Bending of a Trope: How 3 Iconic Franchises Made the 'Chosen One' Cliche Work
Three iconic franchises managed to not only avoid the common pitfalls of this tired cliche, but also made it a fascinating part of their mythos.
We're all familiar with the story of the Chosen One. It usually starts with some vague prophecy about a hero and ends with the protagonist raising up to that predetermined destiny. It's an age-old trope we keep coming back to and for good reason, as it can serve as a wonderfully simple way for giving the plot focus and driving it forward. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most uninspired ways to tell a story and a symbol for a storyteller's utter lack of creativity.
Therefore, while it seems like a fool-proof plot device, pulling off the Chosen One cliche in a compelling manner actually requires a fair bit of ingenuity. That, in turn, can be a recipe for something truly timeless and memorable. So, to give it all some perspective, let's take a look how three iconic franchises managed to not only avoid the common pitfalls of this tired cliche, but also made it a fascinating part of their mythos.
3. Anakin Skywalker: What If It All Goes Horribly Wrong?
From his mysterious birth to the vague prophecy about him restoring balance to the Force, the journey of Anakin starts out as the most basic of Chosen One stories imaginable. Until, of course, it all goes spectacularly off-track. Simply switching the expected outcome of this tried-and-tested journey and making Anakin go down a dark path, we're suddenly treated to a completely different playground of themes to explore.
First, it becomes a great way to explore the dangers of complacency and lack of critical thinking. You see, despite the clear doubts they had in training Anakin, the Force decided to do so anyway because the prophecy said that he would bring balance. However, as Yoda predicted: "A prophecy that misread could have been." And, well, how right he was.
From a certain point of view, Anakin did eventually bring balance to the Force when he killed Sidious and sacrificed himself on Death Star. It's fair to assume that the Jedi probably didn't expect that this was proceeded with wiping out the entire Jedi Order and helping to establish a 20 year rule of oppression over the galaxy. In other words, the Jedi failed to consider that bringing the balance to the Force might not necessarily mean the ultimate victory of the Jedi Order. Their inability to see the world from any other angle than their own had cost them dearly.
Secondly, it enables us to explore how that kind of an elevated status can really mess up an individual's psyche. On one hand, Anakin was constantly reminded of his Chosen One status and how special and powerful he was, yet he also experienced a great deal of distrust by many of the same people. Now, since Ani wasn't exactly a symbol of inner tranquility at the best of times, this created an explosive cocktail that a master manipulator like Palpatine could cleverly use to his advantage. All in all, the galaxy far away should count itself lucky that Luke handled his own Chosen One status better than his father.
2. Harry Potter: Chosen One By Accident
What's makes this Chosen One's journey special is that there really isn't anything inherently special about the Chosen One himself. Granted, Harry can speak parseltongue and is the key for defeating the most powerful dark wizard in history, but that's a byproduct of Voldemort's failed assassination attempt of Harry. In fact, when one dives a bit deeper into the lore, it becomes apparent that if Voldemort chose to go after the Longbottom family on that dreadful night, Neville would have become the Chosen One and Harry would have grown to be just another student at Hogwarts.
Now, rather crucially, this is still who Harry sees himself as. Not as "The Boy Who Lived" but as just Harry — an average kid trying to find his way in life. He tries his best to cope with all the expectations and threats that come along with his elevated status, while never letting it define him. Well, most of the time anyway.
More importantly, this also means that his actions are dictated not by his special status, but rather by his conscience and the gradual understanding that his only shot at normal life is, in fact, by defeating Voldemort. That is the key element in making Harry (and the entire story for that matter) endearing and relatable. In other words, by making Harry so decidedly average, Rowling essentially turned the Chosen One cliche into a celebration of the potential for greatness in all of us.
1. Neo: The One
It probably comes as no surprise that one of the most comprehensive explorations of the Chosen One trope can be found within a story where the protagonist's name is "the One" spelled backwards.
Now, the first thing to notice here is that the sense of predetermination that plaques most Chosen One stories is used as a a clever source of conflict for the characters. It's certainly apparent in Neo's struggle with the idea of having a prophesied fate, but also through the different viewpoints other characters have on the matter. Furthermore, Neo's Chosen One status is actually doubted for most of the first movie, which means that when he decides to risk his life and save Morpheus, he does so because he cares about his mentor rather than believing that he's the One.
Even after he is revealed to be the Chosen One, we're still left pondering on how special this status really is. Is he simply an exceptionally open-minded individual able to sense the cracks in this fake reality? Is the prophecy from the Oracle just a case of a program acknowledging that it's statistically likely for such a person to be born at some point? Or, is there something more to Neo?
That brings us to the two sequels, Reloaded and Revolutions, where things get even more fascinating (and a bit frustrating as well). After it's confirmed that Neo's Chosen One status isn't that mystical after all and that he is simply an anomaly, the entire story does a complete 180. We discover that he has special abilities even outside the Matrix. Now, while it seemingly undermines everything that had been established before, it also opens up some completely new doors for interpreting the story.
All in all, whichever way you look at it, one thing's for sure: the Matrix trilogy is a great at using the Chosen One trope for exploring fascinating themes, such as free will versus determinism, existentialism or our perception of reality.
To Sum Up
When thinking about incorporating the Chosen One cliche into your story, it's always wise to first ask yourself: is it possible to tell the story without it? If the answer's yes, then don't. However, if it forms the central part of the story, remember that there is so much more to this trope than just a means to drive the plot forward. The only way an audience will care about your story is if they see a fascinating character beyond the Chosen One's status.
About the author
So, to put it simply (and slightly cheesily) I'm fascinated with life. And, well, writing about films, TV shows, video games, music, travelling, philosophy and Formula 1 among other is a fun way to explore it.