The Good, the Bad, and the Younglings

Danny DeVito made a movie in 1996 called Matilda, based on a book of the same name by Roald Dahl. A copy of this movie wound up in the bargain bin at a local video store, where my mother was browsing for something to entertain her grandkids so we adults could spend an evening in conversation which included complete sentences. My six-year-old daughter Luthien told me later about the movie and how much she liked it. Her favorite parts, which she described repeatedly, sounded lame to my adult sensibilities.

Typical kids’ story, I thought. Poor little child misunderstood by her parents (at least not orphaned like so much of children’s literature). People are either mean or nice, and she has some sort of magical powers to help her through her ordeals.

A week later when we took the kids to my parents’ house for a movie night, and Luthien asked to see Matilda again, I groaned and asked if we could please see something everyone would enjoy, not just the kids. But, poor misunderstood-by-my-parents me*, I was outvoted. On with the show.

Maybe it helped to have my enthusiastic fresh-faced daughter at my side, and her excessively giggly little brother primed to let loose at all the silly parts. I’m sure Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman playing the outlandish parents helped too. Whatever it was, it turned out to be a fun movie to watch together with my kids. I gave my grown-up critic the night off and joined with my kids in relieved laughter when the victorious school children chased away their mean principal once and for all, hurling the contents of their lunch bags like a G-rated mob.

Later, when the grown-up critic came back from her night out and the kids were asleep, Nathan and I had a conversation (which included complete sentences).

“That movie bothered me,” Nathan began. “All those flat characters – the perfectly mean principal, the perfectly good teacher, named Miss Honey even?! Where’s the redemptive value in a story like that?”

Both of us having only in adulthood discovered subtlety (I love Jodi’s post about this), Nathan and I appreciate stories that humanize people. We remind ourselves and our children almost daily that there are no “bad” people and no “good” people – that every person is a complex being marbled with good and evil.

Classic children’s literature, however, does not often concur. Many of these stories tell about good people (who are usually underdogs and often children) winning by destroying bad people. We see it often in today’s movies for kids too. Up, which was a fun story idea and colorful and interesting to watch, disappointed us for the same reason. The bad guy, apparently, had to go.

Not all children’s stories conform to this standard, but in those that take the conflict of good versus evil as their theme, good and evil are often personified and therefore become polarized characters. Therefore the good character must destroy the bad character for good to triumph over evil. In a more complex story, the good character may do bad things (like Edmund in the Narnia chronicles), but ultimately that character will exhibit his/her inherent goodness through repentance. If there is character development, it will most likely be the good characters who get developed, and not the bad.

At least, that is the explanation I came up with when Nathan and I had this conversation and I tried to understand why children’s stories are not often redemptive.

No expert on childhood psychology (of which, as the parent of small children, I am more painfully aware than ever), I’m pretty sure I’ve heard somewhere that children are concrete thinkers; and I think this means that subtlety just isn’t something they get. So, maybe these stories help to cement into their concrete thinking the persistent human belief that no matter the odds, good will overcome evil in the end.

And maybe subtlety is something to be gained through maturity, interacting with the world, listening and observing others. Maybe the understanding that every person – and every situation – is complex and has something beautiful as well as something ugly or dangerous or evil in it can only come through experience, cannot be transferred through external teaching.

Taking this viewpoint, I think that Avatar should be classified as a children’s story (a highly interesting, predictably violent and visually stunning one) while Star Wars is for mature viewers.

Then again, even in Star Wars, the bad guy known as the Emperor never gets redemption. And maybe Darth Vader would just be classified as a good guy doing excessively bad things for an excessive amount of time until he repents and gets to be immortalized as good.

I dunno. It just feels deeply right and true to me when, as the Doctor triumphantly said in one of my favorite Doctor Who episodes, “Just this once, everybody lives!”

*Uh, Mom . . . Dad . . . my tongue is firmly in my cheek here. (Can’t afford to lose my biggest fans!)


