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The Hero’s Journey: The Portrayal of Addiction in Film and Television

Watching films or television shows that feature addiction can be agonizing for those in recovery. It can feel draining and uncomfortable to observe a character struggling with their addiction. It can also be grating to feel jealousy while a character flaunts their vice. Ultimately, just like in any story, the filmmakers often follow the hero’s journey. 

The hero’s journey is a writing structure that follows the main character throughout their story. The hero’s journey was theorized by early psychologists but popularized by Joseph Campbell, a professor inspired by Carl Jung. As cited by Frontiers in Psychology, “the purpose of a hero’s journey is to provide a context or blueprint for human metamorphosis.” 

When films or television shows use addiction as part of a hero’s journey, their portrayal of addiction may depend on how they follow each part of the hero’s journey. Overall, shows and films might use addiction to create communion, establish control, or drive a plot forward. 


Drinking together, smoking together, or drug sharing in films and television shows represent a type of communion. “Communion” in this context means bonding, sharing, and exchanging information and ideas. Films tend to use alcohol, drugs, and other addictive substances as forms of communion out of convenience. Put plainly: The writer didn’t know how else to make them meet. 

The film or television show is really trying to give a platform for the exchanging of information and give the viewer a “realistic” way of receiving that information. For example, in countless films and television shows,  people meet for casual drinks on a first date. For those in recovery, a drink is anything but casual. A light appetizer can lead to dinner just as easily as drinks can. In the movie that is your life, you can meet and “break bread” with new people over a glass of iced tea rather than a glass of wine. 

Another example of common communion in films and television shows is drug sharing. This example often shows an exchange of a philosophical nature, that characters are “finding themselves” or the characters are “coming of age” together. Those in recovery can easily recognize this scenario. Know that in the movie that is your life, you’ve matured and moved on from this kind of shared experience. It’s just as fulfilling to find shared experiences in book clubs, academic courses, deep conversations with friends and family (or even strangers), meditation, therapy, yoga, and other healthy shared experiences. 


Another way that alcohol and drugs are often used as tools in films and television shows is to show control — or lack thereof. There are countless stories featuring a hero or heroine’s struggles with addiction who succumbs to their desires in a dramatic, thespian affair. 

A more famous example of control is James Bond. Bond, the dashing, brilliant spy, is also famous for his drink of choice. His martini order, “shaken, not stirred,” displays what he can control. As one would imagine in the business of spies, life can be unpredictable. This control over what Bond desires shows the viewer his need for consistency in all things dear to him. 

However, in the movie that is your life, you don’t need your addiction to achieve consistency. You can create a routine that provides that consistency you crave and perfect an old recipe, craft, or skill. Try yoga, meditation, or other forms of exercise consistently. 

On the other hand, if you relate more to the character who is overly prone to succumbing to their desires, routine and consistency with yourself are key. A study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle recommends goal setting — as you record your progress and see yourself achieving your goals, you’ll gain a deep sense of pride and satisfaction. In the movie that is your life, you’re the hero for yourself, so be sure to keep a record of your achievements to remind you.

Plot Driver

Finally, here’s the uncomfortable truth about addiction in many modes of entertainment: It’s a lazy tool to drive a plot. There is often drama and sometimes an almost sexual fascination with substance abuse in films and television. The way it is portrayed can feel cheap or miles away from reality. The unfortunate result of the overuse of addiction as a plot tool is that the viewer does not see the real damage or the lifelong consequences of addiction. They’re only supposed to see that the character has problems and personal demons that prevent them from achieving their goals. 

Although this plot device can feel ridiculous to a viewer who is in recovery, it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable to watch. Simply recognize it as a tool to show an immense personal challenge and move on. Laugh at the rest of it, and celebrate the protagonist’s victory. You have the victory of your sobriety, which you choose to win every day, one day at a time. 

If you’re a viewer who still struggles with the way entertainment media portray addiction, that’s okay. Skip those films and television shows, and understand that your natural empathy for characters is not a weakness. Your empathy and deep understanding are skills that can be used in other more productive avenues. Disassociate yourself from the character, and carry on with the movie that is your life. If you’re looking for a more in-depth analysis of what the hero’s journey can mean for you, look no further than RECO Intensive. At RECO Intensive, we understand that addiction is not a tool in a plot but a real struggle in many people’s lives. We know that in your journey, you might need help. Our experienced alumni and professional staff at RECO Intensive are here to help you with your journey and guide you through your sobriety. Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future.

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