Redemption Movies

We hear a lot from the conservative press about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” – but not very many specifics as to how that actually plays out in movies, except when it comes to the likes of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore. Yet I’ve heard no complaints at all about a recent trend that seems to me to be espousing the liberal view. I’m not talking about portraying gays in a positive light or showing what happens to people who take the Ayn Randian stance that “service to self” is more natural and also better than “service to others.” No, this trend is far more subversive than that.

I’ve always been interested in why people hold different beliefs as well as what those beliefs are. Over the years I’ve held many conversations with people who are conservative in their outlook, and I’ve found that the differences between their views and my liberal ones go far deeper than economics or that facile term “values.” Our opinions differ because of fundamental differences in the way we see the world. And the essential difference lies in what we think about good and evil.

Liberals believe in cause and effect. Things turn out the way they do because something happened to make that outcome inevitable. Therefore, it is is possible to prevent certain outcomes by changing what happens. This is why liberals are such big proponents of intervention and prevention–and, for that matter, of change in general. Liberals believe you can make things better, or at least prevent some bad things from happening. The argument over global warming, to them, is not really about whether or not it’s real, but about what we should be doing about it. This applies to evil as well. People who do evil had something bad happen to them that warped them; therefore, if we can prevent bad things from happening to people or work with them to heal that trauma, we can prevent them from doing bad things themselves.

Conservatives, on the other hand, think that things are what they are. There’s no global warming, nothing people are doing is affecting the weather, it’s all natural. (A man of my acquaintance sports a bumper sticker on his truck that says “It’s the sun, stupid!”) There’s no cause and effect. Evil things are done by people who are simply evil. You can’t fix them and you can’t prevent them from being evil. All you can do is catch and punish them and lock them up so they can’t do what they will do if allowed to go free. Human beings cannot redeem other human beings, and nor can a bad person “earn” redemption. Redemption is an act of grace, a gift bestowed by God.

Yet what do we see onscreen but redemption story after redemption story? Yes, some of those are stories in which the person who has been doing bad things “sees the light” and changes forever. But there are as many stories where it is not so much the anti-hero but the audience who sees the light when we are shown the anti-hero’s “backstory” and come to understand and forgive that person. Once we and the other characters in the story start to feel compassion, the anti-hero can be redeemed.

The biggest example of this is George Lucas’s Star Wars series, which is essentially one long redemption story for Anakin Skywalker. We see him as the innocent child; we see the factors that warp him and cause him to fall from grace, turn to the “Dark Side,” and come to serve the evil Emperor; and we see how Luke’s compassion for his own father awakes Anakin’s better side once again and redeems him.

In J.J. Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek, the character of Kirk is changed to one who flouts the law and gets into fights–all because his dad was killed when he was born and wasn’t there to guide him. The rest of the movie is about Kirk’s redemption, which begins when two father figures, Pike and old Spock, treat him as the man he was meant to be instead of the juvenile delinquent he’s been being. Severus Snape appears to be a villain in the Harry Potter movies up until the last one, when we learn his backstory and find out that he is, in fact, a double agent working to defeat Voldemort because of his love for Harry’s mother. We and Harry hate Snape up until the moment we understand him, and then he becomes a hero to all of us. His redemption, therefore, happens in us.

Even witches are getting their side of the story told. For centuries, witches have been the most evil beings of all: mistresses of Satan himself, blamed for everything that ever goes wrong from plagues to the cow’s milk drying up too early. (Calling your neighbor a witch was also often a convenient way to get your hands on their property.) Historians estimate that the number of people in Western countries killed for being witches ranges from 50,000 to 200,000, and some say the number is far higher.

But now, witches are undergoing redemption. Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked–adapted into a popular Broadway musical–gives us the story of Dorothy in Oz from the Witch of the West’s viewpoint, and shows that her intentions were always good. The TV series Once Upon a Time spends almost more time on the backstories of the witches, sorcerers, ogres, wolves, and other dangerous beings than it does on moving the plot forward.

One of the scariest witches of all time–especially for those of us who grew up on Disney films–is Maleficent, the evil witch who puts Sleeping Beauty to sleep and turns into a dragon to battle Prince Charming. In a list of Disney’s most evil villains, Maleficent came in at #1. Yet Disney is now filming a live-action movie called Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie. As the official synopsis from Disney puts it:

A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal—an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king’s successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom—and perhaps to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.

So it turns out that even the worst witch started out good and only went bad as a result of mistreatment by others, but that she still has a heart and can be redeemed.

Before “slippery slope” thinkers complain that this trend could lead to film-makers trying to portray Hitler as simply misunderstood, however, I need to point out that even  liberals draw the line somewhere. Voldemort, “He Who Must Not Be Named,” gets his backstory told too, but despite the efforts of Dumbledore and even Harry to get him to take another path, we see a serial killer who consciously chooses evil and, at the end, is beyond redemption both in this world and the next. The evil Emperor of the Star Wars movies must also die. The villains of both new Star Trek movies are shown compassion, reject it, and are killed as well.

The ultimate message seems to be that we do have free will; we are capable of redemption only if we choose it. The first act of grace, then, happens in our own hearts.

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