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.)
The ordinary world is supposed to be dull and gray: the hero's bored with it, and the excitement has gone out of his or her life. Enter Kansas. It has everything a beleaguered starting point needs. For starters, it's kind of overly familiar. Dorothy never thinks too much of it, at least at first, and it definitely isn't burdened by any details like color. She even goes so far as to sing a song about going somewhere over a rainbow or something.
Kansas is full of people who definitively don't get her, and as far as interesting activities go, anything more sophisticated than slopping hogs and counting chickens is pretty much off the table. No wonder she's singing: there's nothing else to do!
Call to Adventure
In the most literal sense, the Call to Adventure comes with the tornado that whisks her to Oz. It's a pretty impressive tornado too; that funky cool effect they used to create it still freaks us out.
But the tornado's incidental compared with the emotional disaster wrought by Almira Gulch. The cyclone becomes a symbol of what she's trying to do to Dorothy, and by extension anyone she can get her bony claws on. The tornado is dangerous, but Gulch? That woman's scary.
She shows up with murder on her mind after some ongoing troubles with Dorothy and Toto, involving cats supposedly chased and legs purportedly bitten (though for all her complaining, Miss Gulch gets around on that bicycle like Lance freaking Armstrong). She owns half the county, she throws words like "lawsuit" around with ease, and her bloodlust for good-natured little terriers knows no bounds. For some reason, no one likes her very much. In short, she's just the kind of disaster that any Campbellian heroine needs to take down. And take her down Dorothy shall.
Refusal of The Call
Refusing the call never goes well, and The Wizard of Oz is no exception. In this case, Dorothy resorts to running away to keep Toto safe. (And maybe travel somewhere that doesn't have the color turned all the way down.) She balks, however, once she realizes that Aunt Em and Uncle Henry really do care about her, and tries to head back home. Nothing doing. The Road to Adventure cannot be denied, and if you refuse to walk it, it's just gonna send a cyclone to do its dirty work.
Meeting the Mentor
The good news for Dorothy is that she doesn't have to wait long for some advice. After inadvertently cutting Oz's wicked witch population in half, she gets an extra-special visit from the lovely Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. Glinda explains the basic political scene in Oz and suggests a way Dorothy might get home. She even helps her with a pair of magic shoes, though the shoes do more harm than good since the Witch of the West is jonesing for them.
No matter. Dorothy has somebody looking out for her, and while she'll eventually have to go on along, it's nice knowing that Glinda and her space bubbles have got a gal's back.
Crossing The Threshold
One nice thing about The Wizard of Oz: the road is clearly labeled. Literally. We infer from Glinda's dialogue that Dorothy safely crosses the border to Munchkinland, but the threshold here is so prominent that they actually have a whole musical number to celebrate it. Dorothy heads off down the road with high hopes and a garland of flowers. There's a long journey ahead of her, but at least she knows that it's begun and how to get there without Google Maps.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Dorothy only has one enemy, but she's a big 'un. She and her buddies run into the Wicked Witch of the West over and over again, and it's clear as they go on that nobody gets any goodies until the old bat is out of the way.
She picks up some good friends too. Toto was with her from the beginning, but the other three find themselves at common purpose with Dorothy. She seems to have a way to get what they need, and they each bring something to the table that she wouldn't have otherwise. More importantly, they love her to death and would cheerfully give their lives in her defense (which they may have to do, considering the Witch is so mean.) Best of all, they have each other's back on the road of trials: whatever they have to face, they're not doing it alone.
Speaking of the Road of Trials… yeah, they have some tests to pass, almost all of them sent over by that cackling lunatic on the broomstick. Some of them they can handle on their own, like the fireball that W3 shoots at the Scarecrow, which the Tin Man puts out. Others require help from local good witches, like the soporific poppies. But there's certainly no shortage of challenges, and even the ones that don't directly come from the Witch, like that scary giant head in the Wizard's throne room, seem to point them to an inexorable showdown with her. Sounds like a Campbellian boss fight headed right this way.
Approach to The Inmost Cave
The period between the Wizard's throne room and the rescue of Dorothy is probably the scariest in the whole film. And with good reason: when you dive into the Cave, you're at your most vulnerable and the monsters are getting ready to bring out the big guns. That haunted forest is bad enough, but when the Witch sends her flying monkeys out, you'd better believe our heroes are wetting their pants. Admit it—you did, too. Dorothy's friends keep picking themselves up after the monkey attack and sneaking into the Witch's castle, but Team Good Guys is looking pretty darn dejected right about now.
The Ordeal might begin when the Witch turns that hourglass over to kill Dorothy, or it might start when Dorothy's friends have freed her and the Witch locks them in. The two moments are only a couple of minutes apart, but already it spells bad news. Soon enough, they're cornered by her guards, and as the Witch herself says, "the last to go will see the first three go before her." (Seriously lady, have you tried decaf?)
But just when things look their bleakest, Dorothy rallies with a nearby water bucket, and suddenly the scariest woman in all of cinematic history collapses into a puddle. Notch another dead witch on Dorothy's belt, and let's get the party started.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
Technically, the Witch's broomstick is the reward Dorothy and her friends get for going through all those trials and ordeals. But that's just to keep the story moving. What they really get is the knowledge that they survived all that, and if it should return again, they'll be ready to face it.
They might even teach that Wizard a thing or two, too.
The Road Back
The road back cuts straight through the Wizard's throne room, as the gang first demands and then receives everything they had coming to them. Granted, they always had those things to begin with, but who are we to spoil their day? They're just so happy. Dorothy, however, is going to need a little more, so the road takes an airborne detour, first with the Wizard's balloon and then, after Toto complicates Dorothy's life again, with those magic ruby slippers.
In the old-school stories, resurrection means returning to the mortal world from the realm of the gods. In this case, it means leaving the eye-popping colors behind in favor of plain old Kansas. Yup, boring gray Kansas, where the monkeys don't have wings (do they even have monkeys in Kansas?), the wizards have lousier effects budgets, and no one asks you to go mano-a-mano with a wicked witch. Welcome home Dorothy! Enjoy the rich sepia tones!
Return With The Elixir
Here and only here does the film start to get a little muddied on the Hero's Journey front. And then only a little. The "elixir" is basically Dorothy reunited with her family, which completes her Hero's Journey even though her family doesn't realize she's been gone. She's happy to be home and they're happy to have her. Maybe the elixir is self-confidence. Or the knowledge that "there's no place like home."
Now technically speaking, she needs to share her rewards with the whole community, and while we suppose she does that simply by popping back up in her bed, the fact that she killed the Wicked Witch should reverberate over into the "real world." To folks back home, Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch, and Dorothy's journey won't mean anything unless she's out of the way. The film never definitively answers the question, but if it was all a dream, then the possibility exists that she's still alive.
Thankfully, The Wizard of Oz stuck so closely to the Campbellian formula that it's reasonable to assume Miss Gulch bit the big one. Maybe the tornado killed her, drowned in the storm, possibly (the water thing). Could be it doesn't matter, because Dorothy, newly confident, killed her off psychologically. Regardless, she had to go, and even if it was all a dream, Dorothy's symbolic killing of the Wicked Witch should translate into a very real Gulch-free life for everyone else. That does make home worth coming to, doesn't it?