HAPPY GILMORE (1996)
To deconstruct a film like Happy Gilmore is to engage in an activity that was more than likely never intended to take place. Sidestepping the issue of whether or not the movie itself is any good, the fact remains that dissection in search of mythological iconography is not a task one usually applies to an Adam Sandler film. And yet in Happy Gilmore, Sandler’s “golf comedy”, we see a maturity of subtext impressive for any comedy, let alone one starring a member of the “Saturday Night Live” cast. The film, for all its lowbrow, juvenile humor, manages to emerge as something greater than the sum of its parts: a modern myth. Joseph Campbell, perhaps the world’s preeminent expert on mythology both classical and modern until his death in 1987, uses the idea of the hero’s adventure to describe the personal odyssey undertaken by a character whose life is dedicated to something greater than him/herself. This concept permeates Happy Gilmore in the same way it permeates stories from Arthurian legend to Beowulf, from Don Quixote to Star Wars. Here we will take the film apart, look at it virtually piece by piece, and place it side by side with the archetypal hero’s journey, thereby providing a parallel comparison by which one can make clear its mythological subtext.
Campbell and other scholars have noted that the archetypal journey of the hero follows a typical sequence that can be found in the majority of myths. The hero must first separate from the ordinary world of his or her life up to the point at which the story begins; then, in the new world through which the journey takes place, the hero must undergo a series of trials and must overcome many obstacles in order to achieve an initiation into ways of being hitherto unknown; finally, the hero returns to share what he or she has learned with others. (Henderson, 19)
The exact nature of events varies from story to story, but the symbols remain manifested in one form or another. One man’s dragon may be another man’s Death Star, but the iconography remains consistent. Traditionally, the adventure of the hero is a quest whose true destination is psychological and spiritual self-discovery. The “life-potentialities”, as Campbell calls the idealism of youth, are put to the test and the voyage leads the hero through a series of identifiable, archetypal events.
In most myths, heroes are more often than not taken from lives defined by extremes, these generally dealing with social standing and class. King Arthur lived in poverty and servitude prior to his unsheathing of Excalibur, as did Luke Skywalker before he was drawn into the greater story by the wizard-figure, who, as the herald who beckons our hero to adventure, often also acts as surrogate father and mentor. Arthur is called to action by Merlin, the classic figure physically defined by his typical white beard, penetrating eyes, and eccentric, often rebellious, ways. Similarly, Luke Skywalker is called to action by Obi-Wan Kenobi, who bears a striking resemblance to Merlin.
Happy Gilmore cannot hold a job, or a girlfriend, and is depicted early on as a man whose life is going nowhere. He idealistically longs to be a hockey player, a lifelong dream fueled by the passion felt for the game by his father, who was killed when Happy was only a boy. However, in spite of his power swing, i.e. his innate Jedi ability, he is in possession of both an inability to decently ice skate, as well as an uncontrollable, violent temper. He begins the story as the Fool, inexperienced yet genuine in his selfless desire to help his grandmother buy back the family house repossessed by the IRS.
Happy is called to action
by Chubbs, the ex-golfer forced to retire after losing his hand to an alligator. It is Chubbs, who also dons a Merlin-esque graying beard and intense eyes, who recognizes Happy’s skill with the golf club, and urges him to compete in the Waterbury Open golf competition.
The joke can be made that upon looking at Sandler one does not typically think “Jedi.” So what does one think? Comic? Idiot? Buffoon, perhaps? This is important, for, as author Raphael Patai writes, ’part hero, part buffoon’ is precisely how that greatest hero of ancient Greek mythology, Herakles, was characterized... For the fact is that this greatest of all Greek heroes, this strongest of all men, whose father was Zeus king of the gods, and whose great deeds were unequaled in all the fantasy-rich storehouses of Greek mythology, was, at one and the same time, a buffoon, a ridiculous clown, a comic figure. (Patai, 218)
Happy Gilmore, as the hero-buffoon, then becomes a modern Herakles. The crowds of people who flock to his golf games idealize him, thereby elevating him in a social consciousness and producing around him a recognizable aura of mythic public identity. He takes on the role of the vernacular or archetypal hero, the “bigger-than-life figure around whom young Americans weave their wish-fulfillment fantasies.” (Patai, 217)
Following the traditional course of the hero’s journey, Happy initially refuses the call to adventure, claiming himself to be a hockey player, not a golfer. It is only once he learns the competition could help him earn the money to buy back his grandmother’s home that he agrees to play, and takes his first steps away from the life he knows and into the unknown. He has embarked upon his quest, but it will not be an easy journey.
