Friday, April 2, 2010

The Problem With Hollywood Villains

These days, Hollywood villains suck. You know I’m right. They’ve all become cartoon villains. . . psychopathic Snidely Whiplashes. How did this happen? Actually, it’s simple. For all of its talk about “strong characters,” modern Hollywood doesn’t understand the first thing about human motivations. That’s the problem.

Why does motivation matter? Because conflict drives the story, and motivation defines the conflict. This is a critical point to understand. It’s not the object of the conflict that matters, it’s the motivation for the conflict.

The object of the conflict simply provides the background, a few details of how the characters’ lines will work and maybe a few extra hurdles that will be encountered. The object does not drive the story.

Consider, for example, the classic cops and robbers story. The object is whatever they are trying to steal or kill or whatever. Does it fundamentally change the story if they are robbing a bank rather than a casino or a jewelry store or even a pet store? No, it doesn’t. The conflict is the same in each case. Is there a difference between killing a witness, a businessman, a congressman or a foreign dignitary? Nope. What if two people are competing for the affections of a third? Would it change the story if they were competing for a man or a woman, friendship instead of love, respect or employment? Nope.

Indeed, in each of these instances, you could swap objects with very little change to the underlying story, just as you could swap time periods, races or genders of the characters, or any other number of details. But motivations are different. Change the motivation and the entire nature of the story changes.

The reason for this is simple, and it goes back to what I said the other day about humans judging stories based on emotion rather than logic. With rare exceptions, the object of the conflict does not trigger an emotional response in us. Do you care that someone might rob a bank, or kill a witness, or that aliens are fighting a war over Smurf 7? Not really. On occasion, a film might stumble into something that means something to you, like if you’re a bank aficionado, but that’s just dumb luck.

Where a story becomes meaningful to us, is when we start to learn of the character’s motivations. That’s when we begin to judge who is right and who is wrong, and we start to take sides. That’s the point that you become invested in the story, and it’s the motivations that do it.

And when it comes to motivations, the villain’s motivation is almost always the most important. It is the villain who gives the story meaning and sets everything into motion. If the villain’s motives are pedestrian or nonexistent, then the story is handicapped from the get-go.

Unfortunately, Hollywood is all about pedestrian villains these days. Despite its protestations to the contrary, Hollywood is afraid to be the slightest bit complicated or to delve into “shades of gray.” It wants villains who are undeniably evil, and it has decided that it’s safest to skip the motivation question -- as that may unintentionally inspire sympathy -- and to just define the villain by letting them commit a few clearly “villainous” act. Thus, Hollywood requires its modern villains to ooze evil from their pores. They must be sociopathic and psychopathic. They need to yell and scream and rant and do things reserved for villains, like kicking puppies and shooting uppity henchmen. And in those rare moments where they are called upon to provide a motivation, they mumble something about power or money.

The perfect example of this is Al Pacino in Devil’s Advocate, where Pacino takes the greatest threat to the human race and turns him into a goofball. His Satan is loud and obnoxious and spews nonsensical dialog, he’s way over the top. But he’s neither effective nor menacing, nor does he ever make sense. Indeed, he has no plan worth mentioning -- "I'm going to run a law firm to mess with New York City!" Yeah, ok, yawn. He's taken the most evil, most interesting character available and turned him into that annoying, drunk guy you wanted to punch at that party in college, not something you should fear.

What Hollywood’s missing by giving up on motivations are the truly interesting bad guys. Think of some of the best film villains and what motivated them:

• Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty who had a tremendous ego and could stand no disrespect.

• Sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett in Unforgiven, who thought he was the good guy.

• The Terminator in any of its incarnations, which was motivated simply by relentlessly following its orders.

• Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, who abused her power because she could and because she despised the people under her care.

• Norman Bates in Psycho, who was compelled to kill people by the psychological trauma of his relationship with his mother.

• HAL 9000 in 2001, who couldn’t resolve a conflict in his programming.

• Michael Corleone in The Godfather, whose problem was his lack of humanity.

• Darth Vader (pre-whiny Hayden Christensen), who thought he was defending the Empire against rebels bent on destroying it.
Do you notice something in this list? What made these characters memorable wasn’t what they did, it was why they did what they did. That’s why we remember them. And even more interestingly, none of these villains thought they were evil.

