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.)
In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, the Hero's Journey is actually divided in two. You can look at the film on its own—as a single beginning/middle/end story—or you could look at it as Chapter One of a seven-chapter (or eight-movie) saga, which means it probably just encapsulates the first four of five stops on the Joseph Campbell Express. For simplicity's sake, we're going to look at this as a stand-alone story, instead of one part of a larger saga.
Welcome to life with the Dursleys: they make "ordinary" look "heavenly."
In this world, Harry's a grade-A outcast with a side order of weirdo. He talks to snakes, he lives under a cupboard, and, as Uncle Vernon ominously implies, strange things happen whenever he's around. (Like his cousin ending up in the reptile pen and the snake going out to see the sights.)
We know from the very first scene—the one where Dumbledore and McGonagall dump him on the doorstep—that he doesn't belong to this world. Harry is destined for better things, and the ordinary world is destined for a permanent spot in his rear-view mirror.
Call To Adventure
Owls start dropping off invitations to Hogwarts: somewhere for Harry to go that doesn't involve making breakfast for a family of gastropods. And when the Dursleys get that invitation…well, that would be telling. Let's move along, shall we?
Refusal of the Call
The refusal gets a little funky here, because Harry himself doesn't actually refuse it. In fact, he's pretty much kicking the door down to get on the road to adventure. It's the Dursleys who refuse it: largely because they're enormous jerkwads who dislike the notion that Harry could be happy about anything.
This actually forms the first real dramatic conflict between the Dursleys and whichever wizard at Hogwarts's is sending those letters. (We're guessing Dumbledore from the handwriting.) They go to absurd lengths to stop the letters from coming: how absurd depends on whether you're watching the theatrical version of the extended version, but even the shorter one gives you a pretty good idea of just how determined they are to deny a small boy any chances at happiness. (Stay classy, guys.)
Naturally, they don't succeed, since Hagrid finally comes to claim Harry. And this spells unhappiness for ye olde Dursleys. While Aunt Petunia merely gets to relive old sister issues, Uncle Vernon develops a rich and lustrous variety of facial tics, and Dudley develops an oinky little tail.
Meeting The Mentor
Harry's got a couple of mentors, but we'll go with the first one he meets: Hagrid. The giant shows up to pull Harry out of perennial Dursley-dom and show him what kind of world he belongs to.
Hagrid make a great starter mentor for Harry because, while he's a grown-up, he definitely doesn't have all the answers, and his inherent goofiness makes him much more approachable than someone like Dumbledore. Harry's had enough PTSD to last a lifetime, so maybe easing him into the Wizarding World with a friendly galoot will be easier than some stern, imposing beard-o type staring down his nose at him.
Crossing The Threshold
J.K. Rowling likes her stops on the Hero's Journey to be brightly lit and clearly labeled. That's why Harry's threshold forms a set piece all on its own: Diagon Alley, full of broom shops, magic toy stores, and handy purveyors of fluffy, snuggly owls.
Like Hagrid, it's a safer, harmless version of the larger Wizarding World beyond—Diagon Alley lets Harry get his feet wet in this new environment without worrying about the nastier, scarier stuff that's on its way. And hey, it lets him pick up a magic wand and a pet owl.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
The tests Harry faces in The Sorcerer's Stone are fairly mild compared to the troubles he encounters in later chapters, but even so, Hogwarts's ain't exactly safe. We've got trolls in the bathrooms, three-headed dogs in the basement and magic mirrors that will swallow your soul.
And somehow, Harry always seems to find himself without any adults to deal with the issue. Welcome to the Hero's Journey kid. Hope you brought some Band-Aids.
Luckily, he doesn't have to go through it all alone. His stout-hearted buddies Ron and Hermione come along for the ride: a bit wet behind the ears, of course, but always ready to join Harry in a terrified shriek when danger rears its ugly head. He gets goodies too—that cloak is awful snazzy, but his wand ain't too shabby.
