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The Ultimate Gift takes you on a hero's journey through 12 tasks and other adventures. The young hero Jason must complete these life lessons successfully in order to get "the ultimate gift" from his rich, just-deceased grandfather. But Jason is reluctant, because he blames his grandfather for his own father's death.
The tarot is a deck of cards with trumps added. In the trump suit, each card in the series trumps the previous one, according to its number. Originally a game like bridge, Renaissance artists painted an allegory based on ancient philosophy on the trump cards. It was their version of the universal story of the hero's journey, in which a hero seeks an ultimate gift, prize or elixer of life by undergoing trials and adventures that lead from innocence to enlightenment. A trump card's number is its position in the story.
The Ultimate Gift parallels the story told by the trump cards, in an almost identical order to the card sequence (shown here below). Here are many of the parallels of the tarot to the movie that I saw:
The Fool is the innocent one who takes the journey. He is of course Jason Stevens (played by Drew Fuller), the main character in the movie. He starts out as suave and confident; brash, filthy-rich, resentful, spoiled and unmindful of real values. But his grandfather recognizes the potential in him. He makes quite an entrance too; unmindful of cliffs! See it here during the opening segment (also embedded below).
the Magician is our guide and ritual keeper. Here he is Ted Hamilton (Bill Cobbs), who transmits the directions from above (from Jason's grandfather "Red") that Jason needs to follow, and explains the requirements to receive a mysterious inheritance. The box on his table could represent the magician's 4 tools, and he performs a little ritual before opening it. See it here in part 2
Papess or High Priestess, the female spiritual leader (in the movie she is Miss Hastings, Lee Meriwether) sits right beside Mr. Hamilton and helps him guide Jason, a bit more sympathetically (and at times more intuitively). She gives Jason a mobile phone with Red's instructions on it, sort of like the law scroll on the Priestess's lap.
See her during part 2
the Empress, symbol of wealth, motherhood, productive power and seduction, is Jason's Mom Sarah (Donna Cherry), whom Jason looks upon as a source of financial support, but this is withdrawn as per instructions. In part 2, Red Stevens refers to Sarah's "vast male companionship," which prompts Miss Hastings to say "it's amazing just how far the fruit can fall from the tree;" both references to The Empress' seductive power and natural fertility. Notice on the Empress card the trees in the background, and fruits on her dress. See her here at the start of part 5. Even the actress's last name Cherry refers to fruit.
The Emperor, master of great and distant realms, is Gus (Brian Dennehy), the bossy friend of Jason's grandfather, who requires Jason to work hard building fences in his vast Texas domain. Is "Gus" short for Augustus, the first Roman emperor? And what did Gus poke Jason with (the object in his right hand?)
Meet him during part 3
The High Priest or Hierophant (aka The Pope, leader of organized religion) is Red Stevens (James Garner), Jason's preachy, just-deceased grandfather, who promises via pre-recorded, televised tape an inheritance, which is a "series of 12 gifts," or life-lessons and trials which Jason must undergo in order to receive his ultimate gift. Meet him during part 2
the Lovers are the two girlfriends in the story, Caitlin (Mircea Monroe) and Alexia, whom Jason must choose between. See her golddigger girlfriend Caitlin here as she encourages Jason to get the money. Eventually Jason chooses his new flame Alexia (Ali Hillis), the one who will encourage him to take the difficult but more spiritually-rewarding path. When Alexia tells Jason that he "can look away" from the life based on money represented by Caitlin and his family, she is literally acting out the scene on the Lovers card. Alexia's daughter Emily (Abigail Breslin) plays the Cupid role, as shown on some older versions of The Lovers card.
The relationship with Alexia develops during part 7 (see also later in part 2 to meet Caitlin, and
meet Cupid (Emily) and Alexia in part 5 ).
