The hero’s transformation in 12 steps – film study
OK, let’s now see how Vertigo (1958), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, without a doubt one of the best films of all time, fits into the Intuitive Screenwriting Wheel transformation template.
1. Warrior →Fool (The exposition of a wound — ego) BATTLEFIELD
Pain caused by the wrong identity vs. all possible identities.
Scottie (James Stewart) is a detective with a scar from the past.
Battlefield: because he experiences vertigo due to his fear of heights, one of his colleagues died and that was also the end of his career.
Scottie is full of pain and resentment: there is no way he will sit behind a desk! He was the bright young lawyer who decided that he was going to be the chief of police one day, but because that man died, he is now going to quit.
That is not all: Scottie never really let himself come close to love. Either he was afraid, or he never had a real opportunity. He remembers he and Midge were once engaged, but that was a long time ago and lasted only briefly. Now he sees her as a friend, even though she is still hopelessly in love with him.
So, who is Scottie? A man with a fear of heights or a man with a fear of life/love and particularly a fear of women who are not motherly and therefore safe, like Midge, or?
2. Creator →Orphan (A ray of hope) HEART’S DESIRE
The hero’s heart vs. non-authentic relationships.
Gavin Elster, Scottie’s acquaintance from college, gives him an assignment: to follow his wife who has been behaving strangely lately. Gavin claims that a dead spirit has possessed her, but Scottie doesn’t believe that is even possible. He is retired, this is just not something he should accept. Gavin is desperate, but Scottie says no. What could possibly make him change his mind?
Maybe seeing her at the opera bar would ignite Scottie’s heart, and that heart’s desire will maybe, just maybe convince him of the opposite. And this is exactly what happens: Scottie sees Madeleine (Kim Novak) and the calling of his heart is simply irresistible. The story can begin.
3. Explorer →Magician (The hero decides to go on a quest) A BETTER LIFE IS POSSIBLE
Wrong belief vs. the hero is hooked on a new vision.
The explorer in Scottie returns to the scene. He starts to follow Madeleine: first, she goes to a flower shop, then to a cemetery to visit Carlotta Valdes’ grave, then a museum where she sits in front of the Carlotta’s portrait, finally to a hotel where she checks in as Carlotta. Scottie goes into the hotel and speaks to the receptionist who says Madeleine had not been there that day, but Scottie saw her enter. And now she is not in her room and her car is gone.
He can’t decide what the truth is, can he believe his own eyes here (Explorer=belief): is she ill or possessed? But this new vision, this magic (Magician) he feels while being close to her, that is something that he must pursue, because, there is no turning back now, he is hooked.
Scottie visits Pop Liebel, the owner of the Argosy bookshop, who helps him find out who the beautiful yet sad Carlotta was. Pop plays the role of a mentor here, someone who already knows (‘explored’) stories similar to one Scottie is about to enter.
4. Lover →Caregiver (Wish storyline) LOVE INTRODUCED
Love triggers fear (overprotectiveness).
Scottie saves Madeleine (Carlotta) who tries to kill herself by jumping into the San Francisco Bay. He takes Madeleine home and while her clothes are drying, she is coming back to her sane self. Instead of making love to her, Scottie turns into the caregiver here. Either the situation is inappropriate or he is afraid of what her presence can do to him, but instead of doing what he would actually like to do, he takes care of her. The important part is she feels safe (Caregiver) with him. The love story can now begin.
5. Sage →Destroyer (Healing is possible) REASONS BEHIND SUFFERING
Healing provokes self-destructiveness (thoughts about death).
Sequoia park: Ever-living trees are all around them, but she regresses into the darkness: “I don’t like them, (trees) knowing I have to die.” Human insignificance is brought up. Life gets compared to death and transience.
She is here but he can’t have her – she can disappear into destructiveness.
He steps into the role of a psychoanalyst (I’ve written about this part of the film before, as a moment when either the hero analyzing him/herself or someone else is analyzing him/her). Scottie wants to know who Madeleine is; he becomes obsessed with what drives her.
And then the other side of the coin (B storyline): To draw attention to herself, Midge paints herself as Carlotta, but it was just wrong and desperate move: he can’t view someone he sees as his mother (Midge), as his lover.
6. Ruler →Innocent (On the top of the false mountain) WISH FULFILLED/THE WORST POSSIBLE MISTAKE
Controlling the outside world vs. the soul’s real purpose.
Old Spanish mission: Scottie’s wish is fulfilled and sealed with a kiss and he and Madeleine say they love each other. As much as Scottie wants to control their relationship and preserve the love that they now have, they are actually at the top of the wrong mountain, and Madeleine says it’s too late. She knows something he doesn’t. She goes up the church tower, he fights his vertigo and runs after her, but is not able to save her; she falls and dies. We are about to learn about the worst possible mistake.
7. Fool →Warrior DOUBLE IDENTITY — FOOL AND GAMES UPSIDE DOWN (INSIDE OUT)
Right (new) and wrong (old) identity meet, the hero is angry as he is being fooled by fools or by himself.
