Tag Archives: Phoebus

Character Tuesday: The Villain Next Door

Happy Tuesday, happy third day of the year. Today, I’m starting my own Book Blogging meme, at least on this page. I call it Character Tuesday. Write about one to three characters that you like or don’t like, in fiction. There will probably be a theme but not always. The only other rule is that I want to keep it constructive; in other words, if I say something bad about how a character is written, I’m going to say why. If anyone else wants to play along, I’ll set this up like a regular blog-along for everyone.

Today, I’m going to talk about villains in books, and what makes the truly good ones. Well, bad ones. Whichever adjective you care to use. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m writing a villain myself. Yes, my book has a Dragon, and an enemy general, and a few sadistic killers in it, along with monsters, demons, and even a lawyer, but I realized that those kind of villains aren’t the ones I remember the most from my reading, and that’s probably because those aren’t the kinds of villains I encounter in my daily life.

These three are examples of what I’m talking about. These aren’t the boogeymen, the wights, the dragons, the unrestful dead. These are people who could run into every day.

Dolores Umbridge

sonrisa_de_umbridgeA lot of digital ink has been spilled over exactly why she’s such a memorable villain, and some people, including your not-so-humble blogger, think that she’s the most frightening villain in the series, even though her death count is much lower than any of the Death Eaters. The most frightening thing about her, though, is that she’s completely and totally believable. Most of us aren’t going to run into dark wizards throwing Cruciatus curses at us, but we will probably deal with someone who has power over us, power that we can’t do anything about whether we want to or not. Even worse, the Umbridginian Villain, even more than your average evil fantasy bad-guy, does not think that he or she is doing anything wrong. Everything she does is what she thinks will keep people safe. Whether it’s effective or not isn’t the point. The point is, individual rights have to go by the wayside when the Organization (whether Hogwarts, Public High Schools, or the Department of Homeland Security) has other concerns like keeping its subjects safe, exactly the way it thinks its subjects need to be kept. This is the villain who will punish a student for what he said in class, not because it’s a lie but because it will scare other students. These are the people who implement security theater throughout the country, and respond to reports that it might be ineffective by adding even more theater instead of actual security. (A true Umbridginian, though, would prosecute the people complaining about it, discouraging others from complaining.)

Phoebus

phoebusNow we’re getting away from the bureaucratic villains and into something different. I can only barely begin to describe how much I loathe Disney for how they treated this character. In the book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (which is just as good as Les Miserables, though it doesn’t have anything about dreaming a dream and such) the action is put into motion by Phoebus. Everything bad happens because Phoebus is a spoiled wealthy knight who gets what he wants. And when the crap hits the agitator blades, he ducks out of the picture, ignores everything going on because of what he started, and STILL winds up with a happily-ever-after for him. (He’s about the only main character in the book who gets one.) He’s the kind of person the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote Psalm 73, AKA When Good Things Happen to Bad People. If I could somehow enter the pages of a book and slap the nosehairs out of a character, it would be him.

So, you can imagine how I felt when I saw a commercial for the then-upcoming Disney treatment and I realized that Phoebus was rewritten to be brave and ultimately, the hero. I might have screamed a little. I haven’t much been able to enjoy Disney cartoons since.

The Chief, AKA Sharkey

SPOILERS FOR ANYONE WHO HASN’T READ THE LORD OF THE RINGS. THIS WAS NOT IN THE MOVIES.

(Here, look at the picture of a dog and his puppy, posted by /u/emoposer on the subreddit /r/aww)

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Alright, for those of you who have read LOTR, I’m going to talk about the second-to-last chapter, “The Scouring of the Shire.” Every time I reread this book (I think my last rereading was my fourth) I like this part more; indeed, it’s thick enough in concept and character to justify a complete novel of its own. Even before we learn who The Chief is (which actually kind of disappointed me, and I would have liked it better had he just been a regular man who saw an opportunity and jumped at it) we see what happens when there’s a power vacuum during a war or other disturbance. A group of men took advantage of Frodo’s absence, made inroads into the community by offering money and power, and soon (within a year or two, perhaps) were running Hobbiton like it was their own person fiefdom. It’s a shocking bit of realism, probably informed by what happened in a lot of cities and countries after World War II, and it’s again an example of casual greed and opportunism doing as much damage as intentional evil and destruction. It’s the most underrated chapter in the book (I’ve rarely heard people complain about its omission like they will about missing Tom Bombadil) and yet, one of the most relatable to our own world.

