Monday, 5 April 2010

It's Good to be Bad - The Appeal of the Villain

Recently I went to the cinema to watch Tim Burton’s ”Alice in Wonderland”. The film was visually astonishing and very Burtonesque but all the while I felt there was something amiss. It might have been the notion that all the 3D graphic splendor was obscuring something lacking, perhaps an erratic and unclear plotline or possibly an ad hoc, disconnected and irrelevant ending. Be that as it may, and granting Burton some leeway due to some rather erratic source texts, I came away with a newfound fondness for another literary character.

Two weeks later, the only character from the film that really sticks in my mind and retains its puzzling appeal is the Red Queen. In the film, she is a waterhead combination of Helena Bonham Carter, who portrays her, and Elizabeth I. In fact, for those with some knowledge of the British monarchy a study of the Red Queen’s family, castle and its décor in the film should add to the experience of the film. I spent the two weeks reading Lewis Carroll’s books and became further enchanted with the character after which it was promply initiated into my pantheon of literary exclusifs.

What characterises this exclusive society is that its members are all on the morally wrong side of their respective texts. The Red Queen joins Emily Brontë’s Heatcliff, Shakespeare’s Iago and Victor Hugo’s Javert, neither of whom would be asked to be the best man or expected to bring an apple for the teacher in class. None of the members can be said to have made their worlds better places by their sunny disposition or by their souls’ overflow of the milk of human kindness, which begs the question; why are bad guys so much more interesting, not to mention appealing, than the good guys?

Samuel Johnson meant that authors had a moral obligation to make the good seem rewarding and pleasant and the evil abhorrent. However, he seems to have been disregarded. To seek an answer to the question above I will take a closer look at the three members, starting with the first member accepted, Heathcliff. Heathcliff holds the peculiar position of being the protagonist of his text but embodying many of the characteristics generally attributed to the antagonist. Not only does he bring death and damnation to his rural Yorkshire community, but he probably does not do any good for anyone at all apart from himself. Probably as a result of a bad childhood, being abandoned by his parents and bullied by his foster family, Heathcliff spends 30 years getting his own back and succeds in doing so. (For those interested in Brontë’s motivation for this elaborate and time consuming revenge, I will soon be posting one of my papers discussing that very topic.) Heathcliff’s appeal is for me twofold; firstly, he is tenacious and consistent and secondly, he is justified. The commitment with which he exacts his revenge without losing sight of his goal and the effort he puts into achieving what he think is right is exemplary. This and empathy we have for him as he sets the record straight gives him an appeal which his actions, or rather the surface actions of the supraplot, don’t directly communicate. Perhaps it is the combination of doing something consistently bad, being able to justify it and getting away with it that is appealing for those of us who do neither.

It is suprisingly easy to find modern echoes of Heathcliff, especially in Hollywood movies. Beatrice Kiddo in Quentin Tarrantino’s “Kill Bill” shares many of Heathcliff’s characteristics, although her revenge is swift by comparison. John Travolta’s character in “Swordfish” similarly lives by the creed that to deter acts of terrorism one should respond to them by doing something so terrible that other acts of terrorism would be unthinkable. This also bears an eerie resemblance to the attitude of certain neo-con White House advisors and a certain ex-Vice President.

The Original and Three Copycats

Iago’s forte is his ability to lay great plans and to understand the personality, response and behavioural pattern of the pawns in his play. Even though his ends are foul the tenacity and the skill with which he creates appearances and steers the other characters of “Othello” towards their doom are astonishing. Thus, you might call him a Heathcliff with social skills.

Javert also shares the tenacious character of Heathcliff. His animosity with Jean Valjean, like Heathcliff’s to his foster family and neighbours, spans several decades during which his drive for what he sees as justice never diminishes. He is the only credible character, the others being flat; either too idealistic or too villainous. Javert, cold as he may be, is a man determined to do his duty even though he is a diametric foil to the angelic protagonist Valjean. There is a liberation in having a task to stick to irregardless of moral considerations which, I think, the reader envies Javert. This is not to say that one would like to be one of the many anonymous henchmen in literature, who do their duty without too much hesitation. Javert has an established and in the novel clearly presented view of his world and has a conscious relationship to his task. The crisis for Javert occurs when this understanding is rocked with Valjean’s mercy disproving the infallibillity of the law Javert follows. However, up to this point, Javert seems a force larger than life, as reliable a friend as an enemy or employee and in a world of constant distractions his doggedness and efficiency when on the case appears admirable.

"You'll Wear a Different Chain"

The Red Queen is a bad guy of a different sort. She is a mad bad guy. Her appeal lies in her mad and for her consequence free impulsivity. Her catch-phrase “off with her head” is uttered in an offhand manner as if resolving the most trivial requests rather than matters of life and death. In Carroll’s books, these sporadic death sentences are never carried through due to the Red King pardoning the unfortunate convicts. In the film, however, Alice has to jump across a moat using heads as stepping stones.

Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen

Perhaps the allure of the Red Queen is her whimsical use of her absolute power. Both man and beast bows for her often childish whim and she is allowed to act unquestioned by anyone but Alice. The Red Queen can do as many bad things as she like without having to face the consequences while we seldom can. Even if we avoid the judgement of our peers, there will always be some part of us which reacts to our transgression. However, all the characters above seem devoid of such qualms and, as they evade punishment from without, they appeal to an aspect of us which craves this freedom of action, possibly originating in our childhood.

We may trace the appeal of the villain way back, to Milton and further. Milton’s Satan in “Paradise Lost” serves to exemplify the allure of the villain. While God is aloof and rather flat, an unforgiving, immovable character, Satan is a dynamic force which overcomes obstacles and struggles to achieve. I think we are able to identify with bad guys because we recognise this struggle as our own justifiable existence. What we find sufficient reason for our actions can often be reflected in that of the villain. While the good guy’s actions get their virtue from being performed by the good guy, the bad guy’s actions are driven by more familiar motivations. Very few would consider “I’m a good guy” a valid reason for any action, but they might find zest and zeal for one’s job, pursuit of personal happiness or setting the record with your childhood bullies straight mitigating. As for the Red Queen, that might be a question of personal freedom and independence from social standards which is to some extent what the Alice books are all about.

In addition, it is easier to be really bad than to be really good…


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