Friday, 17 June 2011

The Three Types of Bad Guy

John Malkovich is coming to London to play a Bad Guy on the stage.

The play is called ‘The Infernal Comedy' and we are told that it is:

the autobiography of Austrian serial killer Jack Unterweger…[who] was imprisoned for murder but became a poet and writer while serving his sentence; critics loved him and intellectuals and politicians eventually got him a pardon, claiming he was an example of 'rehabilitation'.

Already there is concern that it will be too sympathetic a portrayal; that Unterweger will be 'glamorised'.

However, the notion that the Bad Guy should be shown to be a repulsive monster is just one of many literary approaches.

The Bad Guys in Dickens and the early gothic novels were usually caricatures, and this tradition carried on in cinema and in pantomime.

You were not supposed to like them, still less associate yourself with these horrible sorts.

They may well scare you, but they were firmly “The Other”.

Another literary tradition, which one can perhaps associate with Milton’s Lucifer, is to make the Bad Guy attractive: someone you would like.

Here, the Bad Guy as the Charming Figure also has a great tradition, including Conan Doyle’s quite wonderful threesome of Irene Adler, Charles Augustus Milverton, and Professor Moriarty (each of whom would be far preferable company than the earnest Holmes and Watson), and the recent film portrayals of Hannibal Lector by Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins.

This type of perhaps glamorous characterization can be far more unsettling than the Dickensian grotesque: to actually like these characters may well make us uncomfortable about ourselves.

More difficult is for a writer to create a Bad Guy who makes us realise that we are all capable of bad actions; that the Bad Guy is not necessarily somebody else.

In his brilliant Contingency, irony, and solidarity, the late Richard Rorty contended that Nabakov and Orwell were able to put forward characters who could make the reader personally reflect on the nature of cruelty: that, in particular, the figure of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-four could make one empathise with what it would be like to be a torturer.

Torture and cruelty are commonplaces in this world. They probably always will be.

The question of how it can best be understood is perhaps not to ask why other people can be the Bad Guys, either as Dickensian Horrors or as Miltonian Charmers, but to ask how all humans can do deeply bad things.

The villain is not always behind you, or in front of you; it can instead be you.

And that is not a glamorous thought at all.


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Elizabeth Miles said...

I had more fun playing the Wicked Witch in a Snow White pantomime than I had had in years. I felt right in the part. My friends told my I had a cackle to end all cackles.
It was a truly liberating experience (especially for a non thespian like me) and I have often wondered why that was

Daz said...

Also, there's something very two-dimensional about baddies with no likeable characteristics. They aren't really characters, they're more like animated quintains for the Good Guy™ to knock over. And, after all, there's a reason that 'he seemed like such a normal bloke' is a cliché.

A very recent example for your list of disturbingly empathetic bad guys. Christopher Ecclestone's character in The Shadow Line, just finished on the BBC. (It's still on iPlayer, I believe.)

Neil Howlett said...

Can I offer the following examples of fictional Bad Guys who raise real questions about stereotypes:
Tom Ripley, best in the Highsmith books, or on film played by Dennis Hopper - Malkovich's Ripley was a little insipid.
Hans Beckert, the child murderer in Fritz Lang's 'M', brilliantly played by Peter Lorre before he became typecast as a caricature.
Virtually every character in T H White's 'Once and Future King'.

kdv said...

At the risk of shattering Godwin's law, it's worth noting that those at the coalface of Hitler's "final solution" weren't escapees from secure facilities for the criminally insane, as one might reasonably expect.

They were bank clerks, and janitors, and bus drivers, and doctors, and just about every other component of German life. There was even a (rather well known) chicken farmer.

The phrase "the banality of evil" was, and remains, so depressingly true.

Michael said...

Whenever I write bad guys, I find that I'm more sympathetic to them than the goodies. Bad is interesting. But it's also useful to remember that of all the atrocities in recent wars, it's the evil of "Ordinary Men", to quote the book title, that does the most harm. The ordinary, obedient, law-abiding sorts who can join in with their peers and commit unimaginable crimes when ordered, just so they don't rock the boat.

If we don't understand these crimes, and the motives of the guilty, we can never hope to stop them.

What a thought.

Mark D said...

For me the scariest (and funniest, strangely) example is still Michael Palin's portrayal of the torturer and all round nice-family-guy in Terry Gilliam's 'Brazil'.

Pacal said...

Well it should be pointed out that Irene Adler is NOT a bad guy / girl in the slightest. If anything it is the King of Bohemia in the story who is a bad guy.