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02:22 pm: Wright’s 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.

One Bad Day!

In the comic Batman, the villains all have origin stories. For the most part, the story is: they had one bad day. And this one bad day led to them being evil.

The Joker had one bad day. He fell in a vat of acid and couldn’t stop smiling. This turned him evil.

The Clock King had one bad day. Everything went wrong in his life due to time related issues. This turned him evil…with a clock theme.

You get the picture.

Modern villain redemption movies mix the one bad day idea with the notion of: “Why can’t we all get along?” This means that the villains are villainous to begin with because…aw, better go get your tissues…they were tormented or betrayed in love.

After all, anyone who was bullied or hurt must turn evil, right? I mean, they couldn’t help it. Why we’ve all been bullied, and we’re evil, right?


So, the Grinch is no longer a grumpy, green hermit in the mountains. Now he’s a guy who was abused by the folk of the town he came from until he turned away in pain and fear.

And Malificent isn’t an evil fairy filled with graceful and glorious malice. She’s a sweet fairy who fell in love with a young thief who claimed to give her love’s first kiss…only to tear off her wings in order to gain a throne from some evil king.

This betrayal, of course, causes her to turn her back on love and becomes…evil.

But that is not the offensive part of both of these films.

Oh, no!

The Offensive Part

It was not enough for the filmmakers to turn these villains into sympathetic saps, they also have to demean the good guys.

When I was young, I remember thinking what a noble thing that, when men molested women, people now wanted the courts to condemn the men, rather than to blame the women as they might have in the past. They wanted the courts to:  Not blame the victim.

Taking the good guys, whom the villain abused, and making them the bad guy is: blaming the victim. 

This is despicable and shameful.

In the book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Grinch attacks innocent villagers called Whos and steals all their Christmas gifts and decorations. However, these Whos are so filled with Christmas spirit that this theft does not dim their joy one wit.

Their amazing ability to celebrate Christmas joyfully without presents is what brings about a change of heart for Grinchy Claus.

But in the movie The Grinch, the Whos are the grubby, grabby, capitalist pigs. It is their materialism that hurt the poor, wittle, pathetic Grinch, and it is the Grinch who, by his act of revenge, teaches them the meaning of Christmas.

In Sleeping Beauty, the good and noble King Stefan has his daughter cursed by an evil, wicked creature, because of the tiny oversight of not having invited the evil fairy to the christening. Hardly a crime that should result in LOOSING YOUR CHILD!!!

In Malificent, the thief who seduces the sweet young fairy and then cuts off her wings for personal gain is…none other than King Stefan!

The good, innocent king, whose daughter was unjustly cursed with death, is now a despicable cad and betrayer who deserves the bad things that happened to him.

These movies turned impressive villains into unlikable heroes, and likable heroes into unimpressive villains.

Watch The Real Master

Just in case you are thinking: yeah, well, how else would you redeem a villain? How else could you sympathize with a bad guy except to make him pathetic and actually the victim?—let us take a look at a real story of redemption by someone who gets it right.

I am speaking, of course, of the Mother Of All Villain Redemption Stories: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

In Dickens story, we are shown the past of the horrible Scrooge. We learn that he was poor and abused by his father. But Scrooge does not become wicked and swear revenge because of this offense. No. Instead, we see how the hardships of his youth lead him to choose sin.


Of his own free will.

When the choice arises between marrying his beloved Belle or grasping for more money, Scrooge makes the wrong choice. He makes it again and again and again.

Eventually, Scrooge had grown into a horrid, unpleasant man. But he does not turn his coldness on his father. No. His victims are innocents—his nephew, Bob Cratchit, the poor in his neighborhood.

People who have done him no wrong.

He is a villain because he inflicts harm on those who have not offended him.

If A Christmas Carol had been written by the modern film writers, it would have gone something like this: an innocent man, who was dreadfully in love, was on his way to his wedding, where he planned to marry his true love, Belle.