In the real world, evil people don’t think they are evil. Hitler never thought of himself as the bad guy, he viewed himself as the savior of the German people. Pelosi doesn’t think of herself as evil, she genuinely thinks her lies and demonizations will make a better society. Few humans do things that they consciously believe to be wrong or evil -- the human mind simply isn’t built that way. We either don’t do these things, or we justify that behavior to ourselves so that we can maintain our belief that we are doing the right thing.

This is something Hollywood no longer understands. In the past (as evidenced by the list above -- note the absence of modern villains from the list), Hollywood recognized that people could do evil, despite believing that they were doing the right thing. But, for the most part, modern Hollywood doesn’t recognize this aspect of evil anymore. It prefers to have its villains prance around declaring how evil they are.

Why do I think Hollywood has come to this? In all honesty, I blame liberalism.

The problem with liberals is that they seem incapable of realizing that other people have different views. Indeed, the one trait that almost every liberal I've ever met shares is a belief that their views are right AND that everyone knows they are right, and that those who disagree with them do so only for personal gain. The idea of genuine disagreements simply don't enter their consciousness.

Thus, when they set about creating villains, they realize that they would never act the way the villain does, thus they start from the premise that the villain must know that they are evil. And that is where the problem begins. Once you begin with the idea that your villain knows they are evil, you deprive them of all motivation except personal gain. From there, it's only a hop, skip and a jump to Clichéland, with carbon copy villains prancing around trying to show the audience that they are fully aware of how evil they are.

Sadly, until Hollywood wakes up to the need to think about their villain’s motivations, and to realize that no villain would see themselves as evil, we’re doomed to keep getting shallow movies with clichéd conflicts.



Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I learned a lesson a long time ago. Having grown up in the late 80s/early 90s watching TGIF sitcoms, whenever a school bully was featured, there always seemed to be some tragic backstory.

For example, I distinctly remember a Full House episode where Stephanie is being bullied and it turns out the kid is being abused by his father at home. At the same time, I was getting bullied at school and to the best of my knowledge, said bullies all came from good homes with non-abusive parents. And that's when I realized, "Some people are just assholes and get off on picking on the little guy!" Or, as the great Michael Caine put it, "Some people just want to watch the world burn."

Besides, and this is just an observation, the first filmmaker who makes a pro-US Iraq War movie and paints a "complicated" terrorist in shades of gray will find himself hanging from the end of the Big Hollywood rope. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There are definitely some people who just want to watch the world burn. But I'll bet you they don't see themselves as villains. In fact, most of the people I've met like that tend to see the people they destroy as the villains. (They also don't get very far in life.)

In any event, the existence of such people doesn't mean that all villains are like that, or that that is the only kind of villain you can have. Hollywood doesn't seem to be able to acknowledge that.

As for the bully thing, you're talking about political correctnees there. You're talking about liberals who just can't understand the point you make that some people are just assholes and they are looking for an easy to understand reason why someone would want to do something they would never do.

In terms of Iraq, the problem is that we no longer trust Hollywood because they say too much anti-American garbage. But think back on WWII and you'll see a lot of relatively positive portrayals of Germans after the war ended (and before it became PC to equate all Germans with the worst Nazis). Look, for example, at the camp commandant in The Great Escape. He's as sickened by the Gestapo as the Americans.

Unknown said...

Andrew: The title of Hannah Arendt's follow up book to The Origins of Totalitarianism was Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Although she tweaked the theory for the rest of her life, she always maintained that most of the great evils in history, particularly the Holocaust, were conducted by rather mundane people who accepted the premise that their state was correct in its views and that their actions were therefore "normal." Hollywood will never entirely figure that "simple complexity" out. Better to have raving lunatics. Evil becomes a caricature, and the state is excused if it's working for "the overall good of mankind." Capitalist greed is therefore an easy target, but liberal do-gooding can never produce a hateful villain. If their motivation is good, how can their acts be evil? The Hollywood crowd should read Arendt.

