On Moral Ambiguity

“There are precious few at ease / with moral ambiguities / so we act as though they don’t exist.”

That’s a lyric from the show Wicked, in which the Wizard – here portrayed as wholly a bad guy, rather than an ultimately harmless ‘humbug’ – sings about why he deceived the ignorant and superstitious people of Oz. I find that rather funny: here is a character who is thoroughly villainous, singing to another character who is thoroughly virtuous about how morally ambiguous their situation is. This in a play that is almost painfully black-and-white in its ideas of morality. The ‘ambiguity’ is simply that a character who, in the context of the story, is considered a good guy by most people is actually a bad guy and vice-versa.

I was never that impressed with Wicked as a story (the music’s very good, though), partly because it is so very one-note. Elphaba is a good girl whose only flaw is that her attempts to do good always backfire, and to whom the world is completely unfair for no other reason than that she has green skin. She never accomplishes anything of note, nor, apart from precisely one song, does she ever come close to cutting the impressive figure of the Wicked Witch of the West, to the point where you have to wonder why anyone is afraid of her (even if it’s propaganda, why would the corrupt government try to build up someone who is in fact so thoroughly ineffectual?). She even needs to be rescued by her boyfriend at one point, mostly because she doesn’t actually know how to do magic; she simply has ill-defined powers she doesn’t understand due to circumstances outside her control (Why is this show considered ’empowering’ again?). Meanwhile, the Wizard is completely villainous, though equally unimpressive, while Glinda is only character who could seriously be called ‘ambiguous’ just because she’s too shallow and ditzy to do the right thing until the very end, when she abruptly grows a spine. And the people of Oz are portrayed as complete hypocrites or superstitious morons, ignorantly confident in their own rectitude while viewing the world through the narrowest and most empty-headed of lenses.

There are a lot of ways to describe this, but a depiction of moral ambiguity isn’t one of them.

This is something I notice a lot in modern fiction: modern writers always seem so confident that they are more realistic and complex and full of ‘moral ambiguity’ than stories from the past, when it’s most often quite the reverse. All they do is portray figures who were generally shown to be good before as being evil and vice versa and call that moral ambiguity, or realism, or some such thing.

For a good example of what I mean, compare the original King Kong with Peter Jackson’s remake. In the latter film, Kong is almost entirely a positive character. Sure, he’s implied to have killed many people before, and he kills many people here (the film is extremely inconsistent in its tone), but he’s never really portrayed as wrong for doing so. Ann stops being afraid of him pretty quickly, and she’s completely on his side by the midway mark. Meanwhile, Denham is, if not evil, at the very least a very unsympathetic character; a thoroughly myopic buffoon who causes most of the problems of the film and continually endangers the people around him while doing little or nothing to redeem himself. The same with the ‘human world’ of 1930s New York, which is pretty much played completely as something to be despised.

Now, in the original it was different. Kong was neither the good guy nor the bad guy, he was simply a wild animal; magnificent and sympathetic at times, but always dangerous and unpredictable. Ann never stopped fearing him, for the very good reason that, even though Kong protects her and seems to love her after his own fashion, he’s still a very dangerous creature with little idea of consequence or morality (as shown in the scene where he curiously starts stripping her clothes off). Moreover, his compassion extends only to Ann; everyone else he pretty much kills without a second thought (including a random innocent woman he mistakes for Ann). We sympathize with Kong, but he’s not portrayed as a positive force.

Denham is also a more ambiguous character. Like Kong, he is admirable in his own way, but also rather dangerous. He’s willing to expose other people to danger, but he’s also always going to do what he can to protect them (note his story about the cameraman and the rhino). He takes massive risks, but he isn’t callous about his people, and he’s perfectly willing to put his own life on the line for Ann’s sake (in fact, everyone of the crew practically jumps at the chance to run to her rescue, to the point that they have to turn people down). Yes, he makes a huge mistake in bringing Kong to civilization, but he does it for understandable motives and he at least tries to avoid any unnecessary risks, warning the reporters off when their flashbulbs enrage the monster (in the remake, Denham urges them on to take more photos).