  1. Hey, thanks for the shout-out. I reread the post to which you linked and noticed that I played fast-and-loose with my verb tenses there. But *ahem* I won’t “let the perfect make me blind to this beautiful world.” 😉

    It also reminded me of something I wanted to share with you. This is from Graham Greene’s introduction to “The Comedians” (a book worth reading, IMO): “A word about the characters in The Comedians. I am unlikely to bring an action for libel against myself with any success, yet I want to make it clear that the narrator of this tale, though his name is Brown, is not Greene. Many readers assume—I know this from experience—that an ‘I’ is always the author. So in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon-nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits.” Apparently, we are among many with this affliction. I don’t know if that makes me feel any better, but it’s worth noting.

    Now to your post…I have been asking myself a question lately; perhaps it has relevance here: With all this hunger for universalism, how would I really feel to find Nero or Hitler given forgiveness in the end? I’m not so sure… Thankfully, I don’t get to make decisions like that.

    If you want more baffling examples of complex beings marbled with good and evil, read a book called “Machete Season” by Jean Hatzfeld, and it’s companion, “Life Laid Bare”. Machete Season contains word-for-word interviews with a handful of the men who participated in the Rwandan genocide (Life Laid Bare shares survivors’ stories). Many of the killers were ordinary farmers who one day picked up their machetes and started hunting their neighbors rather than going to their fields to work crops. I’ve been working up a post about these two books, but I’m not sure I’ll ever get it to come out.

    Good thoughts, Julia.

    • “how would I really feel to find Nero or Hitler given forgiveness in the end?”

      Hard question, especially unanswerable by someone like me because I can think of no one who has greatly hurt me. If my child had died in a Nazi concentration camp, for instance, I would have a lot more of a frame of reference to think about this. Or if I were an abuse victim, pondering the forgiveness of my abuser, etc. My imagination goes in the opposite direction – it’s disgusting and painful but I can see a potential Hitler, a potential machete-wielder, in me. I think anyone with a habit of introspection knows what I’m talking about. The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems to me that forgiveness/redemption is an all-or-nothing sort of thing. If there is no forgiveness for Hitler, then there isn’t any for me.

      Which I am well aware doesn’t exactly sound subtle or complex . . .

      • I do know what you’re talking about—that’s the gist of my gestating post about Machete Season. I’m afraid of what I’d do if faced with the choice many Hutu men were given in Rwanda. There is nothing intrinsically good about me that these men didn’t possess, nothing that would keep me from becoming like them. For all my skyward fist-shaking, this is something I can’t forget.

  2. Crazy how things run in themes these days…I’m about halfway through watching a video recommended at The Rabbit Room, and the speaker is talking about this very subject:

    If you don’t have time to view the whole thing, he starts specifically talking about the idea of redeeming “evil” characters (even mentioning that easy hyperbole, Hitler) around minute 18:00.

  3. I would argue that “Star Wars” is not remotely meant for mature viewers, I would challenge you to provide a shred of nuance in any of the original 3 Star Wars movies, (I have not seen the recent installments, heard they were terrible). Star Wars is strictly White Hats and Black Hats, utterly sterile, with the exception of Vader, who is, to my mind, a wholly unoriginal plot contrivance meant to inject credibility to a truly banal series and worldview. I am not a Star Wars fan, needless to say. But don’t mind me, I am suspect of any worldview in which the Universe has a happy ending.

    The “perfectly mean Principal,” the “perfectly good teacher,” etc…yes, this makes watching movies with my children difficult, unless it is Sponge Bob, I have been moved to tears a few times when Mr. Crab realizes there are more important things on Bikini Bottom than selling Crabby Patties….Anyway.

    You speak of “redemptive” characters. This troubles me, this idea of redemption. I am only a working man, but I read a bit of history, I fail to see “redemption” in any historical event or epoch, or the grand scope of existence itself. I am currently reading a biography that includes about 100 pages of description of the bombing of London and later Berlin, (WW II, I mention this because of the Hitler reference) also other towns surrounding these. There is no redemption, no human interest story, no “arc of the universe bending toward justice,” only explosions and death and suffering, expressions of individual and State wills, some live, some die, there is no rhyme or reason. In my view, those who seek to inflect history with some sort of religious meaning, that is, God is present and working through history, have simply not read and reflected deeply on history. Just my opinion, which, like all my opinions, should be honored and heeded by all of humankind.