The real-life drama of Helter-Skelter became a novel and then a movie because it took the authorities (largely represented by then-Assistant L. A. District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi) to find a motive. As a lawyer, Bugliosi knew that motive is not an element of the crime of murder, but juries find the prosecution's case more compelling if it can be shown. It took the prosecution time some time to realize that "helter-skelter" itself was the motivation. A need of an evil man to make his somewhat banal disciples believe that by murdering white "pigs" they could set off a racial war which whites would lose. But then, "blackie" would need "whitey" to put society back together again. And Manson himself planned to be the one to lead the way. Anything other than the simplest motivation is just too much for Hollywood to deal with. If there hadn't been a real Manson, Hollywood wouldn't have been able to create him.

Lenin, Mao, Stalin and Castro were only doing what was best for "the people." They are Hollywood icons who "have flaws" but can't be villains because of their good intentions. Well, we all know what the road to hell is paved with. All that is except Hollywood.

LL said...

Every Hollywood movie these days is a remake.

Clash of the Titans remade this week. Robin Hood next week.

The good guys are often just as bad in absolute terms as the bad guys and I have to work hard to figure out who is who in terms of "who they are". Usually I suspend belief and watch the show because I know the plot...I saw the movie when it was made 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago and 5 years ago.

AndrewPrice said...

LL, That's true. We're getting to a point where one day, we're going to wake up and find that there isn't a single non-remake being made.

I agree too about the good guys. It seems that Hollywood has fallen in love with the whacko over-the-top bad guys so much that even the good guys are starting to act that way.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I know the book and I think the point is excellent. Indeed, I remember that at the end of WWII, people were stunned and horrified at what the German people had done. They thought that only ranting, raving Hollywood-style monsters could do something so evil, and they were horrified to discover that average people did it because they were told it was for a good cause, and they willfully looked the other way.

Like I said in the article, the human mind really doesn't let people act in ways that they think are evil -- you always find a way to justify your actions. That's why as soon as Hollywood villains start off with the idea that "I am evil, hear me rant," they have already lost any touch with reality.

But even worse, they've limited their ability to deliver interesting characters because the only motive left for the bad guy at that point is to do evil because he wants to be evil.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, Let me add, that when I'm talking about motives, I'm not talking about just the two motives that Hollywood loves -- troubled childhood or capitalist greed. I'm talking about the whole host of other motives that move the human race, everything from greed to patriotism to love to simply thinking that you know better than everyone around you. Those are what make interesting characters, as are the kinds of really interesting motives like the ones discussed in the list of villains in the article.

Individualist said...


There is something called the Reid Technique which I had to have a seminar in because the first internal audit job I had was for a company whose department was too small to have a separate fraud group. The Reid technique has nothing to do with Harry although I'd like to use it on him. It is a method of interrogating suspects. It has two parts the initial interview designed to obtain information and tell if someone is lying. For instance if you ask someone in the inventory floor how someone could possibly steal something. The normal honest person will think about it and offer suggestions on how that’s done. If that person were instead to get defensive and tell you there was never a possibility that anyone could walk away with inventory and that anyone suggesting it was a liar. That is a red flag. That person may be a criminal and they are trying to deflect you away from a crime.

The second part of the Reid technique that I think is relevant to your post is the way one gets someone to confess to a crime. Essentially the technique expects you to focus on the fact that very few people believe they are evil. Thus when you want them to confess you set up a room with nothing in it but two chairs, no table. The person has to look directly at you. You start off by accusing them and stating you know they did it. You don’t let them argue you overwhelm them even lying about evidence that have if needed. You use information from previous fact finding interviews to create narratives as to why the person did what they did. You explain to them that you understand why they did it. You then give examples of people that did the same thing and you explain how that person was evil and did it for the wrong reasons. You then explain look I know you did it but it was because of this very good justification wasn’t it. You did this for a just reason and thus you are not evil like that other guy. The choice you give them is not to say they did or did not do it. The choice is whether they did it for evil reasons or not. Should they answer this then you tell them they have taken the right step and you get them to give you details. It sounds simple but I am told it is not because you have to be able to get into the person’s head and keep altering the narrative and you have to have the empathy to know when you are hitting a nerve. Even then it can take hours to grill the person down and they have to be willing to sit there and listen to you. Which they might do if only to find out what you know. It does not always work.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, One of the many things I've done in the past involved investigating government contract fraud. We were hired by companies who believed one or more of their employees had done something wrong, and they wanted us to investigate so that they could turn themselves in to the IG to save their butts.

