I can’t tell if they can’t or if they won’t.
Take the Red Queen from the recent film adaptation of Through the Looking Glass. (And I use the term “adaptation” very loosely.) The Red Queen storms around shouting, bossing everyone around, threatening cut peoples’ heads off. Sounds just like the character I grew up with. How can anyone possibly mess that up? By introducing some backstory to give all of this a “proper” framing.
You know I never thought to ask how she got that way. Just like it never crossed my mind to wonder just why it is that the Wicked Witch of the West turned out like she did. Or Maleficent. But (SPOILER ALERT!) it turns out in today’s telling that the Red Queen was wronged by one of the good guys when she was a little girl. She got in trouble for something she didn’t do. And then due to a subsequent accident, every time she looses her temper, her head swells every arger until it assumes absurd proportions. It almost makes you feel bad for her when she terrorizes people, kidnaps entire families, and causes all manner of mayhem. Almost.
What’s the solution to all this…? Well the answer is for the person from her childhood to merely show up and apologize. That’s it. I try to explain how unsatisfactory this is, but most people don’t want to hear it. Slather enough big name actors, fancy costumes, and fancy schmancy computer graphics onto this sort of story and it just isn’t that obvious what’s off about it. But yes, it does make it harder to dislike the “bad” characters and harder to like the “good” ones. And I wonder: are filmmakers unwilling or unable to tell stories any other way…? And which would be worse?
Well I may not ever get an answer to that. But I can demonstrate that things weren’t always like this. And more importantly, I can show what sort of emotional beats evaporate when this sort of thing becomes the norm. Consider this:
He raised the flagon; before he had half lifted it to his lips he paused and looked into it.
“Half full!” giggled the king. “Only half full!”
He glanced from the flagon to the girl who stood closest to the kneeling girl at his left. His round face beamed on her.
“Insect!” chuckled the king. “You forgot to fill my flagon!”
He raised a finger.
A bow string sang along the left wall, an arrow shrilled. It struck the trembling girl in the shoulder on the right side. She swayed, eyes closed.
“Bad!” the king cried merrily, and again held up a finger.
From the frieze along the right wall another bow string sang; an arrow whittled across the room. The shaft cleft the heart of the first archer. Before his body touched the floor the same bow sang once more.
A second shaft leaped into sight deep within the left side of the wounded girl.
“Good!” laughed the king.
“Our lord has granted death!” chanted the Chinese. “Praise him!”
“Praise him!” echoed the bowmen and the cup maidens.
But Kenton, mad with swift rage at that heartless killing, leaped forward. Instantly the bow strings of the six and thirty archers before him were drawn taut, arrow shafts touched ears. Black priest and captain caught him, threw him down.
Evil doesn’t need an elaborate back story in the old pulp stories. It only needs to establish its character through the execution of some gross injustice. The Good? They don’t have to have had a part in creating the Evil. They just have to hate the injustices it commits. And then stop them and set things right even if the odds against them are insane.
Never mind Joseph Campbell’s Man of a Thousand Faces, this is the backbone of countless myths, legends, and fairytales. And you have to wonder just what it is that would motivate someone to go in and rewrite them all in order to edit that sort of thing out.