Overcoming the Monster (Plot #1)

Sep 08 2011

Over seven (and more) coming articles we will explore the basic plots outlined in Christopher Booker’s classic book.  The first of these is “Overcoming the monster”.

Dragons and ogres

Every culture has it’s stories of overcoming the monster, such as the English myth of George and the Dragon (perhaps the dragon is usually more fearsome than the one in the picture above). In The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker discusses many examples of this plot including the original story of all which is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Overcoming the monster is the basic plot for Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk and other childhood fairy tales, Greek legends such as many episodes from Homer’s poems and of course Perseus and Theseus, as well as Beowulf (based on an old English poem), Dracula and The War of the Worlds as well as the films High Noon, Jurassic Park, The Magnificent Seven and The Three Musketeers (to name a few).

My favourite examples of all are the Bond movies (my default bank holiday viewing), most if not all of which are based around the hero (James Bond) overcoming a ‘monster’ in the shape of a villain who is determined to ‘destroy the world’ (or at least James Bond and his bosses’ world). It’s worth taking a look at this plot structure through a favourite James Bond film Goldfinger.

The man with the midas touch

“Mr Bond, they have a saying in Chicago: ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action’.”

The plot of Goldfinger is a classic “overcoming the monster’ story and typical of almost all James Bond films.  It takes the following course, following precisely the same archetype as the stories of Perseus and Theseus in the Greek myths.

In the first act (which Booker calls the ‘Call’ or ‘Anticipation stage’), the hero (James Bond) is summoned and told he has been chosen to tackle a great threat (monster). In the case of James Bond, he is called to M’s office (the head of the British Secret Service) and told of suspicious goings on which appear to pose a threat to the world (in Goldfinger the suspicious events are movements in the price of gold and suspected smuggling). Bond has been chosen to track down and confront the source of evil (a man called Goldfinger, who is described in the original book and appears in the film as a larger than life character, avaricious and greedy, with a strange dress sense and a disregard for the value of human life). Goldfinger is truly a monster!

In most ‘Overcoming the monster’ plots the hero will be equipped with magic weapons (powerful swords, horses that can fly, helmets of invisibility) and James Bond is no exception (nor are Harry Potter with his cloak and wand or Luke Skywalker with his light sabre in other modern versions of the archetype). James Bond typically visits the armourer ‘Q’ to be equipped with his special weapons for the mission, and in Goldfinger these include a magical car equipped with all sorts of special gadgets, and a tracking device which he later uses to follow the monster.

The second stage of the plot (‘Dream’ stage) always shows the hero’s initial success in confronting the monster. In Goldfinger, a game of golf is arranged which James Bond manages to win by catching Goldfinger cheating. There is a threat when Goldfinger demonstrates his power by getting his sidekick Oddjob to show off his fatal hat and lets it be known that he owns the golf club.

In the third stage (‘Frustration’) there is a confrontation between the hero and the monster, after the hero penetrates the monster’s lair and falls into his clutches.  In Goldfinger, this is the famous scene where Goldfinger sets a laser beam on Bond, “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die”. In this stage we get full view of the monster and his evil, but there is also a chink in the armour when the monster reveals a weakness. In Goldfinger, as in many other Bond films, the villain thinks that Bond is in his power and reveals the full scale of his or her intentions (in this case to rob Fort Knox). The hero, Bond, is frustrated that he is unable to communicate this important information to the outside world, a frustration which is intensified by knowing that the villain also has a beautiful girl in his power (by this stage in the film it is Pussy Galore who flies James Bond in a private plane to Goldfinger’s stud farm in Kentucky near Fort Knox).

In the fourth stage (‘Nightmare’) the hero faces a final ordeal which is often fiendishly designed to lead to a painful and very slow death.In Goldfinger, James Bond is handcuffed to a large atomic bomb, which Goldfinger intends to explode within Fort Knox, not to steal the gold but to make it unusable for decades, inflating the price of his own gold treasury and also pleasing the Chinese government with whom he is colluding. In the meantime, Bond has also persuaded Pussy Galore to substitute the deadly gas she is to spray over the Fort Knox area with something less fatal.

In the fifth and final stage (‘Death of the monster’) there is a miraculous escape and the monster is killed.  Bond survives the ordeal by extricating himself from the handcuffs, killing Oddjob by electrocuting him with his steel-rimmed hat and then disarming the atomic device (with the help of a nuclear scientist who turns up just in time as the seconds tick down to ’007′! As Bond flies to meet the US President he finds that Goldfinger has hijacked the plan (he escaped from Fort Knox in an army uniform), and they struggle for a gun before Bond shoots out a window and Goldfinger is blown out of the plane with the decompression that this causes, leaving Bond to parachute to the ground with Pussy Galore (thus ‘getting the girl’).

The old story

Despite the modern trappings (or at least the almost 50 year ago trappings) this is a story that could have been told by the Greeks or any other ancient civilisation and is one we are all introduced to at a very young age.

The plot is a great template for brand advertising and communications too and seen in many successful adverts. Who wouldn’t want to overcome the monster of a serious consumer frustration or problem, a safety issue or even an evil competitor? For example, much of detergent and toothpaste advertising follows exactly this pattern as well as many public health campaigns.

Look out for six other plots in the next few days and weeks, and also more insight into the symbolism of gold and its use in Goldfinger and across all cultures.

“Golden words he will pour in your ear
But his lies can’t disguise what you fear
For a golden girl knows when he’s kissed her
It’s the kiss of death …”

REFERENCE

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker (2004)

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