Because I was born in the early 1980s, I grew up with an immortal adulation for the best two hours of Saturday morning cartooning ever conceived for a growing boy. In succession (though the order fails me now) I faithfully watched GI Joe, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, and, best of all, Transformers. Transformers, of course, was a program about the ongoing, interstellar war between robots. The greatest among them, leader of the Autobots, was Optimus Prime. He was the main character of the show. He was a Superman kind of character. Noble, just, uncompromising, and impossibly good. And, apparently, a talented concert pianist.
Because the rumors of a live action Transformers move have circulated around magazines and the internet as long as I can remember, I had no choice but to see this extraordinarily expensive film, regardless of how bad it looked, or how prominent involved Michael Bay (director of Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, and the Bad Boys movies) was.
What I found was, in fact, much worse and much better than I could have hoped or expected. No less confusing, the most surprising thing I found was one of my favorite dead white guys: Mr James Joyce.
Dubliners and Araby
In 1914, one of the greatest short story compilations in the history of written English was published: Joyce’s Dubliners. The book contains 15 stories, among which the greatest, longest, and most famous is the final story, The Dead. The most important story, however, for our purposes today, is the third story, Araby.
In Araby, a young boy has become infatuated with a young girl, and in order to win her hand, offers to buy her something from the Araby bazaar, which she will not be able to reach. He is giddy with excitement to attend this wild, foreign bazaar, with its strange men and women and things to buy. Likewise, he is thrilled at the prospect of his future lovelife (and sexlife) upon returning from the magical bazaar with a gift for the girl. Once the boy reaches Araby, however, it’s late, and most of the shops are closed, and the only sound is that of men counting their money. The boy find a woman engaged in an inane conversation with two men, and she only gives the boy the briefest of attentions before turning back to the men.
The boy is crushed. His opinions of Araby, of the girl, and of love are all abandoned, and with them, the boy abandons his childhood.
The Hero’s Journey
This story serves as a simple version of one of Joyce’s favorite story structures: the monomyth or hero’s journey. The hero’s journey is a story with this basic structure:
1. The call to adventure-here, when the girl complains that she cannot go to the bazaar.
2. A series of trials that the hero must pass-in Araby, it’s the act of getting to the bazaar itself.
3. The granting of a boon-here, it is the granting of the boy’s adulthood.
4. Return “home”-in Araby, it’s the literal traveling home.
5. Application of the boon-this is mostly (okay, entirely) implied in Araby, but it is the boy’s actions as a newly made adult.
A Most Famous Example
The structure is familiar to you. The most famous example of it, perhaps, is Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is called to adventure, as his aunt and uncle have been killed, and he’s left with a crazy old guy and a couple of robots. He must pass the trials of getting off Tatooine, and surviving and saving Princess Leia and all that. He is granted a boon, namely his skill with a lightsaber and the Force, as well as the knowledge that Darth Vader is his father. He “returns home” to Han Solo and the rest of the Rebel forces, and he uses his skill with the Force and the saber, as well as his relationship with Papa Vader to defeat the Emperor and bring down the Evil Empire.
Where does that leave the new Transformers movie? Well, for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, here’s the explanation (and for those of you who don’t want to see it, I don’t know why you’ve read the last 700 words, but you might as well read the next 350 as I explain and wrap up.
Almost offensively, the main character of Transformers is not Optimus Prime. Or Megatron (who, speaking of Star Wars, appears to transform into an X-wing fighter. Seriously.). The main characters are some high school junior, Sam, and his would-be girlfriend (on whom he has an Araby-like crush) Mikaela. Next to them is a soldier, Sergeant Hamel, and after them you could probably make an argument for Bumblebee. Seriously. Bumblebee. And somewhere in the background behind all those guys are Megatron and Optimus Prime, John Tuturro and Jon Voight, and the token blonde “hacker”.
The kid, Sam, is definitely going through a hero’s journey. Observe:
1. The call to adventure-kid gets a car that “steals itself”. Finds out it’s a big robot.
2. Series of trials-the kid must survive, and fetch a pair of glasses that contain crucial information for the robots.
3. Granting of a boon-the kid is trusted by the Autobots, and he befriends them.
4. Return “home”-this means dealing with humans, namely “Sector 7”, a fictional government agency in charge of alien technologies, as well as the Secretary of Defense, and the army, and so on.
5. Application of the boon-the kid uses his friendship with the Autobots to help them destroy The Cube (which is, uh, important) as defeating the Decepticons. He also gets the girl.
Does it sound like there are not a lot of robots in this robot movie? Well, they’re always around, I suppose, performing all variety of robo-action sequences and wreaking people’s yards. But they don’t really exist as characters on any sort of viable level, and as a result, I have no problem considering them, essentially, high tech props in this story.
Regardless, the movie is good in that Michael Bay sort of way-loud = humor, hot girls = important characters, and blow everything up. Bay actually manages to make the movie without, I suspect, really bothering the fanbase by making the movie more about humans than about Transformers, even though there’s an Autobot or Decepticon in just about every scene.
And Remember Kids…
“No one is ever really disabled as long as they have courage.”