This Christmas, Martin Scorsese debuted his new movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” which chronicles the sleazy rise and fall of Jordan Belfort, a penny-stock manipulator who stole hundreds of millions from unsophisticated investors.
The critical reception to the movie has been warm (77% on Rotten Tomatoes), but as with many of its predecessors (Wall Street, Boiler Room) it has come under fire for glamorizing its villain protagonist.
When people think about “Wall Street”, they think about Gordon Gekko and “greed is good” (which he never actually said). When they think about “Boiler Room”, they either think of Ben Affleck’s speech or Vin Diesel selling a phoney stock.
Pride goeth before a fall, but movies sure do a great job of making pride look like a lot of fun.
Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of the criminals featured in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” wrote a powerful criticism of this practice:
“Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket? And not just on any day, but on Christmas morning??”
The thing is, the filmmakers generally don’t intend to glamorize the villain. Oliver Stone made “Wall Street” as an anti-Wall Street polemic. Scorsese probably sees Belfort as a villain as well, just as he saw the characters in “Goodfellas” as bad men.
The problem is that ink trumps intention. The time that a movie or book lavishes on a villain trumps the intended criticism. And the standard “pride goeth before a fall” formula is particularly prone to this.
By letting the villain drive the story, storytellers portray the villain as energetic, forceful, and charismatic. The villain also gets most of the good lines. (Can you think of a single line of dialogue spoken by Martin Sheen, the conscience of “Wall Street”?)
The same principle applies in fact as well as fiction. Want to hurt a villain? Don’t feature him, ignore him. The more you rail against clever schemes and villainy (“I can’t believe he’s getting away with it!”) the more you make the villain a compelling figure. Or if you need to warn the world, make sure you emphasize the boring and pathetic aspects of the villain.