June 6th, 2012Bad Peopleby Sophia Mason | http://girlwhowassaturday.blogspot.com/

I so badly wanted for this to be a good movie.

I love fantasy.  I'm a fantasy fan who never recovered from the fact that there are only seven Narnia books and only one Lord of the Rings.  I tried to cope by reading alternately from Lloyd Alexander, Philip Pullman, and biographies of various Inklings.  I was like a smoker on Nicoret—unhappy, unhealthy, and suffering all the symptoms of withdrawal while simultaneously wallowing in the knowledge that my remedy was only feeding my addiction.  It was thus, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, I became a fiction writer.

But that wasn't what I meant write about.  I meant to write about Snow White and the Huntsman, or, more precisely, about one line in Steven Gredanus' review of the movie, or, even more precisely, about my first brother's comment on that line.  While praising the movie in parts, Mr. Greydanus has this to say (coming about two-fifths into his essay—but it could just as well have been his conclusion):

Typically Hollywood fails to make it a story of iconic good against iconic evil because they don't know how to portray iconic good.  I have said this time after time.

My brother read that, and said this:

Typically Hollywood fails to make it a story of iconic good against iconic evil because they don't know how to portray iconic good.  I have said this time after time.

And really, my brother has said that time after time.  We've both said that.  That was my (our) complaint about Jackson's LOTR.  Saruman?  Yes.  Evil orcs?  Yes.  Boromir?  Yes! yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Aragorn, Faramir, Galadriel ...

What?  Did Jackson even read Tolkien?  One wonders ...

But Jackson did read the books, and so did others who worked on the project.  Sanders and co. who produced Huntsman would have known the Grimm tale even without reading it—and in any case, fairy tales by their very nature lack the in-depth character drawing needed for the big screen.  Any writer who goes from fairy tale to film will have to extrapolate.  But granting the need for development, why, in Huntsman as in so many other films, are the screenwriters, directors, actors, et al. so good at doing villainy and so bad at doing virtue?

It wasn't always so.  Among the movies I've seen at home in the past month: El Cid (Charlton Heston, directed by Anthony Mann, 1961), The Diary of a Country Priest (Claude Laydu, directed by Robert Bresson, 1951), and People Will Talk (Cary Grant, directed by Joseph Mankiewizc, 1951).  Three very different movies: a justly famous if occasionally ponderous epic, a deeply moving study of quiet heroic virtue that Scorese admits to learning from (!), and a largely forgotten black-and-white dramedy of truly Chestertonian proportions and heart.  Each of these movies has a different kind of hero.  Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: Superman on horseback, Moses with a sword.  The Priest of Ambricourt: a modern-day Christ figure, a suffering servant.  Dr. Noah Praetorius: impulsive, charming, and as absurdly generous as a man in a Miles Connolly novel.

Why do I bring this up?  Because, frankly, there is an easy answer to the question, "Why does Hollywood fail at portraying iconic goodness?" that is obvious, but also wrong.  The easy, obvious, but wrong answer is that the people in Hollywood are bad people.

Of course they're bad people!

They were always bad people.  Don't kid yourselves.  The "good movie stars" are the ones like Jimmy Stewart (playboy before marriage, but settled down afterward), Ronald Reagan (twice married), Deanna Durbin (left Hollywood at the age of 29, thus enabling her third and final marriage to last forty-eight years till the death of her spouse), Loretta Young (who had a single affair with Clark Gable, but other than that kept to the straight and narrow), or Robert Mitchum and Gary Cooper (who were each married only once, but do not appear to have been models of responsibility).  Among the "bad movie stars" Cary Grant is famous, along with Rex Harrison, Christopher Plummer, Doris Day, and a host of others whom you really just don't want to know about.  Good heavens, even Jennifer Jones (of The Song of Bernadette) went on to be married three times.

Caveat spector: Not really a saint.

But they could still act.  They weren't good people, but they could do good people on screen.  And they thought it worth their while to do good people now and then.  As bad as they were, they could sense goodness when they bumped up against it; and as bad as Hollywood was, there was still enough  goodness sloshing around in the culture at large that they couldn't help bumping up against it now and then.

In today's world, it's not just that there are bad people in Hollywood: there are bad people everywhere.  More seriously, it's not just that our culture doesn't know goodness: our culture actively mistrusts goodness.  Our culture does not believe in goodness.  (Remember Hitchens' slam of Mother Theresa?)  And when one no longer knows, trusts, and believes in a thing, one stops putting it into one's art, stories, and songs; yes—one even stops putting it into one's fantasy and fairy tales.


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  • June 6 2012 | by Joseph Pearce

  • June 6 2012 | by Recent Convert

    "I love fantasy. I'm a fantasy fan who never recovered from the fact that there are only seven Narnia books and only one Lord of the Rings."
    Thank God...I'm not alone! smile
    I wish Tolkien had written that sequel to LOTR, but he did leave us a nice pile of Middle-Earth lore (I, for one, love The Simarillion!), so it's not all bad! And he has a ton of imitators, though none ever get close to him, and surely no one has ever surpassed him; all pretenders to the throne. He is the true King of Gondor, surrounded by stewards.
    I too delve into other tales for the same reasons you do, they are never as great of course, I never expect them to be. But they at least serve their purpose...as pulp. Actually alot of fantasy is more like Tolkien fanfic! And I'm okay with that. There is only one Tolkien, I don't expect there to be more. What I do expect however is for the fanfic to be good, alas, only some of it is not :(
    Actually I did read Alexander, and different Inkling bios (including stories involving the Inklings themselves), but I NEVER touched Pullman's trash, err, fiction. I knew about it in advance.
    It's sad to see the way alot of modern fantasy is going...to the pits, actually. I hate the new trends: dark beyond black, trashy as a dump, foul as a sewer, etc. Bleak worlds with bleaker characters...I believe the popular term is "crapsack" as in they are "crapsack worlds". George R.R. Martin (a lapsed Catholic, who'd have guessed it...), Steven Erikson, Glenn Cook, Joe Abercrombie, etc these are the popular guys now, and the fantasy genre is poorer for it. They drive the wonderment right out of fantasy, and replace it with a hideous cynicism. Martin is a big fan of Tolkien, which is ironic given his own work. I can only imagine what Tolkien would have thought of it.