The hero does not find the road before him to be one that is easily traveled. His most significant obstacles take on the form of the Threshold Guardians, those larger, more important people or things that attempt to prevent his passing from one stage of his journey to the next. For both Arthur and Luke, it is his adoptive family, from whom he receives little encouragement and subsequently a static position in a specified order of operation. For Happy, the first threshold guardian is represented in the form of a hockey team that, for ten years, has not allowed him to join. His girlfriend leaves him, and he is left to attempt his crossing of the first significant threshold, the Waterbury Open, with only Chubbs as his companion.
After his success at the Open and his placement in the national tour, Happy has learned that, in spite of his amazing skill at the long shot, his short game leaves everything to be desired. Yet, in keeping with the classic nature of the Fool, he refuses to be trained by Chubbs, as he needs money right away to buy back the house. This succeeds in placing Happy alongside the Luke Skywalker of Empire Strikes Back, overconfident and unwilling to take the time to learn that which he will eventually need to know to conquer his demons, both physical and personal.
Beyond the first threshold, Happy starts down his dark road of trials. The second act has begun, and it is here that, in spite of his victory at the Waterbury Open, Happy’s true ordeal at last rears its head. Mary Henderson, mythology researcher and curator of the Smithsonian Star Wars: The Magic of Myth exhibit, writes in her book of the same name,
The heroes have not yet conquered the powers of darkness. The next stage represents a long and perilous set of tests and ordeals that will also bring important moments of illumination and understanding. Again and again, monsters must be slain and barriers must be passed. At this midpoint in the journey, the theme of the hero’s quest darkens, and the pattern of capture, rescue, and escape becomes relentless and oppressive until finally rescue and escape become impossible. (Henderson, 60)
For Happy Gilmore, the dark road of trials is one of endless golf tournaments, further encounters with threshold guardians, and a growing antagonism with the phony, arrogant villain of the film, Shooter McGavin.
The return of
that bit off Chubbs’ hand is significant in that it represents not only the defeat of another threshold guardian, but also the theme of monster combat that runs through most myths.
In addition, McGavin’s hired goon, Donald, is paid by the villain to distract Happy during games. Happy’s defeat of this threshold guardian is indeed more important than his conquering of the alligator, for while his combat with the monster was a battle of physical strength, his battle against Donald is one of pure psychology. He triumphs over the henchman by getting up and continuing the game after Donald hits him with a car. The event is in fact a double-edged sword, however, for in going on with the game, Happy plunges himself deeper into darkness and despair.
The aforementioned theme of monster combat, manifested traditionally in such works as Beowulf, in which the hero slays the beast Grendel, takes form for Happy not only in battle with the alligator, which he decapitates a lá Perseus and Medusa, but primarily in the duel against Bob Barker. The gameshow host becomes a physical extension of the psychological conflict with Donald, the threshold guardian. He and Happy engage in a fistfight in the middle of a game, and Barker wins. This is important because it wakes Happy up, in a way, to the naivete of his ways. Happy is suspended from the tournament, and loses all hope until his heroic partner, in the form of public relations coordinator Virginia, suggests he raise money doing product sponsorship for Subway. It is this attainment of money which allows Happy to attempt his version of the traditional heroic rescue.
The absence of a hedge maze or Death Star does not prevent the incorporation into this movie of the classic theme of the labyrinthine journey into the unknown. Although in this film, the physical labyrinth is manifested in the form of the rest home into which Happy’s grandmother is placed following the repossession of her home. With sponsorship money in hand, Happy is able to venture into the labyrinth in order to rescue this film’s princess, his grandmother. His rescue is fouled, however, when Shooter McGavin manages to purchase the house over him. Thus the recurring motif of rescue and capture is once again represented, and the stage is set for the final showdown between the two rivals. At this point in the film Happy has learned that he is not all-powerful, and he returns to Chubbs, begging for help and, in a sense, playing the role of the prodigal son, in this case requesting forgiveness from his surrogate father-figure.
With Happy’s reinstatement as student, Chubbs returns to the part of the wise and helpful mentor, training Happy in the ways of golf. The guide, as Joseph Campbell calls this character, may be some little fellow of the wood, some wizard, hermit, shepherd, or smith, who appears to supply the amulets and advice that the hero will require. The higher mythologies develop the role in the great figure of the guide, the teacher. (Campbell, 72)
For Arthur it is Merlin, who leads the boy to the sword Excalibur. For Luke it is Ben Kenobi, who gives him his father’s magic sword. In the case of Happy Gilmore, the mentor, Chubbs, bestows his own magic talisman upon his student in the form of a golf putter with a modified hockey stick head. In response to this gift, Happy offers his teacher the head of the dead alligator. The sight of the thing frightens Chubbs to the point where he falls out of an apartment window and dies.
