Fear and "The Karate Kid"
This weekend, the remake of one of the seminal 1980's films will hit the screen. I'll be there! But until I actually see it, it is fun to go back and take a look at what made the original so powerful an experience for so many millions of fans. Basically, it is the story of a skinny kid named Danial (Ralph Macchio) who, with his mom, moves to a new neighborhood and school and is promptly beset by karate-chopping bullies. His apartment building's superintendent Mr. Miyagi (a really excellent Pat Morita) turns out to be a master of this ancient art. He takes Danial under his wing, becoming a father substitute, martial mentor, comic relief, and tragic figure all in one. There follows a series of training montages that are part "Rocky" and part "Kung Fu", leading to a karate tournament where Danial finally faces his enemies, and emerges with genuine pride and the respect of his former enemies.
The film spawned three direct sequels, countless imitations, and now an indirect, updated sequel set in China (the title now refers not to the art he studies in China--which is Kung Fu, but the art he studied in Detroit which is now proven ineffective. "Karate Kid" is a derisive label in the new film.)
I remember seeing it, loving it, seeing it again and again over the last thirty years, and loving every time. It is an almost perfect march along the Hero's Journey. Shall we see why? Understand this and not only will you understand how to write a life-changing story, but how to change your life--or the lives of those you love.
1) Confronted with challenge. Danial-san wants to fit in in the new neighborhood, but is beaten at a beach party--there are bullies who object to his presence.
2) Rejecting the challenge. He runs, (understandably) afraid to face them.
3) Accepting the challenge. Realizing he has a teacher who might be able to help him deal with the situation, Danial decides to take a stand. This is a moment of adulthood--taking responsibility.
4) Road of Trials. Danial trains. His mind, body, and heart are taxed to the limit, and he is pushed beyond his perceived limits.
5) Allies and powers. Mister Miyagi is his core teacher. The girl he wants (Elizabeth Shue) is a motivation to change (adulthood is often spurred by the drive to love and sex). He must learn techniques, but most important, he must learn to control his fear. Fear is the killer of dreams, and always has been. If the martial arts give any single benefit above all, it is the realization of the degree to which we are drained of hope and promise by our fears. It is not necessary to banish fear so much as to understand that it is a natural part of our human experience.
6) Confront evil--defeated. The "evil" karate teacher (Martin Kove) forces one of his students to damage Danial's knee.
7) Dark Night of The Soul-- Later, in the final match, the knee is re-injured and Danial loses all hope. His resolve crumbles.
8) Leap of Faith. Mr Miyagi convinces Danial that he can do it if he believes. Danial trusts him, even when he cannot trust himself.
9) Confront Evil--and emerge victorious. The Crane Kick!
10) Student Becomes Teacher--Danial's remorseful opponent (and former bully) congratulates him, telling him he deserved to win--he has learned.
This film, following the classic "Rocky" formula of redemption through courage, discipline, love, and sacrifice, is probably the very best version of the pattern not starring Sylvester Stallone. To understand the path we must follow on the path to excellence...or maturity...is critical for us all. If we do not learn to deal with our fears, we will never rise to our full potential, and the world will be poorer as a result. "The Karate Kid" pointed the way about as well as it's ever been done in popular entertainment. Uplifting, inspiring, heart-breaking, funny, honest, and thrilling, all in one. Here's hoping Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan can bring it home for a new century.
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
Fear and "The Karate Kid"
Posted by Steven Barnes at 8:33 AM