Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rehabilitating Villains

A few days ago my daughter and I went to see Maleficent at the theater, and while I really liked the movie, this retelling of Sleeping Beauty got me thinking about whether telling the villain’s side of the story is a good thing. Movies like Shrek and Maleficent make a lot of money by taking a character commonly considered the bad guy, and showing his point of view so effectively he can no longer be a true villain. Whether this idea is simply a natural extension of the storyteller’s quest to make the tale fresh, or a conscious decision to subvert society’s views on good vs. evil, I can’t help but wonder how it affects our culture.

In fairy tales and action movies, often the villain is pure evil incarnate with little to no backstory revealed to give the character depth. Sometimes enough backstory is revealed to explain the villain’s motives and make him seem real, but ultimately his wrong choices keep us from sympathizing too much with his plight. In newer twists on old tales, such as Maleficent, much of the backstory is shown, so that we instinctively sympathize with the injustices suffered by the villain. Maleficent provides a wonderful example of how seeking revenge ultimately hurts more than it satisfies, and if this were not a retelling of an existing story, would be a great story on this theme.

The problem with rehabilitating a villain is that sometimes no matter how much we know about the history behind why a character (or a real person) behaves the way she does, it shouldn’t be enough to excuse her. In a movie or a book, particularly if the characterization is skillfully done, it is all too easy to see the humanity in a villain and sympathize enough to want to forget about some or all of her bad actions. When a villain is redeemed and the consequences of her wrong choices are swept conveniently to the side, or worse, somehow undone as in Maleficent, the storyteller is bamboozling the audience. (And there still has to be a real villain somewhere, in this case, a warping of Sleeping Beauty’s father into the Greedy Evil White Man.) In fiction, the author has the power to tidy up the loose ends to make a happy ending by manipulating events or resorting to magic, but this is one area that, in my opinion, should still follow real life rules. A magical kiss saves Maleficent from living with the consequences of her curse, but she still wished something evil on an innocent baby. Some kind of happily ever after for a villain might be attainable, but the scars left behind ought to be visible.
Ultimately, I can admire the clever storytelling that changes a villain into something approaching a hero, but the blurring of lines makes me uncomfortable. I prefer backstories that explain and give depth to a character, but not at the expense of excusing evil actions, or creating a misunderstood villain. I'm not convinced Maleficent suffers enough for her transformation to hero in the end to be complete. If she were a real person, the darkness wouldn't depart so quickly and easily, though her change of heart is the reason she is redeemed. Perhaps I live too vicariously through stories, though, because  I regard manipulating known fictional characters like Maleficent to be equivalent to someone twisting a story about Hitler into one where somehow he becomes the hero that liberates the Jews from the Holocaust.

What is your opinion of rehabilitating fictional villains?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Great Greene Heist Review

I heard about Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist from a blog post by Shannon Hale supporting diversity in children’s literature and this book in particular. (Shannon tends to have some meaningful posts about topics that go beyond writing, so check out her site.) As I explained in my own blog post on diversity, despite my skepticism of  internet trends, I checked out Johnson's website and decided to pick up a copy.

 In this middle grade caper novel, Johnson does an excellent job of creating a diverse, believable cast of characters including the thirteen-year-old black cunning protagonist, Jackson Greene, Gaby de la Cruz, his Puerto Rican former close friend turned maybe-not-so-unrequited-love-interest, her brother aka Jackson’s co-conspirator, a brainy white cheerleader, and an Arab with tech skills, among others. This is a book where diversity is pleasantly normal, and where the conflict is not driven by our racial differences.

The main conflict leading to the caper is that Gaby is running for student council president against a black boy, Keith Sinclair, who despises Jackson and will not stop at tampering with the election results to win. Worse, Keith’s plans for the school center on defunding the clubs that Jackson and his friends love. Even though Jackson has sworn off pranks since his last one ruined his friendship with Gaby, Jackson and Gaby’s brother know that Keith is up to something, and they decide to pull their own con to ensure that Keith loses.

Johnson doesn’t ignore racial tension, with Jackson suspecting an assumption by a secretary that Jackson is a troublemaker is based on his color. The school secretaries on several occasions confuse a child from a minority race for another child, a common error that Jackson exploits in carrying out his plan. Johnson weaves skillfully from one plot twist to another, enabling Jackson to find a way beyond tampering with the election to capturing the principal and Keith in their own plans to rig the results.

Like all capers, this story depends upon some unbelievable facts. Maybe some of these kids are just too smart, and the grownups are too stupid. Maybe the principal is too greedy and Keith is too spoiled and ruthless. Maybe an improbable sequence of events has to turn out just perfectly, and when that’s foiled, Jackson has to have anticipated an equally brilliant, improbable, alternate plan for the plot to succeed. Maybe kids don’t really mix so equally and happily with others from different races. But the story has so many positive elements-humor, cleverness, likeable characters-it makes for an entertaining read.  

