The Hero’s Journey, Character Arc & Film Criticism: A discussion of “The Descendants”

Tonight was the State of the Union address, but I didn’t watch it.

Don’t take that as a political statement.  I just didn’t happen to be home because I was out doing other things and didn’t make it home until after the rebuttals and punditry had played its round.

So, where was I?  At the movies.

As I’ve already discussed numerous times, my recent (un)employment situation has cut into my income a bit, so I don’t get out to see movies in the theaters all that much.  But, a few financial opportunities have come up this week and I decided to reward my battered psyche with a trip out to the ol’ cineplex to see my number one most anticipated movie of the holiday/Oscars season:

The Descendants

If you’re a regular reader of this site (hi, all one of you), you might recall my post on the 10 Films I’d Actually Pay to See in Theaters.  Well, having now seen Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants” I’ve officially seen 2 of said films (“The Muppets” being the other one… so, yeah, I like my variety).

While watching the film, I was a little concerned that the movie would never really surprise me because a lot of the big plot points were detailed in the trailer.  Thankfully, after about the first half hour, the film expands beyond the basic premise into a true character piece with powerhouse performances from George Clooney (always great) and Shailene Woodley, who plays his eldest daughter (and who I may or may not have developed a crush on during the film; it’s okay, her character is 17, but she’s actually 20, so it’s not creepy… right?).

But, this isn’t a review of the movie.  If you loved Payne’s “Sideways” (as I did), then you’ll be infatuated with this film.  If you merely liked “Sideways” you’ll still probably enjoy this film, and may love it even more for the beautiful cinematography.  It’s Hawaii, what do you expect?

Instead, I want to pontificate a bit on some thoughts I had while watching the film.  (Don’t mind the tissues.)

The Hero’s Journey

Anybody who has ever taken a Creative Writing course or read anything about literature is most certainly familiar with the term, “the Hero’s Journey.”  I’m not going to go into it that much here, but in as generic and dumbed-down language as I can put it, the concept is that heroic characters all follow a similar path in myths and stories.

In modern literature and film, the concept of ‘hero’ is best replaced by the term ‘protagonist.’  It isn’t that ‘hero’ is technically inaccurate, only that in our modern conception of the term, we think of heroes in the Achilles/John McClane mold of the word: Larger than life figures who overcome great obstacles on their way to a definitive victory.  In the post-Post Modern world where most intricate narratives eschew the obvious hero/villain dynamic, the term ‘hero’ seems grandiose.

Modern protagonists are rarely ‘heroic’.

Character Arc

You see, in watching ‘The Descendants,’ what I couldn’t help but focus on is that the ‘hero’ of the film (George Clooney’s character) is on a journey, albeit one without the obvious good guy/bad guy dichotomy.  There aren’t any true villains in the film.  Without giving away too much of the film, yes, there are some people that we, the audience, will dislike because of who they represent to the protagonist’s life, but anytime we feel comfortable in our disdain for a particular person, the film undermines our cathartic anger by revealing the humanity in the ‘villain.’

Another basic trope in literature is the character arc.’  This ties into the hero’s journey because in both ideas, we see our protagonist/hero develop over the course of the story.  It’s about as basic a concept in literature as there comes.  We read stories and watch  movies because we want to witness the character arc.  Yes, the overall plot can be the draw, but without a main character (the hero/protagonist) to relate to and vicariously experience the narrative through, the story feels inert.

All effective stories have a character arc.  The success of the story depends on how fulfilling that arc is to the reader/viewer.

Movie Critics and Joe Blow

What got me thinking about all this, and why I’m writing it out here, is how subtle the character arc of “The Descendants” is.  In fact, from some views, you could argue that Clooney’s character ends up right where he begins.  Without giving away too much of the plot (because it’s worth experiencing firsthand), it would be fair to say that the father of the story ends up coming full circle by the end of the film, yet it represents a very profound change.

This is why films like this – slow-paced, character intensive, emotionally bare, but not exploitative – can often leave the general audience cold while being critical darlings.  As a general rule (because, every once in awhile, a film like this becomes a crowdpleaser), movies like “The Descendants” fail to find a large audience, but come awards season they end up with a dozen or more nominations across the board and critical accolades up the wazoo.

Why is this?

Well, this isn’t a case of ‘the general audience being just too dumb to get it’ as it usually gets portrayed when critics and the public disagree.  The real problem is a complete disconnect between what the two parties want from a film.

