Sunday, June 08, 2014

Sympathy For The "Villain"

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS.  If you have not seen the original Star Wars trilogy, the TV series "Lost," or read the Harry Potter ought to get on that.  No, but seriously, I'll be writing some major spoilery stuff about those, so if you are planning on watching or reading any of those and don't want anything spoiled, don't read this post.

So the show I'm involved in has a character that is one of the story's villains.  He is the son of the main villain.  The main villain is a power-hungry tyrant who double-crosses his ally to usurp power from him.  His son, however, is a character I've always felt sympathetic towards.  In fact, he is my favorite character in the show, and I find him so interesting and multidimensional.

I've always gotten the impression that the son is trying to live up to his father's expectations, but can never quite please him.  He is in love with his father's ally's daughter, but she finds him repulsive and he can't understand why.  He watches helplessly as she falls in love with the hero, and while I shouldn't necessarily feel sorry for him, I do.  He tries to impress the girl he loves with the power of a device that's intended to destroy and sincerely doesn't understand it when she seems upset by it.  He attempts to fight the good guys in the end and ends up being blinded.  I just find his arc kind of tragic.

But I've always been that way.  I always seem to find villains interesting characters (and as an actor, I find them fun to play).  Some villains are truly terrible people, but there are some "villains" in stories that I find sympathetic and feel sorry for.

Darth Vader has always been one of my favorite fictional villains.

I remember the first time I ever saw Darth Vader.  As a six year old child I watched as he made his entrance about four and a half minutes into the movie, Star Wars.  He came through the smoke looking menacing and giant.

I remember being so enthralled with him.  He seemed so mysterious and powerful.  He actually has only about 12 minutes of screen time in the first movie, yet he left a very lasting impression on me.  Not knowing there would be a sequel, I was initially shocked that the villain got away in the end, and I was curious what became of him.

In the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back (without a doubt, my favorite movie in the Star Wars series) the character was given more dimension.  We got to see a brief look that underneath all that machinery there was a very mysteriously scarred human being.

And then there's that famous moment when Darth Vader reveals to Luke Skywalker that he is, in fact, his father.

As a nine year old kid, I couldn't believe it.  I didn't want Luke to believe it.  I thought it was a trick.  It truly was an absolutely shocking moment in cinematic history...for me anyway.

But then something happens that made me go, "Hm, maybe Darth Vader is telling the truth" and actually made me feel a pang of sympathy for a villain.  One of the last scenes in The Empire Strikes Back involves Darth Vader almost capturing Luke.  His Star Destroyer has the Millennium Falcon in its clutches and is about to suck the crippled starship into its tractor beam.  Luke is aboard - the prize Darth Vader has promised the Emperor (or has he only promised that because he wants some connection to his son?).  This is what Vader has been hunting for for the majority of the film, the most important prize he can get.  Keep in mind, too, this is a man who kills anyone who disappoints him or fails to get him what he wants.  In Star Wars he kills Captain Antilles when he claims to know nothing about the stolen Death Star plans and kills the X-Wing fighters who attempt to destroy the Death Star and, of course, Obi-Wan Kenobi just to show who's the master now; in Empire he kills Admiral Ozzel for jumping out of light speed too quickly and thus foiling the surprise element of the attack on Hoth and he kills Captain Needa for letting the Millennium Falcon get away.  So we fully expect him to kill Captain Piett when the Millennium Falcon gets away by jumping to hyperspace.  After all, Piett has assured Vader that the hyperspace drive has been deactivated, and the thing Vader wants most of all, his son Luke, is on board.  You can certainly tell that Piett is concerned that Vader's going to do him in just as he has with Piett's superiors.

The rest of the crew looks concerned, too.

Not the correct screenshot, but this still captures the feeling.

But Vader does something surprising.  Instead of getting all upset and force-choking the life out of someone, he takes a sad, kind of longing look out the window and slowly, pensively walks out without saying a word.

