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?

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