Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
One quick thing: unlike most heroes, Forrest doesn't really have a character arc. Keep that in mind as we follow him through his journey: dude doesn't change.
When we meet Forrest Gump, he's sitting on a bus-stop bench telling some unsuspecting lady his life story. Lucky us, we get to eavesdrop, and we hear all about how he was born with an IQ of only 75 and had to wear braces on his legs because of his crooked back, but luckily he had a momma who always looked out for him and a best friend named Jenny. IQ aside, that world sounds pretty ordinary to us.
Call to Adventure
By the time he hits high school, Forrest has managed to grow out of his leg braces. In fact, he's so fast on his feet that he earns himself a football scholarship to the University of Alabama. Not too shabby for a guy who almost didn't qualify for public school as a kid. While at school, Forrest becomes an All-America player and meets President John F. Kennedy. It looks like Forrest has great things ahead of him.
Refusal of the Call
Despite all of the great success he has at the University of Alabama, the only thing Forrest really wants is for his best friend, Jenny, to come live with him in their hometown of Greenbow, Alabama. Jenny, on the other hand, is hearing that siren song calling her into the great, big world. Apparently lacking anything better to do, Forrest enlists in the Army and ends up heeding that call after all.
Meeting the Mentor
When Forrest is a boy, his momma is his biggest mentor. But the boy becomes a man, and he needs a new mentor to show him around: Lt. Dan, who's just the kind of order-barking father figure Forrest always wanted. But, he disobeys Lt. Dan's direct order to leave him behind after he gets his legs blown off in battle. You might say that Forrest falls back on what his momma would have said.
Crossing the Threshold
After he gets wounded in the Vietnam War, Forrest receives the Congressional Medal of Honor and discovers that he's a pretty rockin' ping-pong player. So, rather than go back to fighting, Forrest promotes the Army with his ping-pong skills because nothing says "Be All You Can Be" like whacking a tiny ball around.
Once he's discharged from the Army, Forrest earns a huge payout from a ping-pong endorsement deal and crosses the threshold when he buys a shrimping boat to fulfill his promise to a dead friend named Bubba.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
At first, things don't go so well. For starters, he seems to lack the one talent that's necessary for operating a shrimping boat: catching shrimp. But, help comes when Lt. Dan, his newfound ally, arrives to be his first mate. The two nearly die in a hurricane but end up being the only shrimping boat left undamaged in the region when the storm is done.
Passing through the storm makes them into millionaires, heals Lt. Dan's wounded psyche, and sets up Forrest to take care of his momma just as well as she took care of him.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
But then, things get dark. Mrs. Gump dies of cancer, and Jenny shows up to lead on Forrest a little more before running away just when Forrest asks her to marry him. What's going to become of our intrepid and optimistic hero now?
With Jenny gone, Forrest can't think what else to do but start running—which he does for the next three years, back and forth across America. In Forrest's mind, there's no deep reason or symbolism, but you can bet that everyone in America projects their own hopes and dreams onto what he's doing.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
When Forrest finally slows down after three years of running, he gets a letter from Jenny asking him to come visit her. This is the first time Jenny has ever actually asked for Forrest, and it's a super big victory for him—we guess. After shrugging him off for so many years, Jenny isn't exactly our most favorite person.
The Road Back
Forrest's road back is literally the road he takes back to Jenny since he's spent the entire movie waiting for a bus that's supposed to take him to Jenny's home. When an old woman sitting next to him says that Jenny's place is only a few blocks away, Forrest hops up and runs the rest of the way to her house, where he gains a son and a fiancée in pretty short order.
Forrest and Jenny head back to Greenbow, Alabama, to get married. Not long after the marriage, Jenny dies from an unnamed disease, aka AIDS, but Forrest is just happy that he got to be her husband. So, yeah, this is a pretty grim resurrection, but let's focus on the positive: Forrest now gets to focus on raising their son, Forrest Jr.
Return with the Elixir
In the movie's final scene, Forrest sends off his son on his first day of school. Forrest Jr. goes through the same exchange with his bus driver that Forrest Sr. did when he was just a boy. Before Forrest Jr. heads off, he and his dad tell each other that they love each other—and what better elixir than that? Forrest Jr. gets to redeem both of his parents: he has the love Jenny never had and the intelligence (and wealth) that Forrest never did.