Here is the full scene for your viewing pleasure (8:57 is about where the scene I'm referring to starts, although this whole segment is delightful):

I think it's one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, and it shows a human side of Vader that maybe we didn't recognize before.  Even after my shock at nine, it is a scene that really affected me and on repeated viewings I am struck by both the beauty and simplicity of it.

And then in Return of the Jedi Luke believes there is still good in his father even though Darth Vader feels it's too late for him.  But when finally faced between standing up to the man whose thumb he's been under all these years, Emperor Palpatine, and saving his son, Vader chooses to kill the Emperor and save Luke.


In killing the Emperor, Vader actually sacrifices himself, and before he dies his last wish is to see Luke with his own human eyes.

Underneath the mask we see an old, scarred, somewhat pathetic looking man.  This "monster" we've seen throughout the series is just a man.  He tells Luke, "Now...go, my son.  Leave me."

Luke answers, "No.  You're coming with me.  I'll not leave you here, I've got to save you."

Vader's response?  "You already have, Luke.  You were right.  You were right about me."

I love that.  I'm a strong believer in redemption.  Now, if Vader were an actual person and not a fictional character, that doesn't mean I don't think he shouldn't pay for his sins or for the lives he's taken.  But I do like the idea of a once bad man becoming good.

Luke's final act is to destroy the remnants of the evil that was Darth Vader

and Anakin Skywalker, the man who once called himself Darth Vader, is redeemed.

Severus Snape has always been my favorite character in the Harry Potter series.

From the outset of the story, Severus Snape is antagonistic toward our hero, Harry Potter.  He's mean, sarcastic, and treats Harry unjustly at times.  And yet there are also instances where Snape saves Potter's life and protects him.

Snape is a very complicated and flawed character, and maybe that's why I love him so: what you see on the surface is not necessarily what is inside.  

Actor/comedian Stephen Fry once said of Snape, "Most characters like Snape are hard to love but there is a sort of ambiguity—you can’t quite decide—something sad about him—lonely and it’s fascinating when you think he’s going to be the evil one..., then slowly you get this idea he’s not so bad after all."

Throughout the books, although Snape often did things that upset or confused me, I always sensed that he was good, one of the reasons being that Dumbledore always and unfailingly defended him, and I had to believe that Dumbledore knew something about about Snape that neither we, the readers, or Harry knew or understood.

Of course, when Snape kills Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, you wonder if Snape killed Dumbledore maliciously or because Dumbledore asked him to.  Even when he's fleeing Harry Potter, it's as if he's continuing to teach him.

Of course, up until the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Harry is convinced that Snape is the bad guy and holds much anger toward him.  It was always my hope that Snape would turn out to be good, and I think I would have been hugely disappointed if he hadn't been.

We discover in the end, after Snape has been killed by the evil Voldemort, that Snape's bad behaviors were the result of a deep and unrequited love for Harry's mother, Lily as well as his jealously of Harry's father, James.  We also see that perhaps the reasons Snape often treated Harry badly was because he reminded Snape too much of both Lily and James, and Snape's misplaced pain and anger were often taken out on Harry.

But we also discover that Snape's loyalty to Dumbledore towards fighting Voldemort was true and Snape put himself in a very dangerous position as a double-agent in order to defeat Voldemort, and it ultimately costs him his life.

It isn't until after Severus' death that Harry Potter realizes the truth about a man he once despised.  Snape had asked Dumbledore never to reveal to Harry the feelings he had for Harry's mother.

"'...never tell, Dumbledore!  This must be between us!  Swear it!  I cannot bear...especially Potter's son...I want your word!'

"'My word, Severus, that I shall never reveal the best of you?'  Dumbledore sighed, looking down into Snape's ferocious, anguished face.  'If you insist...'"

I must admit I got teary-eyed when I read of Severus Snape's true nature.

Harry eventually goes on to name his second son, Albus Severus, after Dumbledore and Snape.  When Albus expresses fear that he might be put in the house of Slytherin, Harry reassures him.

"'What if I'm in Slytherin?'
"The whisper was for his father alone, and Harry knew that only the moment of departure could have forced Albus to reveal how great and sincere that fear was.