    I wish I had the time to research children’s stories, I have the impression that they are/were often quite amoral in nature, violent, lacking good guys and bad guys, full of suffering, lacking happy endings. It is possible these sorts have been purged from our national consciousness. Disney has certainly altered our expectations of the Sovereignty of God/Karma.

    Yawn. I’m boring myself, and likely everyone else. Adieu.

    Oh wait, I will recommend a fairy tale to you and Nathan, Julia, it is a Spanish movie, Pan’s Labyrinth. This movie is NOT for children. It is, to me, the ideal fairy tale, a story of a girl inventing a ghoulish world to escape a far more deadly world, the real world, in this case Spain in WW II. There is some awful violence, especially at the beginning, but there is not a shred of gratuitous violence in the movie, even the most horrific scene in which the commander (the girls father) utterly caves in another man’s face using a flashlight. You will sense that all scenes are required. And what wonderful monsters. A truly wise and sensitive film, but, as I said before, NOT for children. Should you need to cry, I guarantee heavy tears at movie’s end.

    Now goodbye, Nnox

    • Okay, I recant my Star Wars judgment. Your comment called to mind a Star Wars exhibit I saw at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where I learned that one of George Lucas’s driving forces in making the movie was the lack of “white hats vs. black hats” in the current film landscape, and his sense that mainstream culture was yearning for a good old western-type movie, with good guys vs. bad guys. And i think you’re right, he succeeded at that. I’m a fan anyway – though I do prefer the older, low-budget films with the quirky Han, Luke & Leia trio to the high-tech, more somber tone of the newer ones. Anyhoo . . .

      About redemption. Yes, I agree – history is filled with senseless and unredeemed suffering. Believe me, I am aware of it and have read and learned much about it. For a season of my life (ironically, when I was most “certain” about my faith), I purposely chose not to have children partly because I felt it would be cruel to bring any more children into such a brutal world as ours. But my awareness of such things has been only an intellectual one. As I mentioned in another post, I feel a bit unqualified to talk much about suffering at all, having lived a very comfortable life.

      When I speak about redemptive characters and story plots, I am talking about fiction. I freely admit that I am talking about the hope that I hold on to that the cosmos is not fading into oblivion, but that somehow all will be made right/is being made right. I am not at all certain about this. It’s simply my hope, and I like to see it reflected in stories (and “honored and heeded by all of humankind” :)).

      You said, “In my view, those who seek to inflect history with some sort of religious meaning, that is, God is present and working through history, have simply not read and reflected deeply on history.” I would agree that that is probably true of many religious people, and probably also true of many non-religious people. Most people don’t read or reflect deeply on anything, eh? But I would argue that there are some – both religious and not – who have read and reflected deeply on history, and because of their point of view about things, have come to different conclusions. And I wish more of these people would respect and listen to one another.

      Maybe rather than “redemption,” I should have talked more about “complexity.” I think that’s what I was trying to get at in this post – contrasting the obvious and flat characters of a lot of children’s stories with the more complex and human characters I appreciate encountering in stories.

      I think it’s true that old children’s stories tended to be darker. For instance, “The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen does not have a happy ending. And I remember hearing somewhere that a lot of the stories that the Brothers Grimm collected were a bit more violent and convoluted before the Grimms edited them. But I haven’t looked too much into it either.

      • “I freely admit that I am talking about the hope that I hold on to that the cosmos is not fading into oblivion, but that somehow all will be made right/is being made right. I am not at all certain about this. It’s simply my hope, and I like to see it reflected in stories.”

        Bravo, Julia.

        • Quickly, I would recommend Alison Lurie’s book, “Don’t Tell the Grownups: Subversive Children’s Literature”. It reflects on the sometimes subtle ways Children’s Literature has been able to push back against disenfranchisement and oppression. Even a glance at the table of contents would likely leave you with a list to consider on your next library trip.

          (Sorry to interrupt this intellectual conversation … late and without adding anything of my own.)

          • hi Arlyn – thanks for this tip. I’m intrigued! Will add it to my list.

  4. This just in…

    How the Grinch Stole Christmas: In Which the Vilest of Evildoers Finds Redemption

    What no one knows is that when I’m not playing Scrooge I get to be the Grinch.

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