12 April 2024

Not all villains need a rewrite


Everybody loves a good bad guy. From Dracula to Darth Vader to Hannibal Lecter, yesterday’s villains are today’s heroes. The twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who grew up on the stories of fairies, princes and princesses now turn on Netflix or visit the West End or the Edinburgh Fringe to see the bad guys taking the centre stage.

Sometimes that’s a compassionate imagining of their beginnings, as in 2019’s Joker or 2021’s Cruella. Or their story is retold to turn the bad guy into the heroine: Malificent, Wicked or the Edinburgh Fringe transfer Unfortunate. The phenomenon goes beyond cartoons: on-stage, Tracy-Ann Oberman turns Shylock into an anti-fascist heroine. In print, Hilary Mantel gained critical acclaim and the most prestigious award in fiction (twice) for giving a new ‘sense of history‘ to the story of Thomas Cromwell. It is practically impossible to identify a major childhood villain who has not been turned into a misunderstood hero, or a figure that we hate to love.

Sometimes, there’s a simple reason for this: writers find the bad guys fun to write. In the first Thomas Harris novel to feature Hannibal Lecter, everyone’s favourite cannibal is a side feature to a story about a troubled FBI profiler tracking down a serial killer. But it’s Hannibal who jumps off the page and Hannibal who gets given the starring role in the subsequent novels.

Similarly, The Merchant of Venice isn’t meant to be about Shylock. The First Folio classifies it as a comedy; Shylock is a literary device to create conflict in a comedic romance between two aristocrats. But the romance parts look incongruous in practice. By the time we get to the ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ speech, Shylock has our attention because Shakespeare keeps giving him all the best lines.

Yet that isn’t the reason modern-day audiences sympathise with the devil. To 21st-century eyes, the alleged hero of Merchant – Bassiano, a noble who has spent his money so needs to borrow from a friend to get the girl – isn’t sympathetic. He’s an idiot. Shylock is the self-made man, the outsider because of his race.

Old-fashioned stories have old-fashioned ideas about social order. The villain is often the person who challenges the status quo, the grand vizier who wants to usurp the king. Stories from Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter begin with rightful order challenged and end with it restored. Their protagonists do not choose but are chosen: Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter are called to do their duty, and retire gracefully once the job is done.

Today, we don’t accept the idea that the king has a greater right to the throne than the grand vizier. Today, we have the same fascination with Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel did, the story of a man who rose from a butcher’s boy to the Earl of Essex. Disney villainesses like Cruella de Vil, Ursula or Malificent share common qualities: they are clever, ambitious women who take control of their fate. When the role of the classic heroine is to marry the hero, guess whose side we’re on watching these stories today.

Complicating matters is the historic use of ‘beautiful’ or ‘handsome’ as a signifier for good. It’s a literary device crudely used by Shakespeare in amplifying Richard III’s disability, and in hundreds of old-school comic books or Saturday morning cartoons: from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to as recent a product as The Little Mermaid (1989). The classic bad guys are ugly because they are evil and evil because they are ugly.

The rehabilitation of villains is more than just another trend. Classic villains are alluring because rewriting their stories – of ambitious women, the disabled, the outcasts – gives us a chance to right the wrongs of the past. In 1989, Disney based the villainess Ursula on a contemporary drag queen. Thirty years later, reviews of the parody Unfortunate talk about the ‘reclamation‘ of queer heritage. We can see what’s going on when we look at the villains who didn’t make the revisionist cut: Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, or the villains of films like Tarzan or Pocahontas, are all society’s winners and so don’t gain 21st-century sympathy.

But, tempting as it is, writers should resist. The first reason is that rehabilitating another writer’s villain means retelling another writer’s story. Casting Shylock as a Jewish woman standing up against a bullying man changes everything visually. But even the most talented actress is stuck with Shakespeare’s text, where Shylock is without redeeming qualities. We are told early on the reason he and Antonio don’t like each other, and it isn’t racism: Antonio is preventing Shylock from preying on the vulnerable by lending money for free. Actors like Adjoa Andoh or Arthur Hughes find pity in Richard III through his outsider status, but he isn’t meant to be pitied: on paper, the character’s only redeeming quality is his charisma.

Cartoon villains like Hannibal or the Joker are not written to be understood. They are given good lines but that is it. When a writer or actor tries to portray these characters sympathetically, they end up perilously close to justifying the actions of characters who have to be later portrayed eating people or murdering the princes in the tower.

If the historic weakness was to sympathise too little, the 21st century weakness is to sympathise too much. And there’s a final 21st century weakness in siding with the villains, righting the wrongs of history by rewriting the stories of the past. The problem is that by doing this, the power remains with yesterday’s writers and we are defined by yesterday’s injustices.

Retelling old stories has a fine heritage and was a classic tactic of Shakespeare’s. Yet if the aim is shaping history, it’s time to write about tomorrow’s heroes.

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Frances Lasok is a political professional and writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.