The Bucket List

I have never seen the film “The Bucket List.”  It was a very popular film: A cultural phenomenon that featured two of the most respected (and successful) movie stars in modern history.  It was a true populist hit.  Chances are, you saw it and liked it.

Unless you were a critic.  Check out that disparity between critical reception of the movie (an abysmal 40%) and general audience adoration (a respectable 81%).  What’s the deal?  Do critics just automatically hate anything that the public likes?  Is the public just a bunch of bumpkins who like whatever pap Hollywood puts in front of them?

The answer to both questions, I believe, is ‘no.’

Character Arcs

If you watch the trailer for “The Bucket List,” it should be fairly clear what the ‘character arc’ is going to be.  Morgan Freeman’s character will learn to take chances and live life (before he “kicks the bucket”), whereas the heartless misanthrope played by Jack Nicholson will “find the joy in life.”  The trailer lays it all out there and no one is going to leave the theater surprised by the ending.

And that’s okay.  In fact, that’s the point.  The reason a movie like “The Bucket List” is a crowdpleaser is because the crowd knows what they’re getting when they buy their ticket.  There is no chance that when the credits roll Freeman’s character will have given up on his Bucket List and succumbed to death, or that Nicholson’s character won’t be softened in some manner.  The trailer has laid out their character arcs and when you pay your $11, you’re going to see what you paid for.

Now watch the trailer for “The Descendants”:

It’s  not so much that you can’t foresee a narrative arc for George Clooney’s character (obviously he’s going to struggle and make it through), but the character arc, the growth and change this person will undergo, isn’t readily apparent from that two and a half  minutes.

Like I said at the beginning, while I was watching this movie, I was initially afraid the movie wasn’t going to expand beyond the obvious plot points detailed in the trailer, but once that foundation was set, the movie constantly surprised me.  Not with dramatic moments or twists, but with genuine character development and moments of humanity.

I’ve never seen “The Bucket List” but I doubt any audience member was surprised by anything that happened throughout its running time.


I’m not going to be disingenuous and say, “Both kinds of films are fine, neither is better than the other.”  As a writer and a ravenous devourer of literature and film, I find far greater enjoyment in stories that tread in real world ambiguity.  Though every interesting story must have character development, to truly be profound, that development should feel like the natural progression of true moments in a real life, not just preplanned stops on a ‘heroic journey.’

So, yes, I believe “The Descendants” is a better film than “The Bucket List,” even without having seen the latter film.  I can say this because I know just by watching the trailer how the characters will grow in “The Bucket List,” but I can’t say the same of “The Descendants.”

There are other aspects of the film that matter, too.  A well-written and honestly human story can be wrecked by poor acting or direction.  A generic script can be made so much better by a strong cast or a truly visionary eye behind the camera.  But, for me (and I imagine a lot of movie critics), a great film starts with a great script, and without that any movie has a steep hill to climb.

The Difference Between Critics and The General Audience

This is obvious, but it’s worth stating: Critics see a whole lot more movies than your average moviegoer.  Even someone who considers themselves a true film aficionado will almost certainly not see as many movies in a given year as a professional critic.

This is why critics and moviegoers tend to clash.  For a critic who has seen a hundred movies, seeing a trite character cliché played out for the dozenth time is not only deeply unsatisfying, it can be aggravating, even insulting.  It’s not that the cliché in and of itself is all that bad (like they say, clichés exist for a reason), it’s just that once you’ve seen it six, seven, eleven times, it gets old and hard to stomach.

The old curmudgeon learning that people are really good and that life is worth living might be okay to see once a year.  It’s a nice reminder to enjoy life.  But see it once every other week and you’ll grow bitter.

This is why a movie like “The Descendants” is such a (deserving) critical darling.  It’s actually a fairly uplifting film in the end, but its route to that gratifying conclusion is not entirely obvious and it’s willing to undercut easy character development with contradictory moments that make easy hero/villain categorization nearly impossible.  By the end of the film, there’s pretty much nobody to hate.

Is “The Descendants” a better film than “The Bucket List.”

Yes.  Almost certainly, yes.

Is “The Bucket List” irredeemable as a work of art?

No.  Almost certainly, no.

As an audience, every one of us asks for something specific from a work of art.  Our enjoyment isn’t a reflection of our intelligence or are creativity, but rather it reveals what we expect from our art.

We are either looking to be entertained, or we are looking to be enlightened.