More importantly, one of the wonders of fiction is that the author can convey a message through a book's theme and, if he is skilled at his craft, persuade the reader to understand his viewpoint without beating anyone over the head with it. Johnson manages to tell a story with characters that model for young (and not so young) readers a world where racial diversity doesn’t dictate friendships or status. Even better, he does it without preaching or pulling the reader out of the story. For entertainment value and role modeling diversity in a fun read, I highly recommend The Great Greene Heist!


Monday, June 16, 2014

My Take on the Movement for Diversity in Children's Literature

Recently I read a blog post by Shannon Hale about Varian Johnson's The Great Greene Heist and the #greatgreenechallenge, a movement asking bookstores to support diversity in children's literature by encouraging sales of this particular new release. All the push on social media recently for diversity in literature made me take notice, but my approach to most ideas trending on the internet is to be cautious.

Internet trends, particularly discussions based on controversial topics, tend to be electronic screaming matches wherein different factions proclaim their viewpoint to be correct in every possible way, and anyone who disagrees is labeled with various monikers that are synonyms for "evil moron." The vehemence of the arguments and the lack of charity in some of the exchanges are disturbing, and totally ineffective for constructive debate. I respect Ms. Hale so I decided to read Johnson’s book and do some reading on the topic of diversity.

In reading some of the recent articles, I have yet to come across those nasty exchanges, though I haven’t followed the tweets about it. I was struck by Walter Dean Meyer’s New York Times article from March 15, 2014, where he relates how he realized as a black teen that the books he read were not about people like him, and stopped reading. Even more disturbing, actually mind-boggling to this white woman, is the story he relates of a personnel manager having two equally qualified men, one black and one white, apply for a chemist position. In the manager’s mind, the black man couldn’t possibly be a chemist, despite his qualifications.

What is most encouraging to me is Meyer’s conclusion, that we don’t need an increase in stories about blacks as victims needing to overcome slavery or racism, but rather stories that people of all colors can read about blacks (and other minorities) showing that minorities can attain the same possibilities as any white child. Getting people to buy such stories so that publishers will publish more of them is the motivation for the #greatgreenechallenge, and I can endorse a movement that encourages writers and publishers to publish stories where skin color doesn’t determine a person’s potential in life. For my review of The Great Greene Heist and how it represents diversity, check my blog later this week.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Double review: The Fault in Our Stars

Within the space of one week, I began reading John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, saw the movie with my daughter and her friends, and finished the book. I think anyone who has been paying attention realizes that the story is a tearjerker about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. Having experienced the story in two different mediums in such a short time, I can attest that the movie is about as faithful to the book as movies get, though there are minor deviations. Both are so well done, expressing the angst of young people confronting death with honesty and irreverence as they struggle with the unfairness of cancer while taking advantage of the time they have left. The teens I went to the movie with loved it, though only the girl who hadn't read the book yet needed tissues.

The basic question of TFIOS is: what happens after? To each of us after death and to the ones we leave behind. Hazel and Gus read a novel about a cancer victim that leaves what happens after? dangling threads that bother them so much Gus uses a foundation's Wish to grant them a trip to Amsterdam to get answers from the novel's author. The problem is, they don't get the answers because death doesn't offer quick and easy answers. We can only speculate and try to have faith in whatever belief will sustain us so we can find peace. The two characters have different beliefs regarding what happens after. For Hazel, it's oblivion, although she has doubts about that, and for Gus, it's not necessarily the stereotypical heaven, but  a "Something with a capital S." Hazel is driven by concerns about how her parents will go on after the death of their only child, and Gus feels compelled to do something that matters, that will last beyond him. The lack of control that either of them has over getting these needs fulfilled is an awful reality they both have to learn to deal with, but Gus's fear of oblivion is present from their first encounter and permeates their relationship through to the bittersweet ending.

There are some positive messages here, though everyone may view them through whatever color glasses they happen to wear. This book isn't written for believers, though I hope the young (and not so young) people reading this book/watching the movie are fortunate enough to have a faith that helps them cope more easily with the tough issues TFIOS addresses. For those with faith and a strong sense of what constitutes the afterlife, Hazel and Gus may be viewed with compassion and pity for their uncertainty. For those who believe oblivion is the afterlife, I suppose enjoying every moment here should be precious. For those who are unsure, the book conveys a bittersweet reality: we can't be certain about the afterlife and we aren't guaranteed to live on in the memories of others, but we can choose to live and love in each moment we have here anyway, and the risks we take in doing so create meaning to sustain us.

Four and a half stars to both the movie and the book.