SUBJECTS — ELA: the Hero’s Journey;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Self-esteem;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring.
AGE: 12+; Middle and High School Levels; MPAA Rating: PG;
1988; Romantic Comedy; 104 Minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
Josh’s quest to return to childhood fits the pattern of the Hero’s Journey, a basic paradigm of human experience described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Also called “the Monomyth” and the story of the quest, the Hero’s Journey relies heavily on Carl Jung’s insights into humanity’s collective psychology. See TWM’s student handout Stages and Archetypes of the Hero’s Journey — Introducing the Monomyth. TWM has also created a Hero’s Journey Worksheet to help students identify the stages and archetypes in any story in which the protagonist is embarked on an important quest. This Lesson Plan provides notes on responses when the worksheet is applied to Josh’s journey to the understanding that childhood is a time to be treasured and a necessary stage in the road to adulthood. The Lesson Plan also contains suggested assignments.
This lesson can be used to (1) confirm and extend students’ prior knowledge of the Hero’s Journey or (2) serve as a summative assessment in a unit about the Hero’s Journey.
The movie is 104 minutes. The amount of class time needed will depend upon the length of class discussions, the number of assignments and how many of those assignments are given as homework. TWM estimates that the lesson will take at least four 45 to 55 minute class periods.
Josh Baskin is 13 years old and starting to get interested in girls. He is also short, not having experienced his adolescent growth spurt. While attending a carnival, he sees a girl for whom he has a crush, however, he is deeply embarrassed when he is not allowed to join her on a carnival ride because he is not tall enough. Out of frustration, Josh makes a wish to be big at a fortune-telling machine, never expecting his wish to come true. The next morning Josh wakes up with the body of a 30-year-old man. This begins an adventure in which Josh learns the value of living out his childhood as nature intended.
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Selected Awards: 1988 Golden Globe Awards: Best Actor – Comedy/Musical (Hanks); 1988 Academy Awards Nominations: Best Actor (Hanks); Best Writing, Original Screenplay (Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg); 1988 Golden Globe Awards Nomination: Best Motion Picture – Comedy/Musical.
Featured Actors: Tom Hanks as Josh; Elizabeth Perkins as Susan; Robert Loggia as MacMillan; John Heard as Paul; Jared Rushton as Billy; David Moscow as Young Josh; Jon Lovitz as Scotty Brennen
Director: Penny Marshall.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
Students will describe the stages and archetypes of the Hero’s Journey manifested in a romantic comedy describing a quest for personal growth. In addition, by completing one or more of the suggested assignments, students will employ and perfect the writing skills required by ELA curriculum standards.
USING IN THE CLASSROOM
This film is best used as a lighthearted follow-up, perhaps even as a reward, after the study of literature or movies involving the Hero’s Journey. Once students are aware of the stages of the Journey and the accompanying archetypes, they can apply them to the story in this film.
Distribute TWM’s Hero’s Journey Worksheet and, if necessary, review the questions with the class before showing the film. This will enable students to refer to the worksheet or to make notes at breaks in the movie. If most students have already seen the movie, TWM suggests permitting limited discussion about how the stages of the Journey and the archetypes become manifest in the film. A full explication of the Hero’s Journey paradigm in the movie can wait until after the film has been shown. Upon completing the movie and the post-viewing discussion, students can be asked to respond to the questions in the worksheet, individually or in groups.
NOTES ON RESPONSES TO WORKSHEET PROMPTS FOR “BIG”
These notes will assist teachers in leading class discussions and evaluating student responses to written assignments. Most prompts in the worksheet have no single correct answer. An acceptable response will be any answer that is supported by facts and reveals that the student is thinking about the story.
I. Write a short single-paragraph description of the quest described in this story.
“Big” presents the psychological journey of a child who desperately wants to be an adult but who learns that adulthood will come in its own time and that he should enjoy his childhood while it lasts. The child learns this lesson while on a magical journey from childhood to adulthood and back to childhood.
II. For each stage of the Hero’s Journey, describe the action of the film, if any, which manifests the stage. Be specific about the stage and the corresponding action.
1. The Ordinary World: For Josh the Ordinary World consists of bike riding, being with his best friend Billy, tending to a little sister, being humiliated in front of the girl that he likes, and living with his family in a suburb of New York City. In short, childhood is Josh’s Ordinary World. It is unsatisfactory for Josh, and therefore unstable, because he desperately wants to be bigger immediately, without waiting for the experiences that will allow him to reach maturity.
2. The Call to Adventure: The call to the adventure of the psychological journey occurs when Josh is humiliated in front of the girl he likes. The pain is so acute as to be intolerable. This call actually leads Josh away from childhood, his eventual goal, but that is true of each Hero’s Journey. Before the hero can return home with the elixir, he must first leave.
