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.)
Will Hunting lives an ordinary life as a janitor by day and a good ol' beer-drinking buddy by night. There's just one thing: He's probably one of the smartest people in the world. But his intelligence doesn't count for much after he assaults a police officer during a fight and gets himself tossed in jail. But even though this might all seem like a big conflict for Will, it actually sounds pretty normal in his world.
Call to Adventure
Will gets a chance to stay out of prison when Professor Lambeau from MIT shows up and offers to get him out. Turns out that Lambeau knows Will is a genius and he has provided two conditions for Will's release from prison. First, he has to work with Lambeau on math problems once a week, and second, he has to attend therapy.
Refusal of the Call
Will is fine with working on math with Lambeau, but he has absolutely no interest in therapy. So he uses his intelligence and arrogance to scare off his first five therapists. It looks like he's going to get his way and get to keep living the way he's always been living. After all, he's not going to let someone like Lambeau tell him what to do.
Meeting the Mentor
Things change drastically for Will after he meets his sixth therapist, Sean Maguire. One of the things that immediately makes Maguire different from Will is that he is willing to show Will his deepest vulnerabilities, including the pain he still feels after losing his wife. Will thinks that Maguire will never want to see him again, but Maguire surprises him by continuing with their meetings in spite of Will's cruelty.
Crossing the Threshold
Will's life changes when he goes to a bar at Harvard University and meets a girl named Skylar. They go on a really great date together, but Will never calls her back after that because he's afraid of ruining the perfect vision he has of them together.
When he tells this to Maguire, Maguire sits him down and says that the most important things in life can only be learned when we put our hearts on the line and risk getting hurt. Otherwise, Will will just go through his whole life without getting close to anyone or experiencing life's greatest joys.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
As Will's treatment with Maguire unfolds, Professor Lambeau gets impatient with the progress they're making and pressures Maguire to speed things up. Frankly, Lambeau doesn't care if Will is happy, as long as he can stay out of jail long enough to do some exciting things with mathematics.
This impatience eventually leads to a big fight between Lambeau and Maguire. Lambeau accuses Maguire of being a failure and of trying to turn Will into the same thing. Maguire accuses Lambeau of being a pompous jerk who can't see the world on any terms but his own.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
Will feels the pressure in his life building as his relationship with Skylar gets more serious and his treatment with Maguire delves deeper into his emotions. He also has a frank conversation with his buddy Chuckie about what he's going to do with his life, and Chuckie tells him he's wasting his time pretending to be just like everyone else in his neighborhood.
The truth is that whether he likes it or not, Will isn't like everyone else.
Will's life falls apart when Skylar tells him she loves him and asks him to move to California with her. Will has been doing well with his therapy, but only because he hasn't felt a huge amount of pressure.
Skylar's sudden request makes Will pull away violently. He tells her he doesn't love her and basically walks out of her life. Then he has a big fight with Maguire and walks out of therapy, which makes it seem as though all the progress he's made has been wiped away.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Once it looks like he's going to head right back to his normal life, Will goes into therapy with Maguire again and ends up having a breakthrough. Maguire brings up Will's history of abuse and tells him "It's not your fault" over and over until Will breaks down and cries.
Maguire has waited for the right moment to talk about Will's abuse, but now that he has, it looks like Will can finally begin the process of making decisions about his future.
The Road Back
After his breakthrough with Maguire, Will decides to move on with his life and take one of the jobs that Professor Lambeau set up for him. It looks like he's really going to start acting like an adult and exploring the world outside his home neighborhood. He also calls Skylar one more time to say goodbye before she leaves for California.
On Will's birthday, his friends get together and give him a new car. Although "new" car is a bit of an overstatement, since the car is something the boys put together from a bunch of scrap materials they found all over the place.
Not long after that, Chuckie goes to Will's house to pick him up for work and finds that Will isn't there. He instantly knows that Will has left the neighborhood and this makes Chuckie happy, since he's always wanted Will to go out and experience the world outside Boston.
Return With the Elixir
In the movie's final scene, Will leaves a note for Maguire saying that instead of taking the job Lambeau set up for him, he (Will) is heading to California to be with Skylar. He also makes sure to steal the same line that Maguire told his buddies when he first went on a date with his future wife, Nancy.
So in the end, the most important thing we learn about Will is that he's a plagiarist—just kidding.