"Harry crouched down so that Albus's face was slightly above his own.  Alone of Harry's three children, Albus had inherited Lily's eyes.

"'Albus Severus,' Harry said quietly, so that nobody but Ginny could hear, and she was tactful enough to pretend to be waving to Rose, who was now on the train, 'you were named for two headmasters of Hogwarts.  One of them was a Slytherin and he was probably the bravest man I ever knew."

Again, I love the theme of redemption; of seeing someone you thought was evil being shown to have goodness in them.

Another of my favorite "villains" is the character of Benjamin Linus in "Lost."

Ben is manipulative and a liar.  He's also power-hungry.  He sees John Locke as a threat to his power and eventually kills him.  He sees himself as the protector of the island and does whatever it takes to maintain that position.  He kills his own father and risks his daughter, Alex's life to save his own skin.  Yet it's when Alex is killed that I think Ben makes a turning point.  He plays with her life, just as he has with others during the course of the series, and when his bluff is called and Alex is killed, I think he is genuinely shocked and remorseful.

Unfortunately, he later takes his anger out on Jacob and kills him as well, partially because he was always taking orders from him but never heard his voice, never felt special.

In flashbacks we see Ben as an unloved, abused boy.  His alcoholic father blames him for his mother's death and mentally and emotionally abuses Ben.  Ben just wants to belong and he finds that in the "Others."  Unfortunately, Ben, I feel, is corrupted by the power he gains, and becomes so attached to it that when he loses it, he does harmful things.

I think it's this scene towards the end of the series where Ben faces up to who he really is.  He is given a choice to follow the evil Man in Black disguised as Locke.  As he escapes to do just that, he confronts Ilana, who cared a great deal for Jacob, the man Ben killed in anger. 

I think this scene is one of the most touching in the series and gives Ben a great humanity and a chance to atone for his sins.  He eventually does and becomes second-in-command of the island, which is a better position for him.  In the afterlife, Ben must steal wrestle with his demons, but I would like to believe he was redeemed.

Another favorite "villain" of mine is found in the Bible: Mr. Pontius Pilate.  How does one find sympathy for the man who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus Christ?  I don't know, but I do.  I feel sorry for the guy.  Maybe that's not a popular position, but I always feel bad for him.  He's put in this impossible position.  His wife warns him she had a dream that Pilate shouldn't even deal with the innocent Jesus.  He's being pressured by the Sanhedrin to crucify Jesus.  Pilate can't even find fault with Jesus.  He tries to get out of it by giving the people a choice between Barabbas, a notorious murderer, and Jesus, thinking the people will choose an innocent man over a murderer.  But that ploy doesn't work, and the crowd screams for Jesus' death.

I tend to think Pilate had Jesus scourged because maybe he hoped the crowds would feel sorry for Jesus.  That didn't work either.

Although the priests urged Pilate to do so, I also think Pilate refused to change the sign that said "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" because he didn't like being their scapegoat.  He even literally tries to wash his hands of the whole affair.  Others may see him solely as the villain, but my heart feels for him.

I even have some sympathy for Judas.  I think Judas made a very stupid mistake.  He got caught up in his own ego and his own doubts.  He made a careless and devastating trade of the Son of God for thirty pieces of silver.  But I also think once he did so and once he saw the consequences of his actions, he did feel remorse.  He futilely tried to go back on the deal and give back the silver to no avail. 

And ultimately, I think his guilt over what he'd done is what drove him to commit suicide.

I don't know if it's a weakness or a strength, but I often feel pity or sympathy towards people that others deem "monsters" or unforgivable.  I think it's a strength, but I don't speak or write of it often because I'm afraid others will misconstrue my feelings. 

That isn't to say that I don't find the acts of some of these people reprehensible, but I always am trying to look at situations from that person's point-of-view or trying to figure out what it might be like to be in their shoes.  I don't always succeed.  For example, I look at someone like Charles Manson, and he just seems crazy and demonic to me.  I don't get him.  But that doesn't mean I'm not curious about the circumstances that caused him to be who he has become.