This is the court scene, where the prosecutor compares Scottie's disabilities from now and from before. He was not able to save Madeleine the same way he was not able to save that policeman. As I was writing before, usually rage comes up during this stage, as the hero feels something is off.
Later on, we will learn that Scottie is being fooled by fools, (but he also fooled himself, it is always like that, no one can fool you if you are not willing to be fooled) as everything was actually staged. From the ‘upside-down’ perspective, disturbing dreams come up and Scottie is falling into his own abyss - he ends up in the hospital: is he a fool or is he a fool (crazy)? Of course, Midge comes to take care of him.
8. Orphan →Creator (Loneliness) PROBLEMS IN (CRISS-CROSS) RELATIONSHIPS
Fairness between relationships and the hero’s heart, freedom. Cheating. Between realities between stories.
After some time, Scottie is released from the hospital. He is all alone, alone in the world, wandering around, looking for Madeleine, and visiting all the places he used to see her, even though he knows she will not appear.
But she does appear, at least this woman he sees reminds him of her. He follows her – it seems like he is cheating on his memory of Madeline with her. Her name is Judy. He invites her to dinner and in order to get rid of him, she says yes. She actually is Madeleine, and her death was staged! Gavin murdered his real wife; instead of Madeleine, the dead wife was thrown from the tower, which tells us also that she is not, actually, Madeleine, she actually is Judy who was pretending to be Madeleine. Well, who the hell she is?
Is she real or is she an illusion? Who was he in love with?
And now the interesting criss-cross part comes into play: She is an ordinary woman who actually was in love with Scottie, but would he be able to be in love with her the way she truly is, or he is in love with the ghost – an illusion of her – an unachievable dream that she will never be able to fulfill.
At this moment, it is as if Judy becomes the main character, the real heroine of the film, because we enter her mind and her heart and we now know what Scottie is about to discover.
The question is, is it possible for them to be free from the past and also how can this separation inside both of them end?
He dresses her up, he takes her to a hairdresser—he wants her to look exactly like Madeleine did up to the very last detail so badly. She lets him do all this because she wants him to fall in love with her so badly. “If I let you change me, will you love me?” she says.
Can she (they) believe in love? For a brief moment, it seems like she (they) can.
9. Magician →Explorer (Magic comes from the above) TRUTH IS KNOWN
Right belonging changes the hero’s belief structure.
She forgets herself, she puts on Madeleine’s neckless and thinks that she has him, but the truth is now revealed to him. He was deceived, by which women exactly? Now, can he believe in love?
10. Caregiver →Lover (Emotional breakdown) FINAL SEPARATION
Growing up. Vulnerability leads to love or final separation.
Scottie is desperate, he takes Judy to the scene of the crime. He wants to know the truth.
11. Destroyer →Sage (Death of an old belief, self) KILL OR HEAL (Change or die)
Facing the biggest enemy (fear) brings healing.
He is finally fighting his vertigo, his fear, he wants to see the truth, he wants his second chance. He confronts her about the neckless.
The biggest disappointment is not even that he was fooled, but that Gavin made Judy/Madeleine over the same way Scottie did now (the looks, the behavior, the words), so she was not his ever – you see, he could maybe even live with the illusion of her as long as this illusion was his, but that was not the case.
The fact that she loves Scottie is irrelevant because love is an illusion. Both times it was an illusion: Judy was pretending to be Madeleine who was obsessed with the dead woman, Carlotta, so who was Scottie with? Both Judy and Scottie later become obsessed with dead woman, Madeleine, who actually can’t be dead because she never existed, she was an illusion, to begin with… but this is exactly what made her so alive to him. Do you have vertigo yet?
Love is always an illusion; we can never know the whole truth about another. As Zizek said in The Perverts guide to cinema: “The subject is always the partial something, we only see the half of the face (a person), behind there is a void. And that nothingness we fill with our fantasies”.
“The ultimate abyss is not the physical abyss, but the abyss of the depth of another person,” in which we lose ourselves – this is vertigo.
12. Innocent →Ruler (Ascension to a new world) LIVE AND SHARE LOVE
Controlling the inner world, compassion is the right way to rule and influence.
Scottie finally makes it to the top, he knows that he was not guilty; at least not of the crime, he thought he was guilty of before. His fear of vertigo has disappeared because the illusion has disappeared, but sadly the love has disappeared as well, or has it? Judy falls off the tower so that Scottie can finally again be in love with the illusion (the absence) of her. He has to ‘kill’ the real Judy, so that he can be in love with the ideal image of her, for eternity. Love is dead, long live the love.
Love cannot live without an illusion, and illusion needs love/an ideal to feed off of, but the illusion is the death of love and love is the death of an illusion. They can’t live separately, but they can’t live together either. This great paradox is the premise of Vertigo. Scottie and Judy (Madeleine) are built upon this premise. To live torn apart, in separation or with vertigo is just not possible, but do you know anyone who is not torn apart?