: Mythic structure for writers. The book has sold nearly a quarter million copies, outselling Mckee's book.

At Raindance he will be talking to screenwriters and storytellers about the symbolic journey of the hero. The hero's journey is more often straight like a railroad track, he says, or a circle. But a heroine's journey is more three-dimensional, "you have to go deep inside to the emotional levels".

Authors, partly because audiences have become more aware, have picked up the techniques films use to change scenes – such as fast "cutting", short chapters, cliffhangers. "There is an expectation that books should be cinematic," says Vogler. Romance writers picked up on the change early, he says.

What should aspiring authors who want to write cinematographically read? Screenwriting books, suggests Vogler, and myth classics such as The Golden Bough, From Ritual to Romance, and Joseph Campbell's works, such as The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

For his own part, Vogler is working on a new book, Memo From the Story Department, being co-written with David McKenna, a Columbia film professor and a fellow story consultant, due out next year.

There's no guaranteed formula for success to be found in a book. "There's nothing worse than taking any one of these screenwriting formulae – you follow that like a cookbook and you're going to get a boring, predictable result. You have to have a twisty frame of mind. You want to twist the tail of the thing all the time ... so you don't get lazy and the audience isn't steps ahead of you."

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About Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler Christopher Vogler is a veteran story consultant for major Hollywood film companies and a respected teacher of filmmakers and writers around the globe.  His book “The Writer’s Journey”, applying the ancient patterns of myth to modern story-telling, has helped to shape the way people in movies, TV, and publishing think about stories and is required reading at many film schools and literature programs.  He has influenced the screenplays of movies from THE LION KING to FIGHT CLUB to THE THIN RED LINE and most recently wrote the first installment of RAVENSKULL, a Japanese-style manga or graphic novel.  He was the executive producer of the feature film P.S. YOUR CAT IS DEAD and writer of the animated feature JESTER TILL.
A native of St. Louis and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he served as a U. S. Air Force officer and made documentary films on the military space program before doing graduate work at the University of Southern California film school.  He started work in the film industry as a story analyst for Twentieth Century Fox and other major studios.  He was part of the animation story staff at Disney while THE LION KING, ALADDIN, HERCULES, and MU-LAN were being developed.  His book “The Writer’s Journey” grew out of a short memo he wrote while at Disney, pointing out the usefulness of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “Hero’s Journey”.  Recently he has consulted on films such as 10,000 BC, HANCOCK, I AM LEGEND, Darren Aronofsky’s THE WRESTLER, the KARATE KID remake, and Helen Hunt’s directorial debut, THEN SHE FOUND ME.

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Christopher Vogler's weekend class: The Essence of Storytelling
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Making Ancient Tales Modern with Christopher Vogler