Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Bad People

I so badly wanted for this to be a good movie.

I love fantasy.  I'm a fantasy fan who never recovered from the fact that there are only seven Narnia books and only one Lord of the Rings.  I tried to cope by reading alternately from Lloyd Alexander, Philip Pullman, and biographies of various Inklings.  I was like a smoker on Nicoret—unhappy, unhealthy, and suffering all the symptoms of withdrawal while simultaneously wallowing in the knowledge that my remedy was only feeding my addiction.  It was thus, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, I became a fiction writer.

But that wasn't what I meant write about.  I meant to write about Snow White and the Huntsman, or, more precisely, about one line in Steven Gredanus' review of the movie, or, even more precisely, about my first brother's comment on that line.  While praising the movie in parts, Mr. Greydanus has this to say (coming about two-fifths into his essay—but it could just as well have been his conclusion):

So, the film transposes its story from the register of fairy tale to that of epic myth — but it’s trying for unironic epic myth, iconic good vs. iconic evil. Iconic evil: check. Iconic goodness: There’s the rub.

My brother read that, and said this:

Typically Hollywood fails to make it a story of iconic good against iconic evil because they don't know how to portray iconic good.  I have said this time after time.

And really, my brother has said that time after time.  We've both said that.  That was my (our) complaint about Jackson's LOTR.  Saruman?  Yes.  Evil orcs?  Yes.  Boromir?  Yes! yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Aragorn, Faramir, Galadriel ...

What?  Did Jackson even read Tolkien?  One wonders ...

But Jackson did read the books, and so did others who worked on the project.  Sanders and co. who produced Huntsman would have known the Grimm tale even without reading it—and in any case, fairy tales by their very nature lack the in-depth character drawing needed for the big screen.  Any writer who goes from fairy tale to film will have to extrapolate.  But granting the need for development, why, in Huntsman as in so many other films, are the screenwriters, directors, actors, et al. so good at doing villainy and so bad at doing virtue?

It wasn't always so.  Among the movies I've seen at home in the past month: El Cid (Charlton Heston, directed by Anthony Mann, 1961), The Diary of a Country Priest (Claude Laydu, directed by Robert Bresson, 1951), and People Will Talk (Cary Grant, directed by Joseph Mankiewizc, 1951).  Three very different movies: a justly famous if occasionally ponderous epic, a deeply moving study of quiet heroic virtue that Scorese admits to learning from (!), and a largely forgotten black-and-white dramedy of truly Chestertonian proportions and heart.  Each of these movies has a different kind of hero.  Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: Superman on horseback, Moses with a sword.  The Priest of Ambricourt: a modern-day Christ figure, a suffering servant.  Dr. Noah Praetorius: impulsive, charming, and as absurdly generous as a man in a Miles Connolly novel.

Why do I bring this up?  Because, frankly, there is an easy answer to the question, "Why does Hollywood fail at portraying iconic goodness?" that is obvious, but also wrong.  The easy, obvious, but wrong answer is that the people in Hollywood are bad people.

Of course they're bad people!

They were always bad people.  Don't kid yourselves.  The "good movie stars" are the ones like Jimmy Stewart (playboy before marriage, but settled down afterward), Ronald Reagan (twice married), Deanna Durbin (left Hollywood at the age of 29, thus enabling her third and final marriage to last forty-eight years till the death of her spouse), Loretta Young (who had a single affair with Clark Gable, but other than that kept to the straight and narrow), or Robert Mitchum and Gary Cooper (who were each married only once, but do not appear to have been models of responsibility).  Among the "bad movie stars" Cary Grant is famous, along with Rex Harrison, Christopher Plummer, Doris Day, and a host of others whom you really just don't want to know about.  Good heavens, even Jennifer Jones (of The Song of Bernadette) went on to be married three times.

Caveat spector: Not really a saint.

But they could still act.  They weren't good people, but they could do good people on screen.  And they thought it worth their while to do good people now and then.  As bad as they were, they could sense goodness when they bumped up against it; and as bad as Hollywood was, there was still enough  goodness sloshing around in the culture at large that they couldn't help bumping up against it now and then.

In today's world, it's not just that there are bad people in Hollywood: there are bad people everywhere.  More seriously, it's not just that our culture doesn't know goodness: our culture actively mistrusts goodness.  Our culture does not believe in goodness.  (Remember Hitchens' slam of Mother Theresa?)  And when one no longer knows, trusts, and believes in a thing, one stops putting it into one's art, stories, and songs; yes—one even stops putting it into one's fantasy and fairy tales.


  1. I agree with you about the LotR movies. I suspect that this same problem--the difficulty of portraying real goodness or nobility--is at the root of why Jackson ended up so often using characters like Legolas and Gimli as comic relief.

  2. Indeed. Which is a shame, even with regard to just those two characters; because while they ARE funny, they're also more than that in the book!