In short, Denham in the original is a basically good man carried away by hubris. Denham in the remake is a callous moron who carelessly gets people killed. Kong in the original is a magnificent, but dangerous wild animal tragically destroyed by his encounter with civilization. Kong in the remake is a victim of the myopic greed of men in the benighted past.

Or take another example: in the original Mighty Joe Young we had the character of Max O’Hara (also played by Robert Armstrong), the show promoter who convinces Jill Young to sign a contract bringing Joe to the States to put him on stage. When she decides she’s had enough, he promises her that after one more show they’ll send Joe home…then keeps pushing the final show back further and further to squeeze a little more cash out of him, until Joe finally snaps and goes on a rampage.

Now, in a modern film, O’Hara would almost certainly be portrayed as thoroughly bad guy: a heartless corporate suit whose only concern was money. But he isn’t: he’s genuinely a decent, kind-hearted man (we see him defending one of his cigar girls from some loutish drunks) who was simply carried away by greed. After things fall apart, he comes to his senses and puts everything on the line to make amends.

That is real moral ambiguity: fundamentally decent people doing bad things because they were tempted or carried away in the moment or because it ‘seemed like a good idea at the time.’ Or ultimately positive forces (such as the civilized world in the original Kong) committing grave errors or being forced by circumstances to destroy something magnificent because there’s no other way.

Wicked has no moral ambiguity; it’s just a good person being ostracized because the people around her are mostly horrible, then ineffectually opposing a corrupt government and bigoted populace. It is only the fact that these characters are ostensibly ones we know from another source where they played different roles that makes it appear to be anything else (ditto for Maleficent).

And this is pretty much how most of the supposed ‘realism’ and ‘ambiguity’ works in contemporary fiction: take a label that the writer imagines means “good guy” for the audience and slap it onto the villain. So, the ‘ambiguity’ is that the police officer is corrupt, or the priest is a hypocrite, or the US Military is evil (was anyone surprised in Daredevil when the Punisher’s former commander turned out to be a bad guy? Does anyone actually expect Muslim extremists – rather than evil veterans – to be behind terrorist attacks in contemporary fiction?).

In fact, of course, this is actually far more one-note and black-and-white than older fiction tended to be. In The Longest Day, for instance, there’s a scene where a US soldier guns down some Germans trying to surrender because he didn’t know what ‘Bitte! Bitte!’ meant (it means ‘please! please!’). That doesn’t mean the Americans are suddenly the bad guys and the Germans the good guys. It doesn’t even mean that this particular soldier suddenly becomes unsympathetic; it’s just one of the tragic mistakes that happens during a war (The Longest Day has a lot of that sort of thing: these days it probably would be condemned for being too sympathetic to the Nazis). Likewise, there’s the scene in The Lord of the Rings where Sam wonders whether the dead Haradrim soldier was really evil after all, or whether he was just a normal person who would much rather have stayed home.

Now, both The Longest Day and The Lord of the Rings are fairly ambitious and sophisticated works, but as the examples from King Kong and Mighty Joe Young show, this extended to lighter fare as well. Just consider, say, The Mummy, where Imhotep is a monster, but also somewhat sympathetic in his deathless love. Or the way Creature from the Black Lagoon created sympathy for the murderous Gill Man, far more so than for at least one of the human characters, who is nevertheless mourned when he gets killed and goes down in the process of partially redeeming himself. Or take The Thing From Another World, where the obsessive Dr. Carrington’s insane actions are discretely erased from the record after the monster is defeated.

I could go on; the point is that I see much more genuine moral ambiguity in old works of fiction that came from a real understanding of right and wrong than in modern works that self-consciously try to be ‘edgy’ or ‘subversive’.

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