Getting to know and assigning archetypes and action patterns in the film

Run Lola Run is not a blockbuster – is it? The unusual experimental feature film was very successful at the box office and was well received and reviewed by the media both in Germany and abroad (read on "Run, Lola, Run: The career of a film"). German films productions had previously been regarded abroad mostly as "box office poison" - until Run Lola Run took almost $7 million in the USA 20 years ago and won the audience award for best foreign film at the Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Audience Award 1999). The film was not dubbed in the USA, but had English subtitles.
In Germany, the film was able to hold its place at the top of the German cinema charts for months alongside US blockbusters and domestic relationship comedies. So is RUN LOLA RUN a blockbuster after all? So is Run Lola Run a blockbuster after all?
The analysis of successful feature films, so-called blockbusters, has shown that certain character types appear again and again. The screenwriter Christopher Vogler has created a typology of these characters, also known as archetypes. Archetypes have very specific character traits and functions for the story. The best-known archetype is probably the hero,who normally does not act alone, but meets other archetypes in the course of the film plot. Not all archetypes always have to play a role in a film. Some archetypes do not appear at all or are mixed with other archetypes. In many mainstream feature films there is also a certain pattern of action in which the hero or heroine embarks on a so-called hero's journey (sometimes called a quest), which is characterised by typical situation sequences and archetypal characters. All these characters can be male or female.

The hero is the main character of the plot. In most cases the hero or heroine is drawn in such a way that the viewer develops sympathy for him or her or even identifies with him or her. For example, he or she is usually willing to sacrifice himself or herself for others. The hero usually undergoes a transformation in the film, often caused by learning processes. This transformation ultimately advances the film plot.

The mentor is placed alongside the hero in the film plot. He is usually (but by no means always) positively characterised and guides the hero by training him or assisting him in the tests that he has to pass. Sometimes his important function is also to give the hero things he needs to complete a task, such as weapons, insights or information. The mentor is usually not generous on his own; rather, the hero must actively acquire the mentor's gifts, for example by making a promise or gaining deeper insight.

The trickster is the hero's often funny, sometimes even foolish companion. His task is to introduce relaxing comedy into the plot or to advance the story by mistakes he has made.

The herald can be a positively or negatively drawn figure that motivates the hero to do their deeds. They represent the impetus for change and tear the hero out of his ordinary life by presenting him with a new challenge.

The shadow is the hero's adversary, who strives for the hero's failure or even death. He thus becomes the decisive challenging figure for the hero, for whom he repeatedly introduces obstacles during the course of the film plot. In the end, the hero must face and defeat the shadow. In some cases a character only reveals itself as a shadow at the end of the film.

The function of the guardian of the threshold is to prevent the hero from overcoming a difficulty on his path, thus preventing them from moving forward. In this way they are ultimately there to test the hero's strength. As a rule, they appear fearsome. Although they stand against the hero, they are not the real opponent, unlike the shadow.

The shape-shifter is a figure that is opaque to the hero and hides its true intentions from him. This character, who is often the opposite sex to the hero, sometimes helps the hero, sometimes deceives them. They enrich the film plot with the aspects of uncertainty and doubt and thus serves to create tension.

Source: Christopher Vogler: Die Odyssee des Drehbuchschreibers. Frankfurt/M.: Zweitausendeins 1997

The stages of the hero’s journey

Fig. 2: The archetypes usually constitute themselves right at the beginning of the feature film, which usually functions along the lines of a hero's journey. Schillinger has sketched how the beginning of the journey typically proceeds. (Graphic modified according to Schillinger, 2006).

Task 1

  1. First decide which run you want to view. Then assign the figures of this run to the archetypes on the workspace. If you don’t think that a character fits a particular archetype, move the figure to the field Others.
  2. Drag the figures larger or smaller to make it clear how well a figure fits into the scheme. You can use the note cards to comment on your decisions and, if necessary, add further figures (or elements, forces etc.).
1st run
2nd run
3rd run
Note cards
  1. Explain to what extent the archetype scheme developed from blockbusters from Vogler can be applied to Run Lola Run. Do the typologies of the three runs differ?
  1. Explain to what extent the film Run Lola Run follows or contradicts the pattern of the hero's journey.
  1. Discuss which comparison is better suited to describe the particular structure of the film Run Lola Run: the computer game (see the learning module "It’s all just a game") or the typology of the hero's journey with its archetypes.