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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 LOSING 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 4th, 2014 01:47 pm (UTC)
Ah, but I don't think any of the stories you are criticizing are attempts to redeem villains, per se, in the first place. They are not trying to do what you say they are doing badly.

What they are doing is calling into question who was the villain and who was the hero from the very beginning. They're not redemption stories, they're revision stories. And to the extent that the (reversed) villain seems only mildly heroic, or even anti-heroic (because after all, however wronged if it's anything like the original they still do nasty stuff), and the (reversed) hero seems only mildly villainous, at least on the surface (because after all, to be recorded as the hero in the original they need to have put on a good public face), that's an artifact of two things, only one of which I think is arguably objectionable on its face:

1) Trying to hew closely enough to the bones of the original story for it to be recognizable and for it to be understandable how we all had the sides mixed up for so long, and

2) An attempt at deconstruction of the idea of distinct heroes and villains existing at all, i.e., that there are black and white as opposed to shades of gray.

Now, one may legitimately feel that this sort of revisionist/deconstructionist take is not a worthy enterprise to begin with, I suppose. I tend to feel that when done well, as with Gregory Maguire's Wicked, it can lead to excellent storytelling. The Grinch, however, did indeed reek, for many reasons including the writers' indecision as to the true nature of the Whos in Whoville, and I have not yet seen Maleficent in order to judge. I always keep meaning to read a Russian work whose name escapes me that is supposedly Lord of the Rings told from the POV of Mordor, too, as many have recommended it to me.

But as in all matters of fiction, and especially dealing with morality in fiction, YMMV.
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 01:58 pm (UTC)
>They're not redemption stories, they're revision stories.

So, it's not an attempt to make me sympathize with the villain, it's just a straight out attack on goodness?

That is much worse than what I am accusing them of.
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 02:05 pm (UTC)
Not at all; it's simply saying that the original story had it backwards as to who was actually good and who was actually bad, or at the very least whom we should feel more sympathy towards. It's not an attack on goodness to recognize that the wicked can masquerade as the righteous, and the good (or at least justified in taking their vengeance) can be demonized as evil by the former.

E.g., even without straying from the original story nearly as much as any of the examples already on the table, it would be really, really easy to write a version of Jack and the Beanstalk that shows things from the giant's POV and makes him out to be the injured party while Jack is the true villain of the piece. After all, Jack *is* a wastrel, a thief, and then arguably a murderer in that while the giant was probably going to kill and eat him, self-defense doesn't apply so much when somebody is dealing with a home invader... ;-)
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 06:46 pm (UTC)
> It's not an attack on goodness to recognize that the wicked can masquerade

We shall have to agree to disagree. I believe there is a huge difference between doing a new take on Jack and his beanstalk, which I think is just fine, and taking a really good character, like King Stefan, and making him a villain.

It is like the difference between discovering that a beloved historical figure had a checkered past and slander. Just because it is possible to discover that a cherished figure had feet of clay doesn't mean every claim that this is so is true.

What The Grinch movie does to the Whos is slander.

Still, if you are right, and they aren't trying to redeem the villains, then I cannot fault them for the thing that bothered me the most...the lack of imagination they showed in understanding the villains.
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 05:02 pm (UTC)
Well, sometimes morally inverting a tale can be fun, if it's a take on the tale. Take Tanith Lee's "Red as Blood", where the stepmother is desperately trying to protect her kingdom from a horrible witch. [Spoiler (click to open)]And the prince who rescues her from her sleep had -- a hole through his hand

Edited at 2014-07-04 05:03 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 06:49 pm (UTC)
I think we could have a whole interesting panel on whether taking a folk figure like an evil step mother or Jack and changing them is the same or different from doing this to the character of a recent author, when we know exactly what that character is supposed to be like.

For instance, A version of SLEEPING BEAUTY where the king is the villain is one thing. DISNEY's verion, with Disney's King Stefan is another entirely.
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 07:20 pm (UTC)
Very true. One of the problems of fan fic.
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 04:35 pm (UTC)

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

Succinct, elegant. Perfect.
[User Picture]
Date:July 4th, 2014 06:47 pm (UTC)
That was actually Juss's line, lol. John insisted I add it.

Edited at 2014-07-04 06:47 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:July 17th, 2014 07:18 pm (UTC)
Philosphical contemplations since. . . .

Consider the character of Baron Klaus Wulfenbach. In the first three volumes of Girl Genius (the collected webcomics; alternatively, the first novel), the Baron is unquestionably an Evil Tyrant.

By the end of the second three, he's a much more sympathetic figure. Given that the task he undertook was to unite and pacify a Europe ruled -- badly -- by Mad Scientists, one understands how any lesser force would simply not work. And we get a tragic collision where he and other characters are acting from excellent motive and using their best judgment on limited info.

Of course, that's not undermining an existing story but a further development in an ongoing one.
[User Picture]
Date:July 17th, 2014 08:12 pm (UTC)
One of the reasons I dislike things like Malificent and Grinch is that I like things like that so very much. I love when we see things from the villain's point of view and see that his motives are good...but he's still a villain.

I dislike when they cheat and make the good guys the villains.
[User Picture]
Date:July 17th, 2014 08:23 pm (UTC)
Well, whether Klaus's the villain is arguable. Suppose we saw the part of The Lord of the Rings where Aragorn marches the army into the teeth of the forces of Mordor to distract Sauron from the point of view of a grunt soldier who does not, of course, know about the Ring. . . what would Aragorn look like?

Klaus is not that pure of heart in his motives, I think, and he's not a nice person, but you can argue for his falling on the heroic side.

Hmmm. . . . here's a character delineating the problem. (Not Klaus. His son Gil. but you have to read to the end to see how it applies.)

[User Picture]
Date:July 18th, 2014 12:14 pm (UTC)
Thanks. One of my favorite things like that is this:


This is the only real introduction to Doom a friend had...his idea of the character is very different than the average.
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