3. Refusal of the Call: The refusal of the call in this story is not clear. The best response is that it occurs when Josh, entranced by the adult life, ignores Billy’s efforts to help him return home. This is a refusal of the call, because Josh’s journey is psychological. He needs to understand that he is not ready for adulthood and that childhood has value. Most Refusals of the Call occur early in the story, however, in “Big” it occurs later.
4. Meeting with the Mentor: Josh meets his mentor, Mr. MacMillan, in the toy store. Mr. MacMillan acknowledges the worth of childhood, and he also assists Josh in the business world of adults. Success in the world of adults is necessary for Josh to learn his lesson about the value of childhood. Had Josh been a failure as an adult, returning to childhood would have merely been seeking refuge and not a learning experience.
5. Crossing the First Threshold: When Josh takes a hotel room in New York City, he crosses the first threshold. Spending the night alone in a hotel room is an adult activity. Surviving the night, Josh is launched on his adventure as an adult.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies: One test comes when Josh, continuing his try at adulthood, gets a job and takes his paycheck to the bank where he must behave as a grown-up. Josh finds an ally in Elizabeth, who is interested in him as a co-worker and as a lover. Another ally is the worker who sits in the cubicle next to Josh. One of Josh’s enemies in adulthood is Paul. The negative, competitive nature of Paul is evident. In several scenes Paul’s childish ways as an adult are contrasted with the positive side of childhood exemplified by Josh. However, Josh’s most potent enemy, the thing that he must conquer to complete his quest, is the desire to be bigger, the desire to be an adult. This part of Josh’s personality serves the function of the archetype of the Shadow. As in most journeys of personal growth, the work that the Hero must do is internal, the reconciliation of different parts of the personality and the defeat of the Shadow.
7. The Approach to the Inmost Cave: Some may argue that once Josh sees his mother and longs for his family, he has Approached the Inmost Cave. This is a valid thought. However, the strongest interpretation is that Josh Approaches the Inmost Cave in the meeting in which he and Elizabeth present an exciting new toy line to their co-workers. Josh suddenly realizes that he is at risk of becoming trapped in the world of adulthood.
8. The Ordeal: What saves Josh and allows him to complete his quest occurs at the meeting on the new line of toys immediately after the stage of Approaching the Inmost Cave. Josh suddenly realizes that as interesting and seductive as the world of adulthood may be, he is not ready for it. The Ordeal comes an instant later when Josh decides to try to return to childhood. The battle of Josh’s Ordeal is the internal battle with the Shadow that has been Josh’s real enemy the entire time. It is the battle Josh fights with his desire to be bigger, to be an adult immediately. When Josh decides to go home and be a child again, he conquers his Shadow and resolves the inconsistency in his personality.
9. The Reward: The Reward for Josh is the understanding that while, as a child, one may desperately want to be an adult, childhood is a treasure that cannot be rushed and that should be enjoyed.
10. The Road Back: The Road Back is the need to say goodbye to Elizabeth. Josh must resist the urge to stay with her in the adult world with all its advantages. There is also a physical road back when Elizabeth drives him home, but the drive is not the important part of this stage.
11. Resurrection: As Josh walks toward his house he is transformed back into a thirteen-year-old. This is the Resurrection. The audience realizes that Josh has learned something important when, now in the body of a child, he turns and smiles back at Elizabeth.
12. Return with the Elixir: Josh brings nothing physical back with him, except the suit which is now too big and useless. He brings, however, a powerful new understanding about the value of childhood and the realization that it’s a necessary stage before true adulthood can be attained. Ideally, audience members will think about living in the age in which they currently exist and enjoy the process of becoming rather than rushing toward the next stage in life.
III. Identify the archetypes of the Hero’s Journey, that appear in the movie, and for each, describe the function it performs in telling the film’s story.
1. Hero: In this story Josh is the hero, a child who is impatient to grow up and who is shown on a quest to a new understanding about the importance and benefits of childhood.
2. Mentor:The function of the Mentor is fulfilled by Mr. MacMillan, the man who owns the toy company and who sees the value of Josh’s childlike nature. The fact that an adult sees the value of a child provides validation of the characteristics of childhood, something that Josh needs to learn to fulfill his quest by deciding to return to childhood. It can also be said that Josh’s friend Billy is a mentor because he assists Josh in passing tests in the adult world, such as finding a room, finding a job, and cashing his first check. Billy also assists Josh in finding the location of Zoltar, bringing the address to Josh in New York City. It could also be argued that Billy is simply an ally. The strongest argument that Billy is a mentor is the fact that throughout the story he steadfastly insists that Josh is a child and must return to childhood and in the assistance that he provides to Josh at several key points in the Journey; this is more the function of a mentor than a mere ally.