    As for Snow White and the Huntsman...I actually enjoyed it. The first half stunk, but I thought it picked up in the second half. Not a great film of course, but did anyone really expect it to be? It had the girl from Twilight in it for gawd's sake!
    As for Hollywood and it's portrayal of iconic good, yes, they are really lacking in that department! For the reasons you propose I'm sure. It's funny how Anime does it better than Hollywood! I've seen iconic good portrayed well innumerable times in anime, I guess the Japanese still have some bushido left in them after all. smile

    Almost forgot, I second your appraisal of the LOTR films (especially Sean Bean's Boromir, perfecto!). Your right, some of the characters seemed to have been totally lost on PJ. Sure I still liked some of them anyway (hey, I like Viggo Mortensen, David Wenham, and John Rhys Davies), but man did PJ mess them up! Gimli the joker??? He was a proud and stoic dwarven warrior! Aragorn the self doubter? Not the Aragorn in the books, complete opposite. Faramir, hah! He was like a Boromir lite. And Galadriel...need I say more? I don't really care for Blanchett, but she had her moments as the elven queen. But, and that is a big 'but', the overall portrait was off, jarringly so.
    I still really loved the films, but I wish PJ had understood the books better. I pray PJ has been enlightened since then, I'm really looking forward to the Hobbit films!

    And that was my rant/rave, enjoy! :D
  • June 8 2012 | by Sophia Mason


    I can't do fanfic. It just reminds me too much of the real thing to be really enjoyable, *sigh*.

    Pullman. Yes, I knew all about him going in. I read the books anyway (the first and the last of his trilogy; skipped the middle) for sort of the same reasons I studied Kant in college: yeah, the dude's one of the enemy, but sometimes it helps to know your enemy. The truly sad thing about Pullman is that he's a darn good writer: an excellent craftsman, with a very poetic ear. His work is beautiful, in a way that Rowling's, for example, is not; it's also, of course as you say, blatantly and openly anti-religious, which the HP books, despite their flaws, aren't. It's a tremendous shame when someone with that much artistic ability is that messed up.

    Lloyd Alexander I DO love. Not really when he's being dark, though. His best books for my money are "The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man" and "The Arcardians"--better than the Pyrdain Chronicles, both of them.

    Hm ... maybe I'll get SWU on DVD? Half-good movies are more tolerable at home, where you can throw things at the screen intermittently ... Kidding!

    Anime. "Howl's Moving Castle" was the only one that I unreservedly liked--but I've only seen about half a dozen Anime films--but then I REALLY liked "Howl"--but then I think the story was by a Westerner--but then she's apparently rather irreligious--oh, it's complicated. I've yet to see the Borrowers movie, and am looking forward to it. Here's my issue with (some) anime though: As you say, they do portray iconic good, and in that regard they beat us in the West at our own game. At the same time, however, they frequently portray it intertwined with destruction. In a way, this is like Flannery O'Connor's supremely orthodox portrayals of grace: it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the Living God! But, but but--with O'Connor, as with any Christian, there is always the sense that the gracious thing, the iconically good thing, however terribly it may strike us, IS a good thing. If anything is messed up, it's US. We are destroyed because we are misfits, not because Goodness is somehow naturally destructive. I didn't always get that sense in the Anime world. (Thinking, for example, of "Princess Mononoke," if you've seen that.)

    Yes, God bless everyone responsible for Boromir in that first film. He was the best thing in the whole series. The Hobbit--we shall see!
  • June 8 2012 | by Recent Convert

    Hey Sophia!

    I've heard mixed things about Pullman, some people (even when they are condeming his work) still speak positively about his talents (like you), but I've seen others, who dismissed him after the first book, saying he went downhill fast.

    "It's a tremendous shame when someone with that much artistic ability is that messed up."
    Very much so :(

    Never read those LA books you mentioned, maybe I'll check them out.

    "Hm ... maybe I'll get SWU on DVD?"
    SWU? I think I missed you on this one.

    As for the anime, I guess I should have been more clear, I meant Anime shows (essentially tv series), not so much the films. I don't really care for anime films, they always seem lacking when compared with anime shows (or whatever you call them!)
  • June 13 2012 | by Sophia Mason

    Oh, sorry RC! Forgot you had a comment outstanding.

    "SWU"=Snow White and the Huntsman.

    Anime--I've never seen the TV series; didn't know there was/were one/s! Just seen a few of the movies with friends who were much keener than I. So I guess we're speaking from different data sets on this.

    DO find those two by Alexander!
  • June 13 2012 | by Recent Convert

    "Oh, sorry RC! Forgot you had a comment outstanding."
    Hehe, no problem, I forgot I wrote any more on this old post!

    One final correction:
    I think you are misunderstanding me about anime, I did not mean to imply "Howl's Moving Castle" had a series based of it, I meant to see that in general I find anime shows better than anime movies. They are more in-depth and generally better written than anime movies (which are shorter, condensed, and generally more incoherent).