Saturday I saw Maleficent, the Disney movie about the “witch” who cursed Sleeping Beauty (blessings on dollar theaters everywhere! 😉 ). In my post last Monday I mentioned a book by Tosca Lee entitled Iscariot. In combination the two have me thinking about something that may be a trend—the re-imaging of villains.
The idea in books like Wicked by Gregory Maguire and Iscariot and in movies like Maleficent is that there’s more to the villain of some well-known story, fact or myth, than people know. Perhaps the unknown is how the villain came to be so villainous, or it might be the redemption of the villain’s reputation—she wasn’t what the stories have made her out to be.
I suspect this idea first came to the forefront when George Lucas re-imaged his own villain, Darth Vader, by making the young Anakin the hero of the second Star Wars trilogy.
At any rate, this re-imaging holds innumerable possibilities for writers to look at old stories and create backstory for the villains, explaining who they became and why. Why not a story about the Big Bad Wolf and how he came to be the terror of Red Riding Hood and her family? Or what about a story telling how the first Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte became the woman locked in the tower. Or how about one recounting Goliath and his road to become the champion of the Philistines facing off against the lad David?
While I see the nearly unlimited possibilities of refreshing stories by making the villain the protagonist, I have to wonder about the wisdom of doing so. It seems to me that choice has possible theological ramifications.
In many respects stories written today are already falling into theological error. In fact, writing teachers set out the importance of following a perspective that contradicts Scripture—that humankind is good, even the most heinous villain.
The reasoning is that villains, if shown only as wicked monsters, will become caricatures and not well-developed characters. Hence, writers are advised to give antagonists “pet the dog” moments which show that the serial killer or assassin or pedophile or wife beater isn’t all bad.
It seems to me that re-imaging villains simply expands this fundamental concept—there’s good in all of us, so what we perceived to be a character’s evil actions have a cause or are misunderstood. If we only knew the whole story, from the side of the loser instead of the side of the winner, we’d see the good or understand the motives or sympathize with the decisions.
The problem, as I see it, with this kind of thinking is that evil is in the eye of the beholder. In fact, there really is no evil—just evil circumstances or evil influences.
So in Maleficent, [SPOILER ALERT] Stephan wasn’t evil. Rather, he was influenced by the greed of the kingdom in which he lived. In fact, when he went to kill Maleficent, he actually spared her life because he wasn’t at heart evil. But afterward he was haunted by the agony he caused her by stealing her wings, and he was terrified of her revenge. [END SPOILER ALERT]
So even in the re-telling, though there certainly felt as if there was a new villain, he was “explained.”
I can’t help but wonder if this re-imaging isn’t a way of turning evil into good. Contemporary western society has moved away from the concept of a human sin nature. In fact, I’ve encountered people who think the greatest evil is to tell people they have a bent toward sin.
Might not this trend toward re-imaging villains, then, be nothing more than a demonstration that people are not bad?
Not so long ago, a pastor at my church preached a sermon in which he said, No one wants to wake up one morning and realize he’s defrauded people and turned them into slaves because they couldn’t meet their debts. I thought that was so odd. I doubt Hitler would have lost any sleep over knowing how he’d harmed Jews, or Stalin, how he’d harmed anyone who opposed him, or the revolutionaries in France who slaughtered the gentry. That’s just scratching the surface of all the people through history that demonstrate an evil bent.
Does that mean those who act on their evil bent can’t or don’t do good things from time to time? Certainly not. Hitler was apparently good to Eva Braun. But could his story be re-imaged in such a way that his heinous deeds would be anything but heinous? I don’t think so. Unless somehow we call heinous, heroic.
I’m not saying movie-goers or readers should throw away their Maleficent DVD’s or burn their copies of Wicked. I am suggesting, however, that we think through what stories with re-imaged villains are saying about good and evil, then see if the Bible holds the same view.
Woe to those who drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood,
And sin as if with cart ropes;
Who say, “Let Him make speed, let Him hasten His work, that we may see it;
And let the purpose of the Holy One of Israel draw near
And come to pass, that we may know it!”
Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil;
Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness;
Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
And clever in their own sight! (Isaiah 5:18-21)
What are your thoughts about re-imaged villains?