Friday, April 26, 2013

Less is More (some thoughts on the legends of Villainy)

“You’d like to quantify me, Officer Starling. You’re so ambitious, aren’t  you?” – The Silence of the Lambs

Its fair to say that Hannibal Lecter is one of the greatest and most terrifying villains in modern entertainment. From his appearances in Harris’s novels RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to his recurrence in MANHUNTER and later SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (the movie) he was the ultimate in chilling evil. We saw just enough of him to know he made the hairs stand up on the back of our neck. He was revealed in slow moments, in pieces, stepping out of the shadows just far enough for us to see his teeth and to know that we needed to steer clear of him.

He was a shadow.

A monster.

A bogey-man.
“Dr Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk, perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr Lecter has six fingers on his left hand.” – the Silence of the Lambs

We wanted more of him, this strange, unknowable and terrifying figure.

But when we got more of him, something strange happened. He lost his power. That uncertainty, that unquantifiability suddenly became quantifiable.  Because we learned too much and too fast. By the time Hannibal rolled around, Lecter was no longer this creature in the shadows, but suddenly he had a backstory (a sister lost in terrible circumstances, eaten in front of his eyes, because, you know, that explains his obsession with canibalism) and even an enemy who was more brutal than he was (the ludicrously over the top Mason Verger, who happens to be a paedophile, just so we get the message that he’s more morally reprehensible than our favourite psychopathic doctor). He became more than a supporting character in a larger tale and instead the focus of the story. He became the “hero” instead of the villain. And he lost his edge; became a parody of himself.

And I won’t even talk about Hannibal Rising.

It’s the same story as with Darth Vader. A mysterious black clad figure, Vader was given just enough backstory (spoiler – he’s the hero’s father) to grant him life, but then we were given his backstory which fleshed out his character to the point of pointlessness. All those beats that one could easily have filled in as an intelligent consumer of stories were made explicit. And suddenly Vader was no longer this omnipresent threat, but rather a lovelorn idiot who was once an extremely annoying kid with a talent for driving race-cars. All the threat and menace he once exuded was gone. And it didn’t help that he was given one of the most painfully hamfisted origin scenes in the history of the movies:

The great villains – and by villains, I mean the ones who speak to the blackness of the world, the ones who are truly monsters and bogey-men - do not need backstory beyond what is neccesary. They work at their finest when we know them in the moment, when we know only that we need to be afraid of them, that in this moment they make us feel something at back of our neck.

But the problem comes when those villains start to step out of the shadows; when they become so popular that their creators feel the need to give the audience more, to expand upon their creations, to give these creations more depth than they were every created to handle.

And to do that, they have to let the bogey-men step out of the shadows.

Thus, Hannibal Lecter becomes less a manifestation of our fears regarding the intelligent, thinking monster, and more of a strange sad-luck story.

Darth Vader becomes a weak parody of power; a lost little boy carried by a destiny beyond his own control.

They lose the effect they once had. In the harsh light of over-exposure they become less powerful and consequently lose the effect that they once had on audiences. We know them too well for them to have the same effect upon us they once had. They have become quanitifiable. Understandable. Predictable.

There is such a thing as knowing a character too deeply.

The legends become too thin. The increased knowledge on the part of the audience weakens the power of the character.

Think about it: would Jaws be so powerful if we knew the Shark’s backstory? If we learned that the shark were angry at the residents of Amity Bay because Quint had killed its mother?*

Would Max Cady have benefited from a sequel to The Executioners/Cape Fear in which we learned about the childhood trauma that created the monster?

“He kept grinning at me. I can’t remember ever seeing a more disconcerting grin. Or whiter, more artificial looking teeth. He knew damn well he was making me uncomfortable.” – The Executioners.

Certain villains are iconic in and of a moment and only within a certain fictional framework. Certain heroes work in the same way, too**. They are legends more than they are characters. They do not need to step beyond the confines of the stories that gave them power in the first place.  They do not need continual expansion or mythologizing. Because instead of adding the depth that the creators – and the audience who have demanded this – crave, all that happens is that the characters become lesser. They lose their impact. They become something else entirely; something weaker and altogether less appetising.

I always think about The Joker. He is the Batman’s most appealing villain, and yet for every attempt to explain who he is, we only wind up with more questions and indeed even today we know as much about him as we did in the early days; he is a homicidal maniac with no (definite) name and no agenda beyond spreading chaos across the Gotham city landscape.  We may get glimpses of other parts of him, but never more than is necessary and never anything to take away the most powerful aspects of that character.  Think about Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s take on the character in The Dark Knight: constantly telling different versions of his origin, never letting anyone close to what he really is or how came to be. The very uncertainty of the character gave him his power.

 Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was… a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not one bit. So – me watching – he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, “why so serious, son?” Comes at me with the knife… “Why so serious?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face!” And…Why so serious? - The Dark Knight.

Less is more. The less we know, the more the legend has its power.

The best villains – the best legends – do not need to come into the light, do not need to let us see more of them than we do in the moment of the story.

This is why they are effective.

And that is not to say that some villains do not deserve depth, do not deserve to come into the light. But when you’re dealing with iconic figures, with characters whose very existence is dependent more on the effect they have on the reader than on their depth, then you have to walk a very fine line between psychological acuity and oversharing.

Or else you run the risk of destroying everything that made that character work in the first place. By giving the audience more, you wind up giving them less.

*Actually I have a sick feeling this may have been hinted at – or something similar – in one of the sequels. In which case, given how bad the sequels were, point proven.
**Although, as with everyone, I find its more fun to talk about the villains; they get all the best lines.


Jay Stringer said...

Fun fact; the reason JAWS 4: THE REVENGE was called THE REVENGE was because the original script had a voodoo dude controlling the shark. It was a vendetta against the Brody family that possibly tied into the New York backstory that is hinted at in the first film.

Thankfully, that part if the script got cut.

Unfortunately, they still made the film.

As I was reading you post I was preparing a reply about Mr J, but then you're too good and already mdntioned him. I like the two modern(ish) comic book stories to have hinted at his past, because they've both confused the issue even more. In THE KILLING JOKE he says he likes his past to be multiple choice, and in (insert forgotten title here) by Denny O'Neil were shown him working with a family member, without ever getting an explanation as to how or if they're really related.

Anonymous said...

The Joker is the only one they seem to get right in every incarnation. We never really knew who he was in his sixties camp version, but every time you heard Caesar Romero laughing, you were glad this show was parody.

Tim Burton gave him a backstory, but then planted Jack Nicholson under the makeup. Jack Nicholson could make Mr. Rogers scary.

I like Ledger's the best. He took every Joker that came before, crushed them into powder, and snorted them like psychotic fairy dust. And this version actively erases his backstory. (Wise move on Nolan's part.)

The Joker is the perfect terrorist: No agenda other than chaos, and even when he has a story (like Nicholson's Joker), he is still unknowable.

That, my friends, is pure evil.