This weekend, my husband and I saw Julie and Julia (click for a link to the official website). The film is Nora Ephron’s adaptation of two books: Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France; and Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, which follows Powell’s quest to prepare all 524 recipes in Childs’ Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and to blog about her experience.
We both loved the movie. Given that we’re more familiar with Dan Ackroyd’s parody of Childs than her cooking show itself, we were grateful to get a sympathetic portrait of the woman and her work. The food itself was fun to watch, even if I would choose simple Mediterranean fare over French cooking any day. And we appreciated seeing portraits of good marriages, since we believe we have one, too. It was the perfect Friday night date for us.
Now, on Monday morning, I’m thinking about other aspects of the film. Especially, I’m reflecting on the popularity of books, films, and television fare that show ordinary people transformed by taking on a daunting challenge. I’ve written before about this trend in books related to religion: in The Unlikely Disciple, Kevin Roose describes his semester as a liberal student undercover at a conservative university; in The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobsen chronicles his year-long attempt to live by all the rules of the Bible; and in Good Book, David Plotz recounts his experience of (gasp!) reading the Bible from cover to cover.
Julie and Julia (the film; I haven’t read the book) follows this common path.
(1) Something is missing in the hero’s life (I’m using “hero” as gender inclusive). Julie’s job is depressing and she feels a failure as a writer.
(2) The hero embarks on a quest. 524 recipes in 365 days.
(3) The task begins easily enough and meets with initial success and support. Julie’s food is delicious, and comments soon appear on her blog.
(4) Obstacles arise. Julie’s mom isn’t supportive. Julie gets a cold. She burns an important meal. Her marriage suffers from the strain. She almost quits.
(5) The hero perseveres and accomplishes the goal. After a brief period of self-doubt, Julie resumes her commitment to her task.
(6) All is better than before. Even though Julie gains weight from all that butter, she ends the project with her marriage stronger than ever, friends on hand to celebrate, and a mom finally proud of her. There’s a book contract and, as the movie credits humorously remind us, her book is made into a film. The hero’s completion of the quest has brought out the best in her and in others.
This plot shares numerous features with a well-discussed mythical framework: the hero quest. As described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, many cultures in various time periods have told stories about a hero who sets out on a quest, faces challenges, prevails, and saves others in the process. Most folks know that Stephen Spielberg adapted Campbell’s analysis of the hero myth to create the Star Wars saga (click here to read a wikipedia article) and can recognize it in stories like Harry Potter and The Matrix.
The classical formula almost always includes an element of the supernatural. The quest is both initiated and aided by supernatural beings, and the hero himself possesses extraordinary powers.The supernatural is evident in Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. Luke and Harry and Neo are aided and challenged by forces outside of themselves.
In Julie and Julia and look-at-me-try-religion books I’ve mentioned, the hero myth takes a humanist turn. Gone are supernatural and superhuman powers. In their place are hard work, luck, and help from other people. Quests aren’t initiated by forces outside of the heroes but by their own desire to give life direction and meaning.
The same observation holds true for some–but not all–reality TV shows. So You Think You Can Dance? and The Biggest Loser offer mostly-sympathetic portraits of folks trying to accomplish their goals and reach their dreams. Contestants are more and less successful in reaching their goals, but almost all are transformed in positive ways by the experience of trying. Other shows paint a darker, less hopeful vision of humanity: people don’t change. In Project Runway, American’s Next Top Model, and Top Chef, contestants may hone their skills but they rarely experience personal transformation. Sometimes the Mean One wins the competition and sometimes the Nice One does, but the two never switch roles.
These shows are more Lord of the Flies than The Odyssey.
Tracing these similarities and differences in hero quest plots has me thinking about the Bible. It would be natural to assume that since the Bible is, well, the Bible, all hero quests will be determined (or at least affected) by the divine. But is that true? Do some biblical heroes function more like secular heroes, facing modest quests with little more than their own wits?
I’m going to spend some time working on this. Any thoughts?