I wonder, too, why someone like Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden turned out the way they did.  I don't believe monsters are born; I believe they are created.  I am always curious why.  What choices or circumstances could have altered their path towards evil.

This guy

was once this individual

and the guy on the left became the guy on the right.

What happened?  I'm always curious.

I have a confession to make.  The first time I saw this photo of James Holmes, the shooter who killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado

I actually felt pity.  To me, he looked tired, confused, and crazy.  Now, again, don't misconstrue my feelings.  This certainly doesn't mean that I think he was in any way justified in murdering 12 innocent people and injuring others.  Nor does it mean that I don't feel he should pay for his crimes.  I'm simply stating a feeling I felt upon seeing his image, and I do not apologize for that.

He's likely mentally ill.  I would imagine he has parents who love him and are confused by his behavior.  Tragedies like this don't just affect the victims he killed and their families but his own family as well.  People may think of him as a monster, but to me, he's still a human being.

I don't think this guy

or this guy

are the same person as the guy above them, and I have to wonder how he became a person that would so callously murder a bunch of people who's only aim that night was to see the newest Batman movie.

Jesus said love everyone, not just the ones who are easy to love.

"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy

"But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;
"That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.
"For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?
"And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?
"Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect."
(Matthew 5:43-48)

In no way do I claim it is easy to love people who do unlovable things or to have sympathy for those that seem to spread a gospel of hate and evil.  There have been many people whom I've had a hard time trying to get into their shoes.  But I try.  I try to look past the supposed monsters and villains and find some humanity in them.

A friend and I were talking the other day about the movie Captain Phillips.  He was saying that while he was watching the movie he hoped that the director wouldn't try to make you feel sympathetic towards the Somali pirates because he had no sympathy for them.  And while I was watching the movie I did feel sympathy for them just as I felt sympathy for Captain Phillips and his crew.

Based on the movie, it seems Captain Phillips did, too.  The man who had most reason to not sympathize with them showed sympathy.  Again, this doesn't excuse the danger or illegality the pirates perpetrated, but I liked that the movie didn't just paint the pirates in black-and-white terms of "they're bad, period."

I think of my friend who I wrote about here who people called a monster without knowing him as a person, who hoped he rotted in jail for the rest of his life.  Or I think of my friend who killed a man because of his selfish act of driving while intoxicated.  The victim's family could easily see my friend as a heartless monster if they so choose, and that would even be understandable, but I don't see my friend that way because I know and love him.

There was a great article on forgiveness in Reader's Digest by Desmond Tutu.  You can read it here.

Nelson Mandela forgave his jailers.  Pope John Paul II forgave the man who shot him.  And here are some examples of people who may have been justified in holding grudges or failing to see past others' mistakes or vindictive deeds: here, here, here, here, here, and there are countless others to be found if you look for them.

Jesus, while suffering on the cross, forgave those who nailed him to it.

I guess my point is this: there are some people in life who do terrible, seemingly unforgivable things.  Some of those people have no remorse.  Others do.  My job as a human being is to love and try to find the good in every creature I come across.  Sometimes it's easy; sometimes it is so very difficult.  But we are all a part of the human family, and I will do my very best to look for good and let God do the the ultimate judging of my fellow brothers and sisters.


Goosie said...

What a beautiful, beautiful post. This expresses a lot of thoughts that I have had in recent years, and which only grow more prominent as I learn more about life and how people operate. I used to divide people into simplistic categories of "good" and "evil", but I have since come to realize that we are far more complex, with a multitude of influences shaping us into who we are. Yes, we have agency and accompanying accountability, but I also believe that our ability to wisely exercise that agency can be constrained by a variety of factors, some of which are beyond our control.

In the wonderful book The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens point out that we never really make our choices with full clarity, but rather have to deal with a sort of spiritual "white noise" which makes it difficult to know how to proceed. However, God makes allowances for our confusion. In the end, we all need to say "There but for the grace of God go I" and then treat others with graciousness.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Goosie. I really appreciate them. I like your comment about the spiritual "white noise" that often makes it hard to how to make the right choices with full clarity.