Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Secondhand Temptation

In an examination of Guardians of the Galaxy II, one of the Marvel franchise’s more recent movies, I spent some time discussing the movie’s failure to portray a convincing villain, a failure which damaged the story as a whole.  If the villain in Guardians had been able to more effectively sell his masterplan to the hero (instead having to resort to hypnosis), it could have been a much better film.  A hero who has to make good intellectual and moral choices using his full capacities is a more interesting and on some level a nobler character than one who acts merely instinctively.  A villain who can almost convince a sound man to follow him is more interesting and on some level more useful character than one who is easily refuted.
Since the screenwriters had time in this case to make the villain more effective (they had only to change a rhetorically weak speech for a strong one), I assumed that the screenwriters were simply unable to write convincingly villainous rhetoric.  Upon further consideration, however, I wonder if that was the only thing, or even the main thing, holding them back.  It is at least conceivable that some of them had ethical scruples about portraying a villain whose tempting is nearly effective.

The problem with a good, solid temptation scene is that it operates differently upon different viewers or readers.  Even the story of the Fall in Genesis has this imperfection: I’ve known non-Christians to genuinely feel that God’s test is tremendously unfair to Adam and Eve.  In the Gospels, Christ refers to that sort of spiritual blindness using Old Testament references to those who lack “eyes to see, and ears to hear.”  Nor is the blindness always spiritual: during the latency period of childhood, which lasts from about age five to twelve, there is generally a diminished ability to comprehend and process certain adult knowledge (a diminished ability which, incidentally, ought to be respected).  And of course, there is always the question of intelligence pure and simple: the annals of history are full of evil men who rose to prominence in part because people were simple enough to believe them.

When it comes to literature, there are plenty of examples in which right and wrong portrayed subtly have led to confusion.  Evelyn Waugh’s masterful and very Catholic novel, Brideshead Revisited, is adored by numerous secular critics only because they fail to see its Catholicity.  Waugh, writing from the point of view of a narrator who is (for most of the story) not Catholic, is too subtle for his advocacy of the Faith to be grasped by many readers.  A still more grave example of this phenomenon is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Milton asserts rather grandly near the beginning of his biblical epic that he intends “to justify the ways of God to man,” an intention which even a minute scholarly knowledge of Milton’s life and opinions supports.  But over the centuries since Milton wrote, scores if not hundreds of readers have felt (in the words of William Blake) that Milton was “of the Devil's party without knowing it.”  Milton has been rolling in his grave ever since.

This gives the writer a conundrum that is not faced by other creative artists.  If he is called, as some writers are, to write simple stories, stories that deal with good and evil on a level that a child can understand, then there is little or no danger that he will tempt readers beyond their strength.  But if he is called to produce anything more complex—if it is part of his secondary vocation to reproduce moral conundrums with anything like the complexity they sometimes have in real life—then there is always a danger, almost the inevitable danger, that some of his readers may (to paraphrase Blake) take the devil’s side without his intending it.


  1. There was something about this that kept echoing of the Familiar...
    ... so, do you remember a conversation about Hitchcock and Lifeboat?

    1. No, I'm ashamed to say ... ??

    2. Weird... I was sure we'd discussed Hitchcock and Villains and villainy-in-general somewhere.

      Oh, I think I found the "conversation" I was remembering ... it was just me writing a blog post about how the villain in Lifeboat Really Is a Nazi --- that it's not just What They Call Him. And it turns out that Hitchcock particularly insisted that his villains be people we can take seriously as villains. (Not sure what to make of NxNW in that case, but... there we are)

    3. Ohhh, interesting. Link please? If I read that post of yours, I don't remember. Although perhaps I should see Lifeboat first? That's one of the Hitchcocks I haven't seen yet.

      Yeah, NxNW is an amazing film, but ... That one and Vertigo really do stretch the limits of credibility. Actually, thinking about it, Hitchcock was a bit like Shyamalan is: sometimes going too far in search of the astonishing.

    4. link

      Musing further... you had written a post about establishing character, and particularly "bad character", and I answered something about shouting out of proportion, and... I had meant to mention the Stranger from Strangers On A Train; but now I'm not sure if I actually left that comment, or got lost chasing all the references I had wanted to straighten-up first. Memory is a Strange creature indeed...

      (irrelevant side-note: there was a clever someone somewhere who described NxNW as the first "Bond" film...)

    5. Ahhh, I do remember a comment from you about Stranger on a Train. I have no notion were that post is, however, and no memory of writing it.

      Yes, I could see NxNW with a Bond in the lead!