Chariot, the vehicle that takes us deeper into the adventure, is his first-ever bus rides he now takes with Alexia to visit his family for Thanksgiving ("don't tell me you've never been on a bus before" says Alexia). Like the Buddha, Jason is discovering the world outside his protected wealthy bubble. On the bus he is torn between his two horses over which direction to go in life. Taking charge, he tells Alexia that this journey to gain his inheritance is important to him; a matter of life and death. He is deciding to go for it. Later, he also travels in a jeep with a companion advisor to where his father died. Jason boards the bus during part 7
Strength is the Platonic or cardinal virtue of power through love. Mr. Hamilton (the Magician) tells Jason that the early death of Hamilton's wife gave him the ability to overcome, and asks Jason to become the strong man his new girlfriend deserves. as shown during part 8
Then he gives Jason his next gift of "learning, even if pain is your teacher" (Hermit). The Hermit is the symbol of learning through asceticism, withdrawal and inner contemplation. He is asked to go into the remote mountains of another land (Ecuador), and he dithers around a circle (The Wheel of Fortune) deciding whether to "leave behind" his new friends. His first stop is the library his Grandfather built for the villagers there, and he becomes the librarian and learns some Spanish. Notice that the Hermit has climbed a mountain.
The Wheel of Fortune, symbol of greed, wealth, fate, and the turning points in our lives, is what motivates Jason through his many ups and downs in this journey, as he explains to Alexia on the bus after an unpleasant Thanksgiving dinner with his rich and greedy family, just before his trip. The Wheel also represents the meaningful chance encounters with Alexia that had led him to invite her. During the dinner, Red's eldest son Bill "it's OUR money!" Stevens (Brett Rice) makes a toast to the difficult "adjustment" to fate his family was making, since being denied all they wanted from Red's will.
Attend Thanksgiving dinner toward the end of part 7
Justice is the cardinal virtue of integrity, balance and fairness. Jason drives up the mountain peak above the village in Ecuador with his father's friend to discover why his father died there, and finds out it was his father's own fault, although Jason had blamed his grandfather. Justice here means understanding who was really responsible for what. The amigo says that the "penalty" for Jason's father's own impulsiveness was his own death. Since Justice is in the heart chakra, it is fitting that forgiveness is the main lesson. as shown in part 9
Immediately he faces The Hanged Man (initiation, suspended action) and apparently-certain Death by being captured by the drug-lord terrorists who rule these mountains. He is kidnapped for a ransom and put in a wooden cage, and his friend is taken away and tied up. While in his cell, his activity suspended, he learns more about himself and his father, and he is told to "live well" while he can. The drug lord then threatens to kill Jason, but postpones the evil deed in order to have a Christmas Party. He says "Feliz Navidad", symbolizing that Jason's brush with death is also a rebirth, like the Christchild within us. As seen during part 9, late in the video (see his friend taken away at the start of part 10)
Temperance is the cardinal virtue of adaptation, inner peace and health. The card shows a drink being purified for health. Just before going up the mountain, despite being warned that death may await him there, he is invited by Bella (Rose Bianco) to a draped gazebo to share drinks, praise and laughter with friends of his father, giving him the mental peace he needs for the battle. Salud! (health) see it in part 9 (notice the road to the mountain on the card). Temperance could also represent the drinking scene celebrating Christmas, right after the death-threat by the drug lord; thus this card would also be in proper order.
Just when all appears lost, Jason discovers he can walk out of his wooden cage and escape. The Devil (the powerful, final opponent in the hero's journey) and his men are too drunk to stop him. Remember the Devil's chains on the card are shown loose enough to escape from once we realize it.
as shown in part 10
The Tower represents the soul's turbulent liberation from the Devil's powers. After his escape, Jason heroically battles with his captors to untie and rescue his father's friend, as shown in part 10. Jason and his amigo are the two figures escaping from or falling out of the Tower.
The Star is the symbol of inspiration and hope. Back in the USA, Jason, his new girlfriend, and her daughter travel by air to Gus' place in Texas for a belated Christmas, and enjoy a "perfect day." The scene takes place both on dry land and on snow, and they look up at the stars. Jason is asked what his dream is. The horses on their ride during the day are the horse on the Waite-Smith Sun card.