On the way, a little rapscallion named Bobby C. ran up and kicked him in the family jewels. Scrooge was so embarrassed by this injury, which he feared would impede his wedding night, that he fled, jilting his bride.

This shame and sorrow led him to become the horrible man that he is today…the cruel boss of—oh ironies of ironies—the very same Bobby C, now Bob Cratchit, who brought him to this sad state of affairs in the first place. And, by the end of the story, little Bobby Cratchit would have learned the error of his hooligan ways.

That is not the story of a villain redeemed. Because in this version, Scrooge is not the villain. Bobby C is. The Grinch is not the villain in his movie, the Whos are. Malificent is not the villain in her story, King Stefan and the evil king he served are.

Which leads to the question: When Disney inevitably makes the movie excusing actions of the evil king who was responsible for a young’ fairy’s wings being torn off…what is his excuse going to be? That Maleficent hurt him when he was young?

These are not movies of redemption. They are movies of victimology. They turn noble villains into saps, and noble heroes into cads and…yes, villains.

As Malificent would say—the real Malificent:

They are a disgrace to the forces of evil!



Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon. (link)


[User Picture]
Date:July 2nd, 2014 08:27 pm (UTC)
Yeah. I remember a discussion on characterization where the two panelists were talking about motives for murder. One offered noble reasons, one offered as least excusable reasons, I pointed out that they were offering reasons why they might commit murder, and real murderers tend to be a lot more mundane and simple, and, I kid you not, the second panelist called giving your murderers motives that murderers actually have -- a cop-out!

I recommend Theodore Dalrymple's Life at the Bottom for anyone who wants the real view. (Warning: that is a scary book.)
[User Picture]
Date:July 2nd, 2014 08:34 pm (UTC)
That is very...weird.

I am familiar with Life at the Bottom. John read me bits of it when he read it.
[User Picture]
Date:July 2nd, 2014 08:29 pm (UTC)

on one bad day

An idea: a story where a whole bunch of characters were hit with one bad day -- the same for all of them -- in the backstory, and all discuss it as formative in their character.

Except that though all of them experienced the same thing, their reactions are all different.
[User Picture]
Date:July 2nd, 2014 08:35 pm (UTC)

Re: on one bad day

That is very interesting and is similar to some themes I will eventually get to in the Unexpected Enlightenment series...

Only your idea is more direct and cogent. I think it would be quite interesting.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 02:15 am (UTC)
I despised Grinch, the movie. Now, I realize exactly why I disliked it so very much.
Date:July 3rd, 2014 09:45 am (UTC)


Bravo Mrs Wright! Ive had difficulty pinning what bothers me with some of these movie remakes and you clearly lay out how film makers hijack the original pure story and pollute it with their own agenda.
I thoroughly enjoyed every word of this essay! :)
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 04:36 pm (UTC)

Re: victimology

[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 01:33 pm (UTC)
I'm curious about your opinion of Once Upon A Time, if you've seen it. I myself am a season behind, but the first season (SPOILERS AHEAD!) explains that Regina, the Evil Queen, began her plotting against Snow White after Snow caused the death of her lover. Sounds like the Maleficent tale? Well, no, because:
- Regina's lover was actually killed by Regina's mother, Cora, who didn't approve of the relationship.
- Snow's responsibility for the death was due to her letting the lover's identity slip to Cora.
- Snow was NINE YEARS OLD at the time, and had a loving mother, and had no way of knowing or understanding that Cora wouldn't have Regina's best interests in mind.

And though Regina did take revenge on Cora first, she found it unsatisfactory, and became further determined to make Snow as miserable as herself, despite Snow remaining totally unaware, for much of her life, what happened to Regina's lover.

Once Upon A Time is full of stories like this: Character A is harmed in some way by Character B, but then takes it out on innocent Character C. Because C inadvertently helped B, or because harming C is a necessary step on the path to harming B, or because C just got in the way or was enjoying life while A suffered, or even because A forgot how to treat others like human beings after spending so much time pursuing B.