So, those are my villainous inspirations. Now I need to go back to my notes and work on one of my own.

Tell me about your favorites in the comments, or write a post and link back. I think this is a conversation worth having.

Disneyfucation

That’s not a typo.

I like to talk about seeing stories from a different point of view. This is not something I came up with, of course. Two books I read and fell in love with when I was much younger are John Gardner’s Grendel and Gordon R. Dickson’s The Dragon and the George.
And even when I was un piccolo bambino I found myself copying examples of switched viewpoints such as this classic Peanuts cartoon.

All of this has been in the forefront of the offices in my head because I’m writing a second draft of my version of a Disney story, one that is a relatively straightforward adaptation of a classic fairy tale. What surprised me while I was writing that story was that it really was a straightforward adaptation. That is not exactly par for the course for Disney movies anymore. Not that the classic Disney versions of other fairy tales were ever close to the source material (check out the Talking Cricket’s role in the original Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi… perhaps he should have wished upon that star a little harder, eh?) I remember being vaguely disquieted as a child when I read the original fairy tales and stories that Disney bowdlerized and sanitized, but since they occasionally produced a quality work of art (such as The Little Mermaid) I lived with it. All of this ended when The Hunchback of Notre-Dame came out in the mid-nineties.

The original novel by Victor Hugo is not as well-known in the US as Les Miserables, which is a shame since it’s just as moving and thrilling as that book, and at 500 pages, about the size of just one of the descriptions of what people shouted at The Battle of Waterloo (in the abridged Les Mis, of course…) Most of us these days only know the story from the various movie versions, and while many of them are  well-done, they don’t quite capture the power and pathos of the source material. Particularly misrepresented in many versions is the character of Phoebus. The novel has, of course, the hero, Quasimodo (who is also deaf, as were all bellringers in the days before ear protection), the villain, Claude Frollo (who is possibly one of the most despicable characters in French literature I’ve come across) and the beautiful wronged Gypsy woman, Esmeralda. And then there’s Phoebus.

In the book, Phoebus is best described as a weasel. Like Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter, he doesn’t have the cojones to truly be a bad guy. He does bad things in a moment of weakness and either doesn’t own up to them, or blames his weaknesses, or blames other people for not taking his weaknesses into account. Phoebus, however, is so much more painfully well-wrought than Dimmesdale is. No other character in literature filled me with such pathetic disgust like he did. When people talk about what they would do if they could magically travel inside one of their favourite books and meet its characters, I don’t think of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, or Winter’s Tale, or any of the “Black Company” books, or even hanging out in a tavern in Lankhmar with the Grey Mouser and his companion. I think of how sweet it would be to step inside 15th Century Paris, find Captain Phoebus, and just smack the everloving shit out of him. No character deserves it more than he does.

So fast-forward to the mid-nineties, when I see a trailer for the Disney movie. True, I’d been a little disappointed with Pocahontas, (who wasn’t?) but the movies that Disney had been putting out since 1989 (The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin) were stunning enough for me to look forward to what they were going to do with perhaps my favourite French Gothic novel. And then I saw a toy commercial for the movie, and amidst the other plasticized characters, the announcer pointed out “Brave Phoebus.”

Brave Phoebus.

This was a character that perhaps caused most of the bad things in the novel to happen, was too weaselly to do anything about it, and still somehow came out ahead in the end.

Of course, the little cynic that I keep locked in a trunk in the back of my head piped up, “Well, of course they had to make him the hero. God Forbid they make a hero out of the ugly deaf guy. I mean, really… what would that teach our children?”

I’ve never seen any direct evidence that that was the direct cause of Phoebus’ transformation but everything else that Disney’s done since then (like Merida‘s makeover from self-sufficient warrior tomboy to glamourized, sexualized, properly keeping to her own place Disney Princess) hasn’t disproved my hypothesis.

This is why us writers and artists and creators need to produce quality stories about quality people, adults and children. Real people. Warts and body odor and clumsiness, along with accidental good deeds, kind eyes, and a way of occasionally doing the right thing. (The cynical movement in literature and film is just as naïve and detached from reality as the Polyanna-esque ‘everything is sunshine and rainbows and unicorn farts movement.) Even though it may be one day Disneyfuc’d into something barely resembling its origin, the stories need to be there. And once the story’s out there, flip it over and tell it from another point of view. Or tell it backwards. Or tell a realistic version of a magical tale or vice-versa. The slippery plastic sheen of homogenous popular culture may always be more visible, but people are always willing to dip beneath it for the good stuff, if you give them a reason to.