There is an old truism that there are only a very few basic plots for stories which are spun again and again in slightly different ways. The exact number and form of these basic plots has been debated and hypothesized many times, but the underlying idea is that all stories are just simple metaphors for the trials that all human beings must face in life. The best known of these theories, outlined in it’s most recent form by British essayist and evolution/climate change skeptic Christopher Booker, identifies seven: Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, Journey & Return, The Comedy, The Tragedy, The Rebirth, and Rags to Riches.
Side note: The Quest is not to be confused with The Quest, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Quest is actually much closer to The (unintended) Comedy.
Now, if you’re like me, the first thought that popped into your head when you read that list was, “Hey, science hater, it should be 8 stories. You forgot Ernest movies, you pompous bastard.”
But as I sat down at the keyboard ready to fire off a letter telling Mr. Booker where he could cram this and the rest of his theories, it suddenly struck me that for once he hadn’t missed the mark completely. I believe there is probably only one story, the Ernest P. Worrell story, but that story does indeed manifest itself in the 7 ways that Big Papa Booker outlined.
1. Overcoming the Monster: Ernest Goes to Camp
2. The Quest: Ernest Goes to Africa
3. Journey & Return: Ernest Goes to Jail
4. Comedy: Ernest Saves Christmas
5. Tragedy: Ernest Scared Stupid
6. Rebirth: Ernest Rides Again
7. Rags to Riches: Slam Dunk Ernest
Now of course, some Ernest tales ring closer to the heart and universal truths than others. If you’ve ever seen Ernest Goes to Africa, you probably reject the idea that going on The Quest is a worthwhile adventure. Sometimes you’re better off just staying home because what happens on the journey is going to be pretty boring and not make a bit of god damn sense.
On the other hand, if you ever need to Overcome The Monster (and of course we all do at some point), well holy shit, you could never find better inspiration than Ernest Goes to Camp. In the course of a mere 92 minutes of run time, Ernest goes from being a bumbling and clueless maintenance man who’s terrified to get a simple shot from a nurse and who breaks more stuff than he fixes, to training a group of deviant orphan children into a well drilled domestic terrorist unit who bring utter devastation to the men and machinery of a billion dollar mining corporation, all using improvised weapons and ancient Indian magic, which renders Ernest himself impervious to bullets.
According to people who do not hate science, it would take 1000 George Lucases on 1000 typewriters forever to come up with a single story as sound as Ernest Goes to Camp. Because Ernest is the everyman, what Joseph Campbell would call the Hero with A Thousand Faces, and his simple journey to Overcome his Monster belongs to all of humanity.
When he takes his beating and sings softly in the rain of his shame, it is a beating we all take with him. When the turtle bites him on the nose, it is the big green weight dragging all our faces down. When he blows up and then punches the crap out of human giant Lyle Alzado, he is striking a symbolic blow for all of us against the mining company foremen we all face in our own private lives. And when he stands down Mr. Krader’s hunting rifle with a sneer and a chuckle, he is showing us that there is no fear too great, no monster in the world that cannot be overcome, if we look to the courage and inspiration within, and the recruitable groups of violence-ready children without.
Ready to take the Hero’s Journey? Here’s Ernest Goes to Camp in it’s entirety.