I just read the Harry Potter books for the first time. Yes, yes, here in 2017. As a result, I feel entitled to spoil everything and freely analyze its villains, just like I would have done if I had finished the books ten years ago with everybody else.
After watching most of the Harry Potter movies with my family, I couldn’t help but compare Rowling’s cast of evil to the cartoon bad guys that fascinated me as a kid: The Disney villains were so stylish, so daring, so unapologetically bad. Maybe it’s because I was raised well, but the thought of being evil for its own sake was so foreign as to be exotic, and the villains of Disney’s golden age were each uniquely exotic. For a long time I thought that I must be some sort of freak, but it turns out a lot of people thought the villains were more fun than the heroes in those movies.
Recently, however, Disney has moved away from these villains and opted for other kinds of stories: self-discovery (Inside Out), quests (Finding Nemo), and “surprise” villains who initially seemed good (the insufferable Frozen). Within this quiet shift in our storytelling lies a profound problem for how we as a society view evil.
The Best Villains Choose Evil
I’m no film critic, but here’s my take: The best old-school villains chose evil. This requires two things: (1) belief in free will over circumstances, and (2) the existence of evil. We’ve lost both of these things as a society by defining deviance down. Our sociologists assure us that no one decides to be bad: They simply respond to their circumstances and behave rationally (or at least understandably), driven by tragedy.
Such behavior is not particularly bad, which makes it not particularly exciting. Why is there such a thrill from watching Cruella DeVil or Captain Hook? Because they’re evil, they know it, and they like it. They didn’t fall in with the wrong crowd and lose their way; they decided to be bad and never looked back. There’s a confident braggadocio there that’s enticing.
Compare that with the villains in today’s children’s movies. To the extent they exist, they are plot twist villains who often only double-crossed the hero in pursuit of the ultimate good (or their own perception of it). This makes them hard to admire, but also hard to loathe: They just misunderstood or miscalculated. They got confused about what the ends were, or became a little excessive in their means. They need to be corrected, not defeated.
Harry Potter Also Suffers
It turns out that the Harry Potter villains also suffer from this trend: Voldemort, Umbridge, Snape, and even Bellatrix Lestrange all fall short of evil for evil’s sake.
Lord Voldemort lacks the sort of style and panache of the Disney villains of my childhood. At first, he is simply dark, evil, and brooding. Then we discover that he is a victim of personality and circumstance alike, refusing love even when it was offered to him freely, and instead becoming a shriveled soul, which Harry encounters in his quasi-death visit to King’s Cross. Although Voldemort is evil, Rowling reveals him to be broken and thus pitiable.
Dolores Umbridge infuriates us with her saccharine adherence to the letter of the law at the expense of real justice. Umbridge is every bad trip to the DMV, every professor or boss who has made grading personally punitive, every bureaucrat slicing your soul with the equivalent of a thousand paper cuts. Her “toadlike” face and her obsession with pink and cats show a distasteful excess—as if she has decided to fix bureaucratic injustice by adding a fake smile. Nonetheless, even while serving the Ministry during its reign of terror, she remains convinced that Harry and his friends are the troublemakers, while she is on the side of the angels.
Severus Snape is the reverse of a “surprise” villain—he’s a surprise ally. He’s exasperating because he’s horrible to Harry, but Dumbledore insists on trusting him. He seems to choose evil multiple times but always turns out to be good in the end (killing Dumbledore was pre-planned and necessary, etc.). Snape even justified his petty hatred of Harry because of drama with Harry’s parents: Snape loved Lily, and James bullied him, yet Lily married James instead of him. He swore to protect Lily’s child, and kept his promise—but always with a PhD-level emotional complex. Even after we understand all of Snape’s motives, he’s still hard to like.
Bellatrix Lestrange outshines the others with her “heavy, hooded eyes” and slavish devotion to the Dark Lord. She’s terrifying—and a little admirable in her single-mindedness. If we all worship something (see the Bible; see also David Foster Wallace), Bellatrix worships passionately and intensely. She is the most like the Disney villains of my childhood, but ultimately she is devoted to Lord Voldemort, not to her own desire for power. As a result, she appears crazed, rather than cool.
No Evil, No Sin, No Savior
What are we left with from these four Harry Potter villains? Lord Voldemort handled adversity the wrong way, Dolores Umbridge misunderstood the ultimate good, Severus Snape let his emotions get the best of him, and Bellatrix Lestrange loved the wrong things.
As a result, none of them is an enticing villain. We know too much about Lord Voldemort to believe he sincerely desired evil for its own sake. Dolores Umbridge is mean and incompetent, not per se evil. Snape is unkempt, uncool, and unappealingly complicated. Bellatrix Lestrange’s style is swallowed by her devotion to someone else, which makes her more crazy than craven.
Has this change from sexy bad-boy villains to understandable “victims of their own circumstances” made sin less attractive to audiences? No. Although it may be counterintuitive, people today seem to sin more freely. My generation struggles mightily with repentance. There is no concept of sin, and thus no concept of remorse. If there is no evil (only bad circumstances! tough luck! dangerous environments!), then no one can choose evil (understandable! excusable! misguided!).
Bad Guys Make Us Better
When I look at Dolores Umbridge, for example, I see people in my own life I hope to avoid. I do not see evil in all its stylish enticement and recognize that I, too, could be a villain. Instead I am smug that I oppose the right things—I would never support a government reign of terror!—and as a result I never come to grips with the self-indulgent cruelty in my own heart that mirrors Umbridge’s worst moments.
In making milquetoast villains, we’ve created opposition that doesn’t need a Savior. Our villains don’t need heroes; they just need a better understanding of Myers-Briggs. In losing villains, we’ve lost evil. Without evil, we never repent, because we never recognize our need for Christ.