Why are Archetypes Important in Film?

English teachers teaching film

An archetype is an original model of something, what we may call a prototype.

According to television producer Aaron Spelling there are only 5 stories and they have all been told. The job of the modern producer or filmmaker is to find new ways of telling them.

These 5 stories are:

  • The Quest
  • The Ugly Duckling/Cinderella
  • The Rescue  (Save the World from Evil)
  • The Journey (Learning or Discovery)
  • Coming of Age

A more traditional understanding of archetypes places the number at 7. These are represented by the following characters:

the villain
the provider
the helper
the princess and her father
the dispatcher
the hero

Whichever system you follow it is universally accepted that most texts are re-workings of stories that have been told before. One useful trick for working out which archetypes are at play in a film is to compare it to popular myths or fairy-tales. Or perhaps you could compare the characters, is there a wicked stepmother, a rescuing prince, and evil seductress or a wise fool.

Archetypes are not new.

The study of archetypes and archetypal narratives goes way back to Aristotle’s Poetics in the 4th century BCE. Aristotle’s is the earliest known model for studying and understanding texts, but it was Victor Propp in his Morphology of the Folktale (1928) who codified the 7 spheres of action which correspond to the 7 characters mentioned above.

Academic interest in the field of archetypes continues as it is crucial in understanding the ways we make meaning from what we read, view, hear and experience. Obviously, with my weird penchant for all things structuralist and semiotic I find the discussions fascinating. I am however prepared to admit that not everyone shares that interest. It is not a necessary qualification for being a good English teacher.

Whether there are 5 or 7 archetypes, or 8 according to Irish playwright Denis Johnston (1901–1984) doesn’t matter all that much. The stories can be presented in so many different ways, and in different forms or genres that there is lots to work with.

Permutations and combinations.

10 Things I Hate About You is no less good because we know it is the same story as Taming Of the Shrew. Likewise Pretty Woman, A Cinderella Story, My Fair Lady, and Ever After, are all, for better or worse, the Cinderella story.

The real value of archetypes is that they provide a structure that the story can be built around. What will define the quality of the finished product is the writing, acting, and directorial vision.

It can be fun to give your class a list of familiar films and ask them to figure out which of the major narratives is being employed.

Till next time

Teach Well

Carolyn

We have put together a few classroom ready resources that will save you a lot of time in preparing to teach film in your English classroom. There are 2 packages and you will find them at the link below.

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