The death of Chubbs recalls the classic structural theme of the loss of the guide, or the death of the mentor. Traditionally, “the guide can only bring the hero so far,” (Henderson, 57) and with his teacher no longer alive, Happy must turn inward, to the mystical insight Chubbs has provided. Indeed, Chubbs’ advice, “Don’t play angry. Clear your mind, stay focused,” recalls the words spoken to Luke by Ben, words which in themselves summon up Taoist ideologies typically not present in comedies like Happy Gilmore. Yet there they are, and Happy finds he cannot succeed, either in his war with Shooter McGavin, or in his personal journey, without following the teachings of his master.
Chubbs’ suggestion that, in times of anger and frustration, Happy retreat to a “happy place,” touches upon the mythological concept of the sacred grove, the source of the hero’s unspoken creative energy. In ancient Druidic mythology, forests, which were the typical manifestations of the sacred grove, represented the unconscious mind, and that is precisely the case for Happy. By closing his eyes and relaxing, he finds himself in a pristine golf course meadow, surrounded by a scantily clad hero partner/love interest, a freed-from-bondage princess/grandmother, and an inexplicable midget in cowboy attire.
After the final encounter with the threshold guardian Donald, however, Happy descends once again into despair, what Danté would call the Underworld. Even retreat into the sacred grove proves futile, as the “happy place” is now corrupted by Shooter McGavin, who has invaded Happy’s psyche. It is here that our hero hits rock bottom and loses all hope in himself. The appearance of his grandmother, freed from the labyrinth, and her assurance that there is no need to feel pressured, allows him to essentially rise from the dead, thereby bringing into play the mythological theme of resurrection. Happy has conquered his dark road of trials, and he is now ready to slay the dragon.
His victory over Shooter McGavin requires Happy to return to his sacred grove, finding it once again enchanted. It provides him with renewed power, and, in the final moments of the showdown, magic talisman in hand, Happy is able to restore his own credibility and reign triumphant over his rival. By losing the tournament and seeing the McGuffin of the film, the prized gold jacket, this story’s incarnation of Jason’s Golden Fleece, slip through his fingers, Shooter’s air of arrogance drops away, and he is symbolically unmasked, revealing a desperate, ridiculous character underneath. It is perhaps no coincidence that Shooter’s name, McGavin, so closely resembles the word McGuffin, the central, but ultimately meaningless, object the main parties are after.
In defeating the dragon and achieving the classic moment of final victory, Happy has completed the final test in the mythic hero’s journey. He has grown from foolish youth to mature, experienced adult, gaining in his adventure the insight that will allow him and his loved ones to live and continue to grow. Yet one characteristic of the hero’s journey remains, and it takes place when Happy is celebrating victory alongside his hero partner and princess. The reappearance of the mentor, in this case taking the form of Chubbs’ image in the sky, is especially crucial here because, as Happy’s surrogate father-figure, his return allows the hero to make atonement with the father. Happy is not a hockey player, but he is at peace with himself and his life. The mentor/father-figure is pleased, and this moment in the story, in spite of the fact that Chubbs is accompanied not only by the alligator but also by Abraham Lincoln, reaches a moment of transcendence Campbell describes as follows,
The hero… for a moment rises to a glimpse of the source. He beholds the face of the father, understands—and the two are atoned…. For the son who has grown really to know the father, the agonies of the ordeal are readily borne; the world is no longer a vale of tears but a bliss-yielding, perpetual manifestation of the Presence. (Campbell, 147-48)
It is possible that the mythological content of this film was completely unintentional. But if we, as critics and scholars, are to permit ourselves the ability to deconstruct specific works of art in spite of the artist’s pleas to the contrary, there is nothing then preventing an iconographic reading of any film, including Happy Gilmore. The elements are there, all coinciding exactly with the characteristics of the hero’s journey. It is admittedly possible, however, that the tale is simply so classic and subconsciously accepted at this point, that a story can incorporate virtually every aspect of the mythology without even meaning to do so. In the end, we can only arrive at the inevitable conclusion that, whether or not anyone involved with the film was in any way aware of the subtext of what they doing, the movie is still pretty funny. And considering that it is the product of considerable “Saturday Night Live” talent, that is an amazing feat in and of itself.
Campbell, Joseph with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Happy Gilmore. Dir: Dennis Dugan. MCA Universal, 1996.
Henderson, Mary. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. New York: Bantam, 1997.
Patai, Raphael. Myth and Modern Man. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.
Star Wars. Dir: George Lucas. Twentieth Century Fox, 1977.