How not to Redeem the Wicked in Fairy Tales

This is perhaps my favorite essay written by my wife:

http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/2014/07/02/wrights-writing-corner-redeeming-villains-how-not-to-do-it/

There has been a trend of late that I find quite disturbing. It is the “Let’s Redeem A Villain” movie.

Now, keep in mind, I am all about redeeming villains. Were I not, would I have married one of the Evil League of Evil? No. Certainly not.

In fact, I love redeeming villains. I have spent the last 25 years playing roleplaying games where I spend all my time, yes, you guessed it: redeeming villains.

Real villains, too. The kind that it actually take 25 years to redeem.

So, you think I would be part of the natural audience for movies like The Grinch and Malificent. Well, I would have been, had they been done right.

What do I mean by right? I mean: Had these movies been about a villain who was redeemed.

They weren’t. They were something much less interesting and much more demeaning to the villains. To quote Malificent….the real Malificent, these movies are:

“A disgrace to the powers of evil!”

Why is this? Let us take a look at these two movies and compare them with the work of a real master, the man who invented the villain redemption genre.

23 Comments

  1. Comment by Kenton Kilgore:

    Excellent points about the “one bad day” trope and the downright bizarre treatment of Stefan. I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would (I review it here: http://kentonkilgore.com/blog/2014/06/02/a-quick-review-of-maleficent/) and most importantly (from my perspective), my wife (a huge fan of the original Disney SLEEPING BEAUTY) liked it. ;)

  2. Comment by Father:

    I don’t disagree with your point. I agree that the movie would have been improved had Maleficent turned to evil by her bad choices rather than an a result of the evil of others.

    That said, I think that even in its flawed form it demonstrates good moral lessons about love and the caustic effects of sin.

    http://www.cryptocatholic.com/2014/06/maleficent-magnificent/

  3. Comment by Jared Anders:

    I wonder if perhaps modern authors and artists tend to fall into the trap of redeeming villains by making them victims instead do so because they don’t really understand what redemption is, nor understand why we root for heroes to win.

    Have you seen this article (from today even) from According to Hoyt?

    http://accordingtohoyt.com/2014/07/02/the-saintly-victim-and-other-poisons/

    For so many people my age and younger (and a sadly large number older than myself) being a victim really has become the mark of the ‘good guys’ and heroes. They win directly because they are victims, because life owes it to them.

    • Comment by Nate Winchester:

      I was just about to link that article and you beat me to it.

      I think Mrs Wright missed one thing: Maleficint did go evil of her own choice in that she decided to take her revenge on the innocent child of Stefan rather than Stefan himself.

      I thought the movie was just so much ‘meh’. Though I did like the villain was “redeemed” by her love for a child. (the little beasts do have a knack for stealing it from you don’t they?) I really kind of wanted to see more between her and Stefan and star crossed lovers.

      Now if you want to talk about villains and redemption, anyone here watched the TV series Once Upon a Time? I think Mrs Wright may want to…

  4. Comment by bluea:

    This also implies the reverse.

    That is: People who are -not- victims (CEOs, many politicians) are evil.

    There are things to say about the Clintons, Obama, and Elizabeth Warren as well.

    Elizabeth Warren’s particularly amusing. “I’m a victim because I’m 1/32 Cherokee!” … “No, actually, you aren’t!” … “I’m a victim because you’re persecuting my genealogical accuracy!”

    That’s pretty weak tea. But, apparently, sufficient for the marks.

  5. Comment by AstroSorcorer:

    I wanted to thank you for putting well to words something I had been witnessing, but not really seeing. This trend has left a rather chill feeling as I have seen it sweep over popular culture like the shadowy taloned hand of something not entirely seen.

    I would be most interested in further exposes as to the nature and portrayal of good and evil in fiction. How heroes and villains are made, defeated, change, etc. In addition to the “space princess movement” it may be time to actually bring the struggle of good vs. evil back to the forefront of sci fi and fantasy.

    Many of the sci-fi and fantasy worlds, tv series, movies, and games now present everything in a gritty shades of gray morality where no one is truly heroic (as opposed to a flawed hero), and even the villains are not truly vile. This might have been exciting and daring for adolescents in the 80s, but it is now so prevalent is is as if a thick runny layer of gray lead-based paint has been splashed over everything.

  6. Comment by Montague:

    The brutists (for thus I think it fit to call the philosophy of the left) have forgotten one of first lessons of philosophy: that no harm can befall a good man.

  7. Comment by bear545:

    (I tried to post this over at your wife’s site, but somehow couldn’t.)

    I too have been confused by the plethora of “sympathy for the devil” comic books and movies that have been coming out of late. The first that I remember was Moore’s “The Killing Joke” about the Joker. I thought it was an admirable try at best, but ultimately a failure. I thought the origins of the Joker were best left secret, for what could possibly explain him? Moore’s one bad day theory immeasurably weakened the character in my eyes. And don’t get me started on the Star Wars prequels. They took one of the best villains ever and turned him into a whiny jerk.

    As almost always happened, someone in the past summed villainous villainy better than I can, and think here of the words of Coleridge when discussing Iago. Iago’s motives, as laid out in four separate soliloquies all contradict each other: we are left with no reason for him doing what he does. It is, as Coleridge beautifully sums it up, a “motiveless malignity.” The best villains are villainous just because, with a hint of: because they like it.

    • Comment by bear545:

      Since writing the above, I have found myself going over several occasions where the ‘one bad day’ motif does seem to work for the villains. I am thinking mainly of characters from Batman: the animated series such as Mr Freeze or Riddler. I found their stories quite satisfying, in part because while the story explained how they became what they are, it did not excuse it. I imagine they use that motif so often in that series is because Batman himself is the archetype of the one bad day character, and it is common to have the villains and the hero mirror each other. Plus, Freeze did undergo a kind of redemption in his second appearance.

      Another villain of that type comes from my favourite superhero movies, The Incredibles. Syndrome has his one bad day, but the movie does something very subtle: when the movie shows how Syndrome remembers that one bad day, his memory is wrong. He does not remember that his attempt to become Mr. Incredible’s sidekick very nearly got himself and a trainload of people killed.

      So, as an addendum, while I prefer my villains to just be inexplicably villainous (and preferably with an upper class English accent) I recognize that the one bad day can, on rare occasions, be done well.

    • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

      “I thought the origins of the Joker were best left secret.”
      I think the background story for the Joker was appropriate in the first Batman movie. We could see he had the makings of a killer, self-satisfied and ruthless, well before the acid vat episode. His would-be poetic villain motto “Ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light?” was perfectly telling. The accident only added a layer of grudge and madness to his ingrained cruelty. Villains in the subsequent movies were not so satisfying.

    • Comment by Mary:

      The best treatment of Joker’s origin is when he lies like a rug to win support.

    • Comment by Nate Winchester:

      Here you go, I hope that gives you some peace with the prequels. ;)

  8. Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

    Thanks to Mrs. Wright for this review. It confirms my own reaction when I heard an account of the movie.

Leave a Reply