About a decade ago I had the wonderful opportunity to play Iago, in a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. I’m also an avid film lover and a filmmaker. What do these two things have in common? Well, there’s a certain ‘movement’ in film over the last few years (and before anyone reminds me of other times this has happened I’m well aware this has happened before but since it’s happening ‘again’ now, I thought I’d use it as an example.) The movement is this idea of ‘re-imagining’ villainous characters from other films/books/plays/fairytales/comics. I recently saw one with the evil queen in Snow White and the Huntsman.There’s another coming out later this year focusing on the evil queen from Sleeping Beauty. In comics it’s been going on even longer – somewhere in the late 80s characters like Magneto, the Punisher, Kraven and other’s began to get ‘back stories’. In science fiction it happened with the Borg in Star Trek. In fantasy literature (and Dungeons and Dragons mythos) it happened with the Drow. If I’m not mistaken there’s a whole cannon of books written by someone re-imagining the wicked witch of the west.
They don’t work for me (well, the one exception I can think of is Paradise Lost but there’s a reason we still read Milton today.) Most of the time I’m just annoyed by it (Snow White) but on other occasions it has actually ruined something for me (the Borg.)
It all comes back to Iago. While working on the production I had several discussions with the director about the need to get the cast to ‘buy’ into the idea that he was ‘honest’ Iago (a term that almost everyone in the play calls him.) Because if they didn’t the audience wouldn’t. And this was a setup for the question that I struggled with the most: why did Iago do what he did? He mentions several things about his past through the course of the play but given that he is constantly lying and manipulating people it’s hard to take anything he says to be true.
But it doesn’t matter. Iago does what he does because he is evil. Today in modern psychology we want to have a reason. He had a broken home. She was beaten as a little girl. But in literature, and what makes great stories great (I’m pretty confident in saying Shakespeare knew what he was doing), is that sometimes evil just is. And I think Shakespeare did this purposefully with Iago. He’s the only villainous character in Shakespeare’s cannon who goes un-punished. Macbeth is beheaded. Richard III is killed in battle. Edgar is killed at the last. Even Malvolio is caught, humiliated and carted of to be banished. Only Aaron the Moor (who some consider a precursor to Iago) is alive with punishment forthcoming at the end, but even he begs for mercy and repents. At the end of Othello, Iago has been told to look on everything he’s done and repent and tell them why he’s done this. Then he utters his last line “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know: From this time forth I never will speak word.” That’s where his motives are all laid out. We’ve all witnessed it. We know. There is nothing else to say.
So for my tastes, not all villains need to be diagnosed. Telling me the wicked witch of the west came from a broken home might make for an interesting story but I don’t think it will. And treading to vigorously on something like that may very well kill the sense of wonder I had as a five year old watching Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and Toto the Wonder Dog battle the horrible, EVIL, wicked witch of the west. Because now she’s not just evil anymore. She has feelings. And her mommy was really mean to her and I’m supposed to feel bad for her now. Bad Toto. Bad Scarecrow.
I can watch movies that have moral dilemmas about who’s right and who’s more right any time I want. I get it. I enjoy them just as much as the next person. And yes, I know we think we know more about the human psyche now and we, supposedly, have better insight into a great number of things. I also understand that I can just avoid going to this films.
But every once in awhile I like to just sit down and watch something where I know right off the bat who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. Oftentimes that comes from a character that is already well established. I can guarantee the first time a cowboy in a white hat turned out to be the bad guy there were a lot of angry film goers. And if anyone EVER tries to make a movie with Indiana Jones being the bad guy I will make a personal house call.
So, when you go see Angelina Jolie later this year as Maleficent, stop for a minute. Maybe she’s just evil.
ADDENDUM: I realized recently the perfect example of how a backstory can ruin something already wonderful. Two words. Darth Vader.