In part 11 they arrive for the day (the flight is at the end of part 10)
the Moon represents imagination, and rest and preparation before the final goal is reached. With the help of his girlfriend's daughter Emily, he tries to imagine his dream, but is still "clueless." Then, like the two animals on the card, while relaxing on a couch in the evening, they both turn around and look at smiling Alexia standing between Gus and his wife (like The Moon between the two columns, which in occult lore represent male and female). Then Emily warns Jason, "don't blow it!" (his new relationship with her Mom). "Knowing you, you're likely to do it." Thus, some "foreboding" is in this scene too, which The Moon card represents. See part 11 above.
The Sun is the symbol of victory and enlightenment. Jason learns what his dream is. Back home in Charlotte NC with his trustees, he is congratulated on his victory
(see end of part 11). There is a kind of "divine marriage" to Alexia too (especially during the horse ride at Gus' ranch), and later he leaves Caitlin behind after her devilish temptation.
Judgement represents new birth and resurrection. Jason feels like a new person. The trustees deliberate (this is "the judgement"), and decide to give Jason 100 million dollars (see end of part 11), and the advisors watch what Jason does with it. Then Alexis rushes off to the hospital, and Jason chases after her. Emily dies there; Jason feels the loss, and we see angels. Then, her spirit is said "to be with us." as shown during part 12
the World is the symbol of cosmic consciousness, of the seeker's ultimate fulfillment, and of the return to share one's gifts with the world. After a ceremony in which Jason starts work building a hospital to help those who suffer from Emily's disease, thus bringing his gift to the world, he enjoys a new perspective on some of his recent struggles. Then he visits Red in a small room with a TV camera where the "gift of love" is exchanged. He sits reverently in Red's high chair, next to an 8-sided circular table (remember the World card represents the "throne of God" from Revelation). A statue of an eagle sits nearby, like one of the creatures around God's throne. It's not quite clear here whether Jason is talking to a recording, a 3D virtual projection, or a ghost; but he seems in this scene to "reach God" (see end of part 12). Red gives him $ Two billion, and Mr. Hamilton goes to work with Jason Stevens to "change the world." Jason sits on a bench with Sophia (Alexia, "the goddess"), and we hear "Something Changed."
Red Stevens clearly explained the three stages of the journey. The early gifts were "practical; do this and that." The second part "required input" from Jason. In the third stage he is "free to dream."
as shown during this excerpt
Although the sequence is not completely perfect (as usual), it's a remarkable set of parallels. I checked with the author of the book by email, and he had no knowledge of or intention to follow the tarot or the hero's journey in writing this story (although it is sometimes called "a journey.") The parallels are completely coincidental, yet almost everything in the movie fits.
The 12 gifts invites obvious comparisons with the 12 signs of the zodiac and the tarot cards linked to them, and other 12-fold symbols. It's not as clear-cut, but just for fun this is what I come up with:
Aries - work The Emperor (Jason works as never before in his life on Gus' ranch; this builds his confidence)
Taurus - the value of money The Empress (Mom refuses to give Jason money; he is left without any and has to cope, but gains a payment for his work)
Gemini - friends The Lovers (Jason meets Emily, Cupid; and Alexis, the spiritual lover)
Cancer - family The Chariot (and Wheel) (Jason and Alexis ride the bus to have Thanksgiving with Jason's family; Jason feels connected to Emily and Alexis)
Leo - giving Strength (Jason is asked to give away money that he earned; he gives it to Alexis)
Virgo - learning The Hermit (Jason is asked to go far away to the lonely mountains of Ecuador to study and learn and work in a library)
Libra - gratitude Justice (Alexis thanks Jason for his gift)
Scorpio - problems & losses Death, etc. (Earlier he loses his worldly possessions; later he is threatened with death)
Sagittarius - laughter Temperance (Up in the mountains he is given some parties)
Capricorn - a perfect day The Sun (Jason and his new family enjoy a belated Christmas at Gus' ranch. They ride horses in the sun, as on the card. The Sun gives us "the gift of a day" each day. Capricorn corresponds to Christmas, and to the Sun's position at Noon)
Aquarius - dreams The Star (Jason looks up at the stars with Emily, and they discover Jason's dream. Aquarius represents Hope)
Pisces - love World (The ultimate gift: Jason receives love, and the world, from his grandfather)
The Hero's Journey and The Ultimate Gift
Above is a chart of Joseph Campbell's account of the Hero's Journey. This is how The Ultimate Gift follows it:
In the movie, Jason is a young man who has yet to emerge from the Innocent World of Childhood (the Fool), in which everything he wants is always available to him. However, he thinks his family has ruined his life.
