- Actor Toby Jones narrated an hour-long podcast investigating the fictional villain.
- Villainous archetypes may be diluted over time in a ‘cycle of adjustment’.
- The performance of a particular actor may redefine a villain.
- A villain may be acting out a motivation, or they may be a monster acting out their nature.
It’s one of those quotes that gets confidently attributed to many different people. Perhaps it was William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, who said it. Perhaps it was Charles Wesley, a leader of the Methodist church founded by his brother, John. Perhaps it was someone else entirely.
Whoever said it, it cuts to the heart of something every storyteller knows: everyone loves a good villain. It’s a truth that was brought to mind by a recent podcast, The Villain in 6 Chapters: bringing in critics, academics and actors who have played villains, actor Toby Jones explores memorable villains from Vanity Fair to Mad Men, by way of the usual suspects such as Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula.
I thoroughly recommend the podcast itself, but what it set me thinking about was how the archetypes of villainy tell us about our expectations as readers and how to surprise and subvert them as writers.
The Cycle of adjustment
I’ve pontificated about the genesis and influence of Victor Frankenstein and his monster before, but Jones uses the monster as an example of a ‘cycle of adjustment’: the longer amonster or villain inhabits our culture, the more sympathetic it gets. Mary Shelley gave Frankenstein’s monster, or creature as it was called for much of the novel, its sympathetic side. It would never have become a monster if Victor hadn’t rejected it. Nevertheless, the monster did terrible things and killed a lot of people who had done nothing to deserve it. The original film version was reasonably faithful to Shelley’s conception of it but later versions stripped the monster of any vestige of humanity and sent it to tear up the countryside.
In more recent years, we’ve seen less of the monster and more of the creature that Shelley, and indeed Victor Frankenstein, envisioned. Perhaps its rehabilitation started with the 1994 film, in which Robert de Niro portrayed the creature much as Shelley had written it. More recently still, Rory Kinnear played a sympathetic and compassionate creature in Penny Dreadful. His version might occasionally feel the need to tear people apart, but it does so for good reasons.
The vampire has followed a similar trajectory. It appeared in Anglophone culture in the form of the irredeemably devilish Count Dracula. The early portrayals on film portrayed him in much the same way but when Hammer Films cast Christopher Lee as Dracula in 1958, he brought a dark charisma to the role that drove a barrage of sequels over thefollowing 20 years.
Familiarity tames the beast
Lee set the vampire on a cycle that would lead it to the insipid romantic figures of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, which would have the ghastly count turning in his grave if he hadn’t been staked into it.
So much for description. Why does the cycle turn at all? Perhaps a monster loses something of its monstrousness when it becomes a feature in a culture. Like most people, I was familiar with the names and at least the outlines of Frankenstein’s monster and Count Dracula long before I read the books.
Alternatively, perhaps the very familiarity of the monsters of a culture drives its reinvention. There were only so many times that the story of Dracula could be retold before it got stale, so writers like Anne Rice and Joss Whedon took the power of a monster that was firmly embedded in our culture and did something different with it. In doing so, they reinvented the vampire itself. Once the cultural expectation that the vampire mustalways be a villain was diluted, the villainous vampire once again became fearful. The vampires in Penny Dreadful are as nasty as Bram Stoker could have wished for.
The actor’s stamp
Christopher Lee points his way toward another part of the explanation: a particular actor may define a character in an unexpected way. Lee’s Dracula was not Stoker’s.
The of Hannibal Lecter appears as part of a cast of ghoulish serial killers in Thomas Harris’s novels, Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs. Lecter was certainly memorable, but it was the tour-de-force of Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the film of the latter novel that introduced the character to mass culture and redefined him in the process. Hopkins dominated the film in the relatively small amount of time in which he was on screen. In spite of being the protagonist, Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling was reduced to Lecter’s foil whenever he was on screen. Foster’s performance was excellent, and indeed Hopkins would not have been so mesmerising if she hadn’t matched him in every way. The conventional nobility that drove the Starling character simply could not match the caged darkness of the Lecter character.
Once Hopkins got his hands on Lecter, Lecter’s days as part of an ensemble were numbered. He was the protagonist of Harris’s two subsequent novels, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising, and he’s been portrayed several more times on film and television.Hopkins himself was baffled by the reaction to his Lecter, saying ‘I have no clue as to why this guy’s caught imagination’. For Hopkins, Lecter is a particularly nasty piece of work who deserved to stay in the prison where Harris started him off.
The villain by nature
Throughout the podcast, there is a lot of discussion of the villains’ reasons for being villains. Frankenstein’s monster was denied love. Mrs Danvers in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was mourning the woman she had raised and loved since childhood. Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations was embittered by being jilted at the altar.
There is very little discussion of the villains who have no motivation other than that it is simply in their nature to be villains. In short, they are monsters. The monster in literature is like a guided missile. Once it has decided that you are its prey, it cannot be redeemed, reasoned with, intimidated or distracted. You can flee if you want, but you will only delay the inevitable because the monster doesn’t get distracted either. Sooner or later, you will have to confront and destroy it.
Toby Jones himself played such a character in the form of the Dream Lord in an episode of Doctor Who. It was apparent from fairly early in the episode that the Dream Lord was no more than a mechanism of the situation the characters were flung into, so talking it through was not an option.
Lecter is such a character, showing neither compassion nor fear but rather an intensity of purpose. Such a character makes for the perfect antagonist, but perhaps part of the power of Lecter’s character is that he is not actually the antagonist of Silence of the Lambs. That post is taken by ‘Buffalo Bill’, who is every bit as monstrous as Lecter but who is able to act out his desires. Lecter, on the other hand, is initially defined by having his desiresfrustrated as he’s locked up, which carries a certain pathos even if those desires are horrendous.
The devil from the detail
So to pull all this together, what have I learned from Jones’s tour of fictional villainy?
-Culture mutates villains, so an archetypal villain can appear fresh by having their villainy either diluted or restored.
-A memorable screen performance tends to define a villainous trope, which a writer can either follow up or subvert with a subsequent character.
-It’s worth being aware of the difference between a villain who has a relatable reason for his actions and a monster who is simply acting out its nature.
-Even a monster can be rendered sympathetic by confinement.
And the question of who asked why the devil has all the best tunes? It was the devil himself, of course. We only think it was one of those pious churchmen because the devil wanted to make sure everyone knows they noticed.
Next week, I’ll be following Jones’s villains into the realms of the anti-hero.