3. Threshold Guardian: Elizabeth initially operates as a Threshold Guardian and then changes into an ally on the Road Back.
4. Herald: Zoltar, the arcade fortune telling machine at the carnival, functions as a Herald.
5. Shapeshifter: Josh is the primary Shapeshifter in the movie. Zoltar, too is a shapeshifter, changing from inanimate arcade machine to a magical force and with flashing eyes and hungry mouth.
6. The Shadow: Josh’s desire to be big is a strongly felt presence in the film. During most of the middle section of the movie, Josh is in the thrall of the Shadow as he enjoys the privileges of adulthood: an apartment full of toys, success in the toy industry and a sexual relationship with a beautiful woman. It is the Shadow that Josh must eventually vanquish to complete his journey. This implies that the dark side of childhood yearns for the rewards of being a grown up despite lacking the maturation necessary for adulthood.
7. Trickster: Zoltar is the trickster of this film. He tricks Josh into making a wish that Josh does not expect to be granted, and then Zoltar grants it.
Students may have other ideas about what constitutes archetypes in “Big.” As Campbell and Jung advise, there are many archetypes, and one should not be bound to a list presented or by a perspective that may not apply to a particular story.
IV. Describe any other archetypes that appear in the story and the functions they perform.
1. The father: Mr. MacMillan plays the role of father to the employees in his company. as a mentor for Josh, he also manifests many of the nurturing aspects of the mother archetype.
2. The mother: Josh’s mother is a minor but necessary character. Her function is to provide a loving home to which Josh will want to return.
3. The child: This movie is all about the archetype of the child. Josh represents the innocence and potential for growth of children. The story shows the need for people to be children and to live through that stage of life. Josh also teaches adults, like Elizabeth, to live the stage of their lives to the fullest.
4. The maiden: Elizabeth embodies elements of the maiden, the pure and loving ingénue. However, she is promiscuous, having slept with one man after another. The traditional archetype of the maiden evokes sexual innocence and purity. Traditionally, a maiden who engages in sex becomes either a mother or a fallen woman. However, this does not fit with modern society, and it may be that the element of sexual innocence is being dropped from the archetype of the maiden.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:
Why did Josh run out of the conference room in which he and Elizabeth were presenting a new and exciting product to their co-workers?
One answer is that he had to get to Zoltar to change back to a child. The strongest response, one to which students should be led, is that Josh had just realized that he wanted to be a child; he had learned the lesson of the story, i.e., the experiences of childhood have value and are necessary for the attainment of maturity.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
1. There may be differences of opinion about what constitutes the stages and which archetypes are presented in “Big.” Students can share opinions about their worksheet responses on the stages and the archetypes and debate the validity of their decisions. They should be encouraged to accept that in terms of opinions, there will be no right or wrong; there can simply be weak or strong. All opinions should be backed by direct reference to the film and clear logic.
2. Children often wish they were older, and many would jump at the chance of foregoing childhood and immediately being an adult. Ask students to reflect on their own childhood and to write a brief description of an experience they have had that made them want to be older than they are. Be sure that students use description to show rather than simply tell their stories.
3. Have the students write a letter to themselves as children. They may want to warn the five-year-old they once were to avoid a particular situation or to assist their 12-year-old self on the appropriate response to a particular event. They may want to chastise or praise their former selves, give advice, or share the humor in what occurred.
4. Ask students to write a critique of the story in “Big” as an example of the Hero’s Journey. Some students will see the film as trivializing the concepts presented by Campbell, others will see the film as an important tool for bringing a complicated notion of myth to a young audience. The essays should be persuasive in nature and backed up by reference to scenes in the movie and information given in the handout.
5. Engage the class in an informal debate on the use of “Big” as a study of the Hero’s Journey. Using the information found in the handout, students can awaken respect for a romantic comedy in terms of its ability to promulgate an important idea, in this case associated with the value of childhood.
6. Engage the students in a conversation about Tom Hanks as a heroic character in this and other films. What is it about this particular actor that causes audiences to trust him and to learn from the parts he plays? Respect for acting is an important element in appreciation of the art of film, and students can offer insightful comments about the characters they see on screen. Some of these characters, such as those in westerns and a variety of action films, have become iconic heroes to much of American society. Students may be asked to write a thought exercise, or even a research essay, delineating the characteristics of heroes in film.
- The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition, by Christopher Vogel.;
- The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers;
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell;
- The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (Collected Works of C.G. Jung Vol.9 Part 1).