He is given the Call to Adventure by the challenge from Red and Mr. Hamilton to gain The Ultimate Gift (Separation).
At first Jason refuses the call, saying "I'm not going," but Caitlin, his first girlfriend, talks him into it by saying "what if you actually had to get a job?"
Mr. Hamilton and Miss Hastings (Magician and Priestess) provide the Supernatural Aid (not really "supernatural," but technological "magic") of DVDs and a special conversay (voice-activated cellphone).
Jason's trip to Texas the next morning is Crossing the First Threshold ("so this is hell").
His next gift puts him into the belly of the whale (low or transition point), as he is thrown out onto the street with no money. There the experiences that will "shape (his) new world and self" begin when he meets his new "friends" Emily and Alexia.
Initiation has begun, as Jason enters the Road of Trials, including his first bus ride (the Chariot), and undergoing the Tests and Ordeals which are the series of gifts from Red Stevens.
These soon take him to Ecuador, where he eventually undergoes Crucifixion (The Hanged Man) and symbolic death at the hands of the drug lords, at the nadir of the circle.
He escapes and returns to North Carolina, but only after Jason rescues a friend held captive with him (this happens earlier than in the chart; this is also a brief refusal to return until he rescues his friend).
Alexia surprises him by meeting him at the airport (Meeting with the Goddess).
Then he reads the stack of unopened letters from Red about Jason's father's tragic death, in which Red seeks Jason's forgiveness (Atonement to Recognition by Father).
After this, Jason takes the Magic Flight with Emily and Alexia back to Gus's ranch in Texas to enjoy the "perfect day" and take time to "dream," after which he Returns and feels like "a different person" (Apotheosis; Judgement). The flight and rescue may also refer to the chase scene when he rushes after a cab to see Emily before she dies.
He receives The Ultimate Boon (his inheritance), and shares his gift with the world by becoming a leader and building Emily's Home Hospital (Master of Two Worlds). He gains the Freedom to Live by "becoming a man" and enjoying his new relationship with Alexia. Notice that even the name of the movie reflects the goal of the Hero's Journey as described by Campbell.
The Hero's Journey by Christopher Vogler on You Tube (embedded below). The Ultimate Gift follows this account almost exactly.
Of course, although the author did not consciously pattern The Ultimate Gift after the Hero's Journey, that doesn't mean he may not have been influenced by some of the ancient myths or modern stories that fit the pattern. Jason, for example, may have been named after the hero of one of the most famous of these myths, Jason and the Argonauts, who went on a journey to retrieve the golden fleece that had saved his father's life. Notice that when Caitlin was persuading Jason Stevens to go on the journey, she asks, " what if (the gift) is gold?". That has struck me as kind of an odd thing for her to say; but maybe not! Turning lead into gold is also the great work, the hero's journey of alchemy; and gold is the symbol of the crown chakra, where the goal of kundalini yoga is achieved. The name Steven (Stephen) means "crown," which is also the name of the highest circle Kether on the kabbalah's Tree of Life.
Additional notes: Ruth Stevens, Jason's aunt, is played by Catherine McGoohan, daughter of Patrick McGoohan; star and creator of The Prisoner, which also reflects the tarot trumps.
Forrest Gump is also said to be a hero's journey. Brett Rice (Bill Stevens) also played the football coach in Forrest Gump.