Gone Girl. Who’s the villain here?
Gone Girl, the movie starring Ben Affleck and based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, hit theaters on October 3. I knew it was coming and couldn’t wait to see how the novel would transfer to the screen.
If you’ve seen the movie and read the book, we could hold forth on the relative strengths of each. Or we could discuss the ending—whether we loved, hated, or simply accepted the way it ended.
But what interests me is how the story (especially in the novel) yanked my feelings of sympathy and hatred first in one direction and then the other. As I switched from her point of view to his and back again, first I felt such sympathy for the poor wronged wife and hatred for the villainous husband. Then I ached for the poor wronged husband and hated the villainous wife. Then the other way around, and then … I couldn’t put the book down. The villain (whoever it was) was so despicable.
Villains. We love to hate them.
Come to think of it, there aren’t many villains in my everyday life. The occasional motorist cuts me off or yells at me. And even though I hate being yelled at, that hardly qualifies. So why am I attracted to stories with hateful villains?
The simple answer is that the hero needs to prove him- or herself. A fire-breathing dragon or cruel, crafty banker gives him that chance.
The other theory about why we love to read about or watch villains is that inside every human heart there’s a conflict between good and evil. The hero and villain exemplify the hero we want to be, but also the villain who acts on all those terrible urges we have to suppress in ourselves.
I like the way Ryan Lambie explains it:
“We may want to see light triumph over dark, but not before we’ve enjoyed the thrill of seeing evil throw off its shackles, run riot, and maybe smash up a few cars for an hour or two. In a strictly ordered world, villains are everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure.”
Villains in groups vs. up-close-and-personal villains
The American public didn’t care much about ISIS, despite the thousands the group killed, until one day they beheaded an American journalist. Almost immediately public opinion turned against them. A second journalist was decapitated, and we were ready to go to war.
We saw, up close and personal, the victims’ faces and the executioner’s black hooded form.
This blog isn’t the appropriate place to discuss the intricacies of politics and war and international relations. So let me hop, skip and jump over to the literary implication of the drastic change in American public opinion.
The victims (two journalists) were our countrymen.
The evil act (decapitation) was dramatic.
And the villains were seen as represented by an individual, not simply a crowd.
This is the kind of villain we love to hate.
In my novel, Tiger Tail Soup, I had built-in villains, the invading enemy army and navy. But like ISIS before the beheadings, my villains were impersonal. The victims were countrymen of my heroine, and the evil acts were sufficiently dramatic. But the villains needed to be seen as individuals.
To that end, in one scene I brought individual Japanese sailors into the house of my protagonist. The squad leader was “a little man with a neatly trimmed mustache and a stopped-up desire to run wild.” He growled and threatened and sucked air through his teeth while his men ransacked the house.
One of my favorite characters in the novel is a Chinese villain. Fen is an unpleasant relative I invented who eventually became a collaborator. With his scrawny neck, his hair standing up like a cock’s comb, and his habit of using phrases like “Dog farts!” Fen was a villain I truly loved to hate.
Did you read or see Gone Girl?
Do you like a story with a “good villain?” Who are some of your favorite villains?