Aaron Widmar
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Road Trip Analysis: Thoughts from the Open Road

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As today is the first day of autumn, it’s time for The News Wheel to close its summer series on road trip movies (aka road movies). After collectively studying almost thirty road trip films in depth, we offered our choices for the bestworst, and goofiest of them last week. Through the junk and the gems, we’ve practically traveled to every point in America.

Having witnessed so many journeys, we’ve learned a few things along the way–including that Disney seriously struggles with making a decent road trip flick. We’ve barely scratched the surface with our road trip film series but already we can see certain patterns, both in formulaic cliché elements and ways in which certain films break those clichés.

While we’re not the first to study the intricacies of the road movie formula in screenwriting, we can still over our perspective on it.

Hence, we present you with our closing road trip analysis.

More: Robots can have road trips too– like this one!

A Brief History of Road Trips In Literature

While film is still a relatively new storytelling medium, literature has been around for eons. Because of this, one would expect to see numerous examples of the “road trip” formula on bookshelves. Although early semblances of the genre appear in Homer’s The Odyssey, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, these would be better categorized as travelogues, satires, or allegories. The stories rarely are concerned with the protagonist’s change in character than his quest to overcome obstacles.

Overall, the “road trip” form as we know it didn’t develop until American literature began to form. It started with what many argue is the first great “road trip” story and the birth of American literature: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The journey takes place along a specific route (the Mississippi River) and crosses multiple states (Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Arkansas). The titular character escapes to the “open road” without much of a goal in mind, apart from finding peace away from an abusive home. Along his journey, he meets Jim the slave and multiple situations that compel him to question his youthful beliefs.

The conclusion of the journey isn’t even about freeing Jim, as technically he’s already been freed in his owner’s will– it’s about Huck deciding to rescue Jim and re-think the racial biases he’s been instilled with.

That is what the heart of road trips are: not the destination, nor the detours along the way, but how the journey affects the traveler’s heart. It’s about self-discovery.

By the time Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road were released, and early film allowed viewers to see locations around the world, the road trip blueprint had been set.

Mark_Twain_Les_Aventures_de_Huck_Finn_illustration_p102 road trip analysis

Twain’s monumental journey of Jim and Huck down the Mississippi River.
Photo: Wikipedia

Vehicles in the Road Trip Analysis

The bind between road trips and American literature isn’t surprising. The prevalence of the plot structure increased dramatically with the boom of vehicle production in the early twentieth century. And, the road trip typically involves an automobile– characters don’t undergo self-discovery on airplanes.

Travelling across the continent has been part of the American ideal for ages– from the compulsion of westward expansion via Manifest Destiny to the exploration of the great frontier. Travelling the open road is rooted in American culture. Who hasn’t thought about giving into their innate wanderlust and escaping down Route 66?

That’s why the vast majority of road movies involve American-made vehicles. A journey into the heart of American wilderness is typically done in a GM, Ford, or Chevy— not an Asian-produced Kia. Occasionally, you’ll see BMWs or Subarus, but they’re either the butt of jokes or the representation of foreign/wealthy influences on the characters. Essentially, to discover yourself and America, you need to be on a motorcycle or in an American-made automobile. Sounds like a truck commercial, doesn’t it?

What Makes a Road Movie a Road Movie?

In our road trip analysis, we wonder: what compels us to leave what we know, the familiar, and wander into the unknown? In most stories, it’s rooted in one of two things: a conscious dissatisfaction with current life or a necessity to change a character’s flaw. In either case, the travelling ends with a changed perspective on life.

road trip analysis hero journey wikipedia

The Hero’s Journey
Photo: Wikipedia

Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, touches the main components of the stereotypical road trip. Aspects include the Departure/Separation, Challenges, Revelation, Transformation, and Atonement.

Characters hit the open road looking for love, freedom, redemption, safety, or understanding (Filmsite.org). In an early example, Dorothy wishes to leave her dreary life in Kansas, and does so through a fantastical journey, only to discover that “there’s no place like home.”

Or, a writer wishes to illustrate a closed-minded character’s new-found awareness of life. Steve Martin’s character in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles didn’t want to go on a road trip with John Candy, but the journey opened his mind to other people and left him a changed person.

Even in stories where there is a quest, like recently in Nebraska, the result is less about the achievement of the victor and more about the spiritual transformation of the participating characters.

Travelling into the unknown, the undiscovered frontier that tests our very core, is all about self-discovery. Being exposed to ways of life and perspectives different from our own compel us to grow and mature. These days, there’s no better way to do that than on the empty roads connecting the East to the West.

Life is a highway, after all.

Catch a Movie after Our Road Trip Analysis

We’re reached the end of our road trip analysis, and hopefully it’s inspired you to head out on the road yourself. If not, and you’re just interested in watching more movies, here are our reviews to head you down the right path. Have a cinematic journey of your own!

MINI road trip

Laugh Brake: Consider planning a road trip to this drive-thru funeral window

Aaron is unashamed to be a native Clevelander and the proud driver of a 1995 Saturn SC-2 (knock on wood). He gleefully utilizes his background in theater, literature, and communication to dramatically recite his own articles to nearby youth. Mr. Widmar happily resides in Dayton, Ohio with his magnificent wife, Vicki, but is often on the road with her exploring new destinations. Aaron has high aspirations for his writing career but often gets distracted pondering the profound nature of the human condition and forgets what he was writing… See more articles by Aaron.