“It’s money and adventure and fame! It’s the thrill of a lifetime!… And a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow!”
– from King Kong, screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose
The Ordinary World of most heroes is a static but unstable condition. The seeds of change and growth are planted, and it takes only a little new energy to germinate them. That new energy, symbolized in countless ways in myths and fairy tales, is what Joseph Campbell termed the Call to Adventure.
Trouble shadows the Home Tribe. You hear its call, in the grumbling of our stomachs and the cries of our hungry children. The land for miles around is tapped out and barren and clearly someone must go out beyond the familiar territory. That unknown land is strange and fills us with fear, but pressure mounts to do something, to take some risks, so that life can continue.
A figure emerges from the campfire smoke, an elder of the Home Tribe, pointing to you. Yes, you have been chosen as a Seeker and called to begin a new quest. You’ll venture your life so that the greater life of the Home Tribe may go on.
GET THE STORY ROLLING
Various theories of screenwriting acknowledge the Call to Adventure by other names such as the inciting or initiating incident, the catalyst, or the trigger. All agree that some event is necessary to get a story rolling, once the work of introducing the main character is done.
The Call to Adventure may come in the form of a message or a messenger. It may be a new event like a declaration of war, or the arrival of a telegram reporting that the outlaws have just been released from prison and will be in town on the noon train to gun down the sheriff. Serving a writ or warrant and issuing a summons are ways of giving Calls in legal proceedings.
The Call may simply be a stirring within the hero, a messenger from the unconscious, bearing news that it’s time for change. These signals sometimes come in the form of dreams, fantasies, or visions. Prophetic or disturbing dreams help us prepare for a new stage of growth by giving us metaphors that reflect the emotional and spiritual changes to come.
The hero may just get fed up with things as they are. An uncomfortable situation builds up until that one last straw sends him on the adventure. In a deeper sense, his universal human need is driving him, but it takes that one last miserable day in the diner to push him over the edge.
A string of accidents or coincidences may be the message that calls a hero to adventure. This is the mysterious force of synchronicity which C. G. Jung explored in his writings. The coincidental occurrence of words, ideas, or events can take on meaning and draw attention to the need for action. Many thrillers such as Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train get rolling because of an accident throws two people together as if by the hand of fate.
The Call to Adventure may summon a hero with temptation, such as the allure of an exotic travel poster or the sight of a potential lover. It could be the glint of gold, the rumour of treasure, the siren song of ambition. In the Arthurian legend of Percival (aka Parsifal), the innocent young hero is summoned to adventure by the sight of five magnificent knights in armor, riding off on some quest. Perceival has never seen such creatures, and is stirred to follow them. He is compelled to find out what they are, not realizing it is his destiny to soon become one of them.
HERALDS OF CHANGE
The Call to Adventure is often delivered by a character in a story who manifests the archetype of the Herald. A character performing the function of Herald may be positive, negative, or neutral, but will always serve to get the story rolling by presenting the hero with an invitation or challenge to face the unknown. In some stories the Herald is also a Mentor for the hero, a wise guide who has the hero’s best interests at heart. In others the Herald is an enemy, flinging a gauntlet of challenge in the hero’s face or tempting the hero into danger.
Initially heroes often have trouble distinguishing whether a Enemy or an Ally lies behind the Herald’s mask. Many a hero has mistaken a well-meaning mentor’s Call for that of an enemy, or misinterpreted the overtures of a villain as a friendly invitation to an enjoyable adventure. In the thriller and film noir genres, writers may deliberately obscure the reality of the Call. Shadowy figures may make ambiguous offers, and heroes must use every skill to interpret them correctly.
Often heroes are unaware there is anything wrong with their Ordinary World and don’t see any need for change. They may be in a state of denial. They have been just barely getting by, using an arsenal of crutches, addictions, and defense mechanisms. The job of the Herald is to kick away these supports, announcing that the world of the hero is unstable and must be put back into healthy balance by action, by taking risks, by undertaking the adventure.
The Russian fairy-tale scholar Vladimir Propp identified a common early phase in a story, called reconnaissance. A villain makes a survey of the hero’s territory, perhaps asking around the neighbourhood if there are any children living there, or seeking information about the hero. This information-gathering can be a Call to Adventure, alerting the audience and the hero that something is afoot and the struggle is about to begin.
DISORIENTATION AND DISCOMFORT
The Call to Adventure can often be unsettling and disorienting to the hero. Heralds sometimes sneak up on heroes, appearing in one guise to gain a hero’s confidence and then shifting shape to deliver the Call. Alfred Hitchcock provides a potent example in Notorious. Here the hero is playgirl Ingrid Bergman, whose father has been sentenced as a Nazi spy. The Call to Adventure comes from a Herald in the form of Cary Grant, who plays an American agent trying to enlist her aid in infiltrating a Nazi spy ring.
First he charms his way into her life by pretending to be a playboy interested only in booze, fast cars, and her. But after she accidentally discovers he’s a “copper,” he shifts to the mask of Herald to deliver a deeply challenging Call to Adventure.
