Summing Up The Seven Basic Plots: Part One
Few types of stories are as dominant throughout ancient, mythic and popular culture as ‘Overcoming the Monster’, the first archetypal story pattern Christopher Booker explores in his epic book, The Seven Basic Plots. Sometimes, this may serve as the dominant focus of a film’s plot. Dracula, Jaws and Alien are obvious examples. Often, an ‘Overcoming the Monster’ pattern may function as a sub-plot, where a protagonist’s journey along another story path (e.g ‘Rags to Riches’) may be further complicated by a physical threat or even their own personal demons. Either way, ‘Overcoming the Monster’ is a fundamental aspect of storytelling that has continued through the ages.
“We usually first become aware of the monster as if from a great distance…we may be given some striking glimpse of its destructive power at the outset…we gradually learn of its fearsome reputation, and how it is usually casting its threatening shadow over some community, country, kingdom or mankind in general”.
Steven Spielberg’s opening to Jaws is a perfect (and terrifying) illustration of this approach. There’s plenty of others out there, less iconic maybe, but nonetheless effective. The montage of the brutal Clubber Lang demolishing opponents left, right and centre at the beginning of Rocky III (1982). More recently, few villainous introductions have been as explosive as the entrance of the imposing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). However, the point is the same. Something bad is out there. The hero doesn’t know. And it’s coming their way…
“As the hero makes his preparations for the battle to come, all for a while may seem to going reasonably well. Our feelings are still of a comfortable remoteness from and immunity to danger”.
The early scenes of The Karate Kid (1984) come to mind here. Initially, deflated at leaving Newark for California, Daniel LaRusso’s despondence shifts (temporarily anyway) to a ‘dream’ state when he quickly makes new friends, showcases his football flair at a beach party and catches the eye of Ali Mills.
The first act of Chinatown is also a good example. We see private investigator Jake Gittes take on his latest case when he is hired by a Mrs Mulwray to spy on her husband who she believes is having an affair. Gittes follows Mulwray for a while and eventually catches him with a younger woman. Gittes then celebrates with a wet shave whilst his discovery of the powerful Mr Mulwray’s “love nest” has made front-page news.
“At last we come face to face with the monster in all its awesome power. The hero seems tiny and very much alone against a such a supernaturally strong opponent…it seems that he is slipping into the monster’s power (he may even fall helplessly into the monster’s clutches), and that the struggle can have only one outcome”.
After escaping the goons of Auric Goldfinger in his gadget-laden Aston Martin, James Bond is soon captured and nearly castrated by the supervillain’s industrial laser. Realising that Bond is more valuable to him alive, 007 is whisked away to a Kentucky stud farm where he is kept prisoner by Goldfinger. His attempts at escape prove futile at every turn and, with time ticking away, Bond finds himself running out of options to turn the tables on his duplicitous host.
In The Untouchables (1987), the “dream stage” of Elliot Ness is rudely awakened by the murder of one his men by the forces of Al Capone. Enraged, Ness confronts him but the arrogant crime boss boasts that they have nothing on him. With a key witness against Capone also dead, Ness and his remaining team of “Untouchables” find their case against Capone slipping away from their grasp.
“The final ordeal begins, a nightmare battle in which all the odds seem loaded on the monster’s side”.
In an epic showdown, Luke Skywalker confronts Darth Vader in the climax of The Empire Strikes Back. Despite ardent training, the fledgling Luke is no match for the awesome Vader who symbolically castrates him and casts a dark shadow over his destiny.
Back to Jaws. Chief Brody and Quint pull up Matt Hopper’s shark cage only to find him gone, seemingly another victim of the monster in their midst. Things soon get worse when the shark returns. Quint is savagely devoured and Brody finds himself in very, very deep water as the dilapidated Orca slowly sinks beneath the waves while the shark prepares for one more attack…
The Thrilling Escape From Death & Death of the Monster
“In the nick of time, the monster is miraculously dealt a fatal blow. Its dark power is overthrown. The community which had fallen under its shadow is liberated. And the hero emerges in his full stature to enjoy the prize he has won from the monster’s grasp..”
Emerging from hiding, Die Hard’s John McLane gives up his gun so that terrorist leader Hans Gruber will spare his wife. It all appears over for McLane. Yet, the resourceful hero has, literally, one more trick up his sleeve. Distracting Gruber, McLane seizes the moment to shoot the villain with a gun taped to his back. McLane is reunited with his wife and the terrorists are defeated.
Another example from vintage Bond. At the climax of Dr. No (1962), 007 discovers the massive, futuristic laboratory where the evil SPECTRE agent is set to disrupt the US space program. Disguised as a lab technician, Bond deliberately overloads a nuclear pool reactor to halt Dr. No’s plan. With his lair in flames, Dr. No tussles with 007 but he falls into the pool of the nuclear reactor, his desperate effort to escape made futile as his steel hands fail to keep a grip to get him to safety.