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.)
When Ben returns from whatever prestigious college he attended in the east, he's confronted by a graduation party that punctures his introspective mood. His parents' friends are all asking him what he's going to do next—scholarship winner and track star that he is. One family friend suggests that a career in plastics would be a good idea, though it doesn't seem to appeal to Ben at all. All he knows is that he's discontent and that he wants his future to be "different."
Call To Adventure
The call to adventure comes when Mrs. Robinson asks Ben to give her a ride home. After arriving at the Robinson residence, it quickly becomes pretty clear that she's trying to seduce him. She puts on music, offers him a drink, and starts talking about her personal life. Things get a little more obvious when she wants his help taking off her dress. Finally, they become totally obvious, when she gets naked and traps Benjamin in the room with her, telling him that if he won't sleep with her now, he can do it later.
Refusal Of The Call
Ben is resistant to Mrs. Robinson's advances, and turns her down, as he hears her husband pulling into the driveway. This is really too big of a trespass—sleeping with an older, married woman who's friends with his parents. After all, adultery isn't really a call to adventure in a traditional "hero's journey" kind of way, though it evidently is in an "anti-hero's journey" kind of way. Ben hasn't yet summoned the nerve to violate classic morality and become the anti-hero he's destined to be.
Meeting The Mentor
After escaping this near-seduction, Ben runs downstairs and ends up talking with Mr. Robinson. In a moment of high irony, Mr. Robinson gives him some friendly advice, telling him that he won't be this young again and that he should take it easy and have fun with the girls, have a few flings. The irony is, of course, that Mr. Robinson's wife was trying to seduce Ben into just such a fling. You definitely couldn't say that Mr. Robinson is actually Ben's mentor, but he serves up a comically unwitting parody of the role in this scene.
Crossing The Threshold
After some alienation symbolized by a depressing scuba-diving experience, Ben rings up Mrs. Robinson. He invites her to a hotel. After some awkward interactions with the room clerk, he manages to meet with Mrs. Robinson but starts to have second thoughts. When she questions whether he's sexually experienced enough, he gets annoyed and actually does sleep with her, setting the main action of the movie into motion.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Embarking on this affair hasn't actually solved any of Benjamin's problems. He drifts in his pool during the day, and meets with Mrs. Robinson in secret trysts at night. His parents are worried about him, and feel like he's wasting time and not fulfilling his academic and social promise. They essentially force Benjamin to go on a date with Elaine. Mrs. Robinson is aghast at the idea, and Benjamin promises her that he won't go on any second date. But his attempt to torpedo his date with Elaine leads to an unexpected connection. He apologizes to her for his rude behavior (and for taking her to a strip club) and they hit it off, empathizing with each other over how confused they feel about the future. Ben starts to fall in love with Elaine.
Approach To The Inmost Cave
Mrs. Robinson does not approve of this budding relationship, given the fact that she's been having an affair with Ben. She threatens to tell Elaine the truth, but Ben pre-empts her and spills the beans first. Elaine is upset and yells at Ben to get out. She heads back to school at Berkeley, but Ben shortly follows her, trying to convince her to marry him. While there, he ends up dealing with a difficult and suspicious landlord and even has an extremely uncomfortable run-in with a very upset Mr. Robinson. But he seems to be working on Elaine—she says that she might marry him.
Unfortunately, Elaine's already become engaged to a Berkeley frat boy named Carl Smith. Their wedding is set and the details are kept secret from Ben to prevent him from interrupting it. However, he's able to get the info from one of Carl's frat brothers, and drives full-speed to Santa Barbara (where the wedding is being held), running out of gas a mile away, and running on foot the rest of the way.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
He arrives just as the wedding vows are being made. Pounding on a window on the second floor of the church he calls out to Elaine. She yells back to him— "BEN!!" oops. Ben fights off the angry wedding guests, using a large cross at one point. He uses the cross to the lock them in, slipping it through the outside door's handles, and then he and Elaine run out of the church. She, dressed in her bridal gown, is the reward.
The Road Back
Ben and Elaine quickly hop on a city bus, exuberant and exhilarated. The wedding guests run around in the street behind, unsure where they've gone. However, Ben and Elaine's expressions grow more neutral, as they apparently consider the immense uncertainties awaiting them in the future… and that's where the movie ends.
We don't actually get to see this happen in the movie—if it does happen. Since The Graduate doesn't really cover "the hero's journey" but the anti-hero's journey, it would be weird if it had a totally happy, non-ambiguous ending for Benjamin. He's not really resurrected—i.e. restored to a renewed and enjoyable life. Sure, he's demonstrated courage, but hasn't exactly defeated Darth Vader or anything: he's just committed adultery and then successfully run away with the woman he thinks he loves. It shows a lot of energy and guts, in a way, but it's not really altruistic or heroic. Thus we don't get to see a quintessentially happy Hollywood ending. It's left in uncertainty.
Return With The Elixir
This is something else we don't get to witness. The hero classically returns to the normal world, and then uses his new powers and abilities to benefit the rest of humanity. Since Benjamin's quest was just for Elaine, it lacks this other dimension. But who knows? Maybe Ben will do something valuable—in the sequel to the book version of The Graduate, Home School by Charles Webb, Ben and Elaine stick together, get married, and have some kids (who they home school, hence the book's title).