And sometimes C, in turn, takes it out on D in the course of going after A... In fact, most of the villains in Once Upon A Time can be traced back to the actions of one or two characters who are unusually thorough in their revenge and have stepped on SO many others to get to it.

Most importantly, our heroes also dance on the edge of this path in the name of stopping the villains (including those original two that have dragged so many down with them). But they pull themselves back. Which is what make them the heroes, while those who don't pull back damn themselves.

Edited at 2014-07-03 01:34 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 04:40 pm (UTC)
> Character A is harmed in some way by Character B, but then takes it out on innocent Character C.

I have not seen Once Upon A Time yet, but I do think this is what is missing from the stories I mentioned above (except for Christmas Carol). That to be a villain, the person has to take out their anger on an innocent.

When Esau comes after Jacob, who stole his birthright, he's not really a villain, he's just Jacob's adversary.

If Esau, out of anger at Jacob, attacked an innocent village, then he's a villain.

If that makes sense.

I would like to see Once Upon A Time...just haven't gotten to it.
Date:July 3rd, 2014 01:57 pm (UTC)

Groundhogs Day?

I see this as another example of redemption, though the Bill Murray character is not deeply evil, but a thoughtless cad.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 04:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Groundhogs Day?

Groundhog's Day is a good redemption story...the guy is a jerk and he learns to be a better guy.

The movie doesn't blame anyone else for his actions. ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 02:51 pm (UTC)
I recently re-listened to the soundtrack of Wicked for the first time in about five years and was expecting to be annoyed--it's sort of the ur-Maleficent, after all, and I could easily see some executive pitching that movie as "It's Wicked, but with Maleficient instead of the Wicked Witch!" I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still enjoyed it and have been trying to figure out what made it different from movies like this. You hit the nail on the with "blaming the victim." In Wicked (the musical, anyway--I haven't read the book), the villain isn't Dorothy or the Munchkins; it's the Wizard, who cons the population of Oz into turning on Elphaba because he finds her politically inconvenient. This isn't a stretch-- after all, in the source material, the Wizard is a con artist who gets the people of Oz to set him up as an unquestioned magical dictator, and even though he acts benevolently toward Dorothy and her friends, that's a villainous thing to do. Instead of turning a hero into a mustache-twirling villain, the musical turns a morally shady character into a mustache-twirling villain--a far more defensible action.
[User Picture]
Date:July 3rd, 2014 04:42 pm (UTC)
John read part of the book WICKED and hated it...but I have heard that the musical is better.
From:Will Linden
Date:July 3rd, 2014 03:06 pm (UTC)

Poor Scrooge

And another point, as Fred says, is "Who suffers from his ill nature? Always himself! He takes it into his head to dislike me, and as a result he misses this delightful dinner."
Date:July 21st, 2014 03:18 pm (UTC)

well said!

A very well thought out argument, and not just because I agree with it. It is symptomatic of our modern society, where relative morality takes over, in a well intended, but misguided attempt to place the blame on exactly no one. The problem is that this is also the path of being an 'evil apologist'. Manson may have been abused as a child, and certainly all those drugs didn't help his decision making process, but he still chose to commit, of his own free will, inhuman acts against people who did not deserve such suffering, and he would remain to this day a threat to everyone he encountered if he were free. As are numberless monsters who share cages across the world. It is hard to face evil, and even harder to oppose it. But if no one does, would the monsters of the world someday waste energy making apologies for all the dead 'misunderstood kind people'? Of course not. They'd simply see them as weak, and forget them.

Also, that orphanage attacked me, it was self defense.

[User Picture]
Date:July 21st, 2014 03:40 pm (UTC)

Re: well said!

>Also, that orphanage attacked me, it was self defense.


I bet that was Anakin's excuse for slaying the "Younglings."
Re: well said! - (Anonymous) Expand
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