Bergman wakes up in bed, hung over from their night of partying. Grant, standing in the doorway, orders her to drink a bubbly bromide to settle her stomach. It doesn’t taste good but he makes her drink it anyway. It symbolizes the new energy of the adventure, which tastes like poison compared to the addictions she’s been used to, but which ultimately will be good medicine for her.
In this scene Grant leans in the doorway, silhouetted like some dark angel. From Bergman’s point of view, this Herald could be an angel or a devil. The devilish possibility is suggested by his name, revealed for the first time as “Devlin.” As he advances into the room to deliver the Call to Adventure, Hitchcock follows him in a dizzying point-of-view shot that reflects the hung-over state of the hero, Bergman, as she lies in bed. Grant seems to walk on the ceiling. In the symbolic language of film the shot expresses his change of position from playboy to Herald, and its disorienting effect on the hero. Grant gives the Call, a patriotic invitation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. As it is delivered, Grant is seen right side up and in full light for the first time, representing the Call’s sobering effect on Bergman’s character.
As they talk, a crown-like, artificial hairpiece slides from Berman’s head, showing that her fairy tale existence as a deluded, addicted princess must now come to an end. Simultaneously on the soundtrack can be heard the distant call of a train leaving town, suggesting the beginning of a long journey. In this sequence Hitchcock has used every symbolic element at his command to signal that a major threshold of change is approaching. The Call to Adventure is disorienting and distasteful to the hero, but necessary for her growth.
LACK OR NEED
A Call to Adventure may come in the form of a loss or subtraction from the hero’s life in the Ordinary World. The adventure of the movie Quest for Fire is set in motion when a Stone Age tribe’s last scrap of fire, preserved in a bone fire-cage, is extinguished. Members of the tribe begin to die of cold and hunger because of this loss. The hero receives his Call to Adventure when one of the women puts the fire-cage in front of him, signalling without words that the loss must be made up by undertaking the adventure.
The Call could be the kidnapping of a loved one or the loss of anything precious, such as health, security, or love.
NO MORE OPTIONS
In some stories, the Call to Adventure may be the hero simply running out of options. The coping mechanisms no longer work, other people get fed up with the hero, or the hero is placed in increasingly dire straits until the only way left is to jump into the adventure. In Sister Act, Whoopi Goldberg’s character witnesses a mob murder and has to go into hiding as a nun. Her options are limited – pretend to be a nun or die. Other hero’s don’t even get that much choice – they are simply “shanghaied” into adventure, conked on the head to wake up far out at sea, committed to adventure whether they like it or not.
WARNINGS FOR TRAGIC HEROES
Not all Calls to Adventure are positive summonses to high adventure. They may also be dire warnings of doom for tragic heroes. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a character cries out the warning, “Beware the Ides of March.” In Moby Dick, the crew is warned by a crazy old man that their adventure will turn into a disaster.
MORE THAN ONE CALL: CALL WAITING
Since many stories operate on more than one level, a story can have more than one Call to Adventure. [Facing Volcanic interruptions.] A sprawling epic such as Red River has a need for several scenes of this type. John Wayne’s character Tom Dunston receives a Call of the heart, when his lover urges him to stay with her or take her with him on his quest. Dunston himself issues another Call to physical adventure when he invites his cowboys to join him on the first great cattle drive after the Civil War.
Romancing the Stone issues a complex Call to Adventure to its heros Joan Wilder when she receives a phone call from her sister who has been kidnapped by thugs in Colombia. The simple Call of physical adventure is set up by the need to rescue the sister, but another Call is being made on a deeper level in this scene. Joan opens an envelope which her sister’s husband has mailed to her and finds a map to her treasure mine of El Corazon, “The Heart”, suggesting that Joan is also being called to an adventure of the heart.
The Call to Adventure is a process of selection. An unstable situation arises in a society and someone volunteers or is chosen to take responsibility. Reluctant heroes have to be called repeatedly as they try to avoid responsibility. More willing heroes answer to inner calls and need no external urging. They have selected themselves for adventure. These gung-ho heroes are rare, and most heroes must be prodded, cajoled, wheedled, tempted, or shanghaied into adventure. Most heroes put up a good fight and entertain us by their efforts to escape the Call to Adventure. These struggles are the work of the reluctant hero or as Campbell called it, the Refusal of the Call.
QUESTIONING THE JOURNEY
- What is the Call to Adventure in Citizen Kane? High Noon? Fatal Attraction? Basic Instinct? Moby Dick? Who or what delivers the Call? What archetypes are manifested by the deliverer?
- What Calls to Adventure have you received, and how did you respond to them? Have you ever had to deliver a Call to Adventure to someone else?
- Can a story exist without some kind of Call to Adventure? Can you think of stories that don’t have a Call?
- In your own story, would it make a difference if the Call were moved to another point in the script? How long can you delay the Call and is this desirable?
- What is the ideal place for the Call? Can you do without it?
- Have you found an interesting way to present the Call or twist it around so it’s not a cliché?
- Your story may require a succession of Calls. Who is being called to what level of adventure?