One of the things I learned very quickly was that faked-empathy works wonders. If you do it right, people will start admitting amazing crimes, even though you have carefully explained to them that you represent the company, not them, and that they could get in serious trouble for anything they tell you.

What happens is that somewhere along the way, they start telling you how they did "it" because they wanted to help the company, or they were only doing a favor for the government employee (who usually also ended up in prison). Even though these people knew they were breaking the law, not one of them thought they had done anything wrong because they thought their motives were good -- and they did some despicable things, let me tell you.

But people like this don't exist in Hollywood because they truly thought they were the good guy and they thought they did nothing wrong.

Individualist said...


It is not a fun subject while its going on but afterward the stories are downright comical.

We caught a controller out in Honduras doing all kinds of things. When they caught him he told Internal Audt that he did it all for the starving ophans. What a nice guy huh!

Tennessee Jed said...

we know, of course, that Obama is evil. as you point out, anyone can plug in his actions and it becomes obvious. So what makes the bamster facinating is his motivation, as you say. Maybe that also tells us there are similatities between Hollywood and D.C. politics.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, There are distinct similarities between Hollywood and DC, though neither is particularly "human" these days. ;-)

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I agree. At the time, it's very unpleasant, but afterwards, it's hilarious. We had a guy tell us proudly that we couldn't trust any of the company's documents because he'd help fake almost all of them. Uhhhh.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent post, Andrew, and hi! I missed you guys.

The typical leftist villain is almost always some big greedy corporation (or an unethical scientist that works for the big corporation), our military, corrupt cops, and of course the favorite villain of Law and Order these days: the uber-evil, right wing, white supremacist, neo-nazi, fundamentalist Christian, woman beater redneck southerner, racist, puppy killer, trigger happy, sexist, ignoramus, homophobe, xenophobe, Islamophobe, phobephobe to the 10th power phobe survivalist and military veteran that hates everyone in the world except for those like him (like the leftists imagine and wish the Tea Party or other conservatives to be) and many other ridiculous villains that make typical cartoon villains look deep in comparison.

And it's not that there can never be villains that are from big business or the military but they are rarely done right nor are they the least bit interesting.

One good example of a military villain done right is Ed Harris in The Rock.
Why? Because of what you said, his motivation.
Sure, it's obvious he's the villain but you feel for the guy and can understand where he's coming from.
Nearly everyone that loves our military hates to see our heroes abandoned or even worse, prosecuted by our own govt. like those five Navy SEALs of which one allegedly punched a very evil terrorist.

So yeah, Ed Harris' character is interesting and obviously conflicted (and later redeems himself with his life) but you want his ultimate goal too, which is simply for our govt. to keep it's promises to our military, and to never abandon them to our enemies.

Or, as Rambo puts it in First Blood: "For our country to love us as much as we love it."

But it's rare to see villains like that anymore, because although wee understand leftist liberals they don't understand us conservative/classical liberal/libertarians.

Why? Because they are at war with reality itself, denying it or believing that they have the power to create their own reality (utopia!) without any unforeseen consequences , despite what history has shown us repeatedly.
But when one is at war against reality, history is no obstacle. Not when you can rewrite it and make heroes of butchers such as Che, Castro, Mao, Stalin, etc., while at the same time making villains of the real heroes.

That's it in a nutshell, virtually everyone who embraces leftist ideology fueled by envy and a hatred of a reality that ain't "fair" cannot (for the most part) grasp deep characters and what motivates them.

Okay, rant over...for now, lol.
Incidently, I thought The Sopranos had some great and very human villains. When the creators can get you to empathize with and actually care about bad guys like Tony Soprano, Paulie, Silvio, Bobby, etc., and their families, it makes me wish that creative team could stay together and make movies or another fantastic series.

Because that team actually entertained me with great writing, acting, directing and a pretty good understanding of reality and what motivates their characters.

It seems there are much better creators (many of whom get it) in TV now than there is on the big screen.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, I actually thought about Ed Harris in the Rock as an contra-example. That was an excellent use of villain who had a good purpose, thought he was doing the right thing, and wasn't your typical blood thirsty monster. Which just goes to show that Hollywood can do it when they want to, they just don't want to. Instead, they perfer the villain that you describe in the first part of your post.

I agree about the Sopranos too -- great job of creating strangely likeable bad guys. They really should have seen what that writing team could do with films!

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