And since not all of the tests are life-and-death—the Quidditch match is brutal, but nothing compared to getting eaten alive by magic vines—some of those gifts are more fun than useful. (Seriously, who doesn't want a Nimbus 2000?)
The movie wraps all those tests and ordeals up in a great big mystery, which Harry and his friends slowly piece together over the course of their first year at Hogwarts. It gives them a chance to strut their stuff, learn and grow while moving towards…
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The innermost cave lies past that CGI dog (which looked a lot more believable in 2001 than it does now), which means that Harry and his friends have to go there.
Luckily, they figure out a way past Fluffy pretty easily, and once past it, they face a trio of tests: each one planted there by a different professor, and yet each one specifically keyed to their own skills.
Hermione, she of the obsessive library fixation and the ability to memorize ancient tomes like they were comic books, has to get them past the tangling vines at the beginning. Ron has to play Wizard's Chess like a boss…and even give himself up so that Harry can checkmate it and move on to the final confrontation.
It helps to have good buddies along, but when you enter the deepest cave, you have to do so alone.
The Ordeal itself stands separate from the other trials Harry faces, and you can tell right away that it's more serious than his other tests. Earlier in the film, Harry and his friends have the teachers to bail them out. And while no one wants to see Malfoy make that smug little grin, at least they're not in any real danger of being killed.
That all changes once they get past Fluffy. There's no Dumbledore here to pick them up when they fall. Even worse, they're headed straight to Voldemort—or at least the incarnation of Voldemort living behind Professor Quirrell's head like a malevolent boil—which means that failure is, in Dumbledore's words, "a most unpleasant death."
That freaky wizard's chess game, the strangling vines, and that room full of flying keys are all happy to grant one if Harry and his pals don't keep their wits about them.
Speaking of those pals, Harry ends up losing them before the ordeal is over. Not permanently, thankfully, but they definitely end up on the sidelines before the big dance with Voldemort: Harry faces the final ordeal on his own.
Harry is tested both physically (with the fire and the wrath and whatnot) and morally (Voldemort tells him he can bring Harry's loved ones back to life). As expected, he emerges with flying colors (though a little bit of mom's magic doesn't hurt), and Voldemort is banished to the land of Sit Tight Until the Next Sequel Arrives.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
With Voldemort gone, the Sorcerer's Stone is safe from his clutches and he has to stay in Evil Smog form until he can figure out some other way of bringing himself back to life. Quirrell quite literally blows away in a stiff breeze and Harry, though knocked unconscious, gets to wake up in a much safer world.
The Road Back
Harry—and by extension the audience—gets to skip all this (unconsciousness will do that to you). We can assume it's a fairly uneventful trip from where he, Ron and Hermione are found and taken to the school's nursing station, where he rests comfortably until Dumbledore shows up for one last magical bit of plot exposition.
Harry wakes up in a hospital bed to a pile of candy and a very bemused headmaster. Recovering from an injury is a great short-hand way of making the symbolic resurrection of the hero a little more believable, as well as letting the author cut to the chase and fill us in on what happened post-jaw-dropping climax (which, let's face it, is usually a lot less interesting than the climax itself).
In any case, Harry returns from the dead (or at least the severely wounded) and brings the fruits of his sacrifice with him. High-fives and chocolate frogs all around.
Return With The Elixir
The elixir in this film is leaving the Wizarding World blissfully free of Voldemort…at least for the time being. Granted, Dumbledore believes that Voldemort will be back, but Harry has bought them all time to prepare, to plan, and to let the Boy Who Lived crank those magic levels up to eleven.
That's no small thing, and when you're playing for keeps the way Dumbledore is, you take your victories wherever you can find them.
For Harry, it also means cementing his newfound abilities with some real confidence. He faced the enemy and survived, and while it's not going to be this easy every time, he at least knows that he has the inner resources to make a go of it. That's no small feat for a boy who grew up in a cupboard under the stairs.