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The villains that matter: and why reading is important


Over at Wizards today, we're chatting about our favorite villains. What charms me is how many of the classics slipped into the discussion. There's Irene Adler (The Woman), although her status as villain must remain something of a question. A bad girl, yes, but one that Mr. Holmes was willing to give grudging respect. As is Ed Greenwood.

Then there's Richard Baker's reference to Beau Geste, not necessarily a book that everyone has on their shelf. Well, I do and one of sequels, Beau Sabreur. P.C. Wren's novels were the original "defend your honor" by running off and joining the Foreign Legion. You might not have read the books, although they are worth hunting down, but you've probably seen at least one movie adaptation of the first novel. The most famous would be the 1939 version with Gary Cooper: yes, I've seen that and also the Doug McClure remake and the 1980s British mini-series. Give me a good Foreign Legion story and I'm there. I also recommend the 1939 Four Feathers (based on the 1902 novel). Korda gave this tale of redemption in the sand all the color panache and derring do that his movies were capable of. If you are a huge fan of Heath Ledger, check out the 2002 version, although the reworking of the story to be more politically correct leaves it a bit limp.

For some reason, when the question of villains came up, I thought immediately of Long John Silver. Not that other villains haven't made an impression on me. Almost all those listed by the other authors had me nodding and going "yes." But I was thinking about pirates that day, and to me, the absolute model of a pirate villain is the charming but deceptive Long John Silver. I think there's a good bit of his genetic make-up (conscious or unconscious) in everyone's favorite Captain Jack Sparrow.

If you're meeting Long John Silver for the very first time, try R.L. Stevenson's beautiful Treasure Island. How crazy am I about this book? Well, I own four copies including the N.C. Wyeth Scribner classic shown here. Why four? Because all have different illustrations and all show the pirates in ways that I adore.

I've also walked the coast around Monterey, where Stevenson first told this tale to a boy. There's still magic among those windswept shores, a far journey for the always frail but adventurous Scottish storywriter, weaving a tale of pirates as he waited for his lady love and his final journey to Samoa. For cinematic versions, Robert Newton as Long John Silver in the 1950s Disney film is still my absolute favorite.

Now, as you read through this long post, you might wonder why we bother with these musty old tales and century-old or more stories. Well, first of all, they are cracking good stories and one should never miss the opportunity to read a good story.

But, second, it's important to know the history of your villains and your monsters. Otherwise, you end up like poor Kayla, the hapless fan who wrote to the LatinoReview.com recently accusing Universal of ripping off Stephanie Meyer's Twilight and "uglifying" werewolves in their just released Wolfman movie.

Of course, as us students of the fantastical know, the Universal movie is a remake, loosely, of their 1941 Wolf Man movie (a bit older than Ms. Meyer and the unlucky Kayla). The mockery of Kayla's letter has been shot around the world and think how much she would have been spared if she'd just typed werewolf into Google before she sent out her complaint.

However, to avoid such mistakes and make yourself as educated as a bunch of FR authors in a chat room, sit yourself down with a good stack of werewolf novels: The Howling, Wolfen, Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber, Blood & Chocolate, or The Silver Wolf, to name just a recent few. Or some of my favorite werewolf movies like Company of Wolves, the French Brotherhood of the Wolf, or the amusing if wildly weird Underworld films. Now there's sexy good-looking werewolves and vampires for you! And once you're done with that homework, search for pirates, search for ghosts, or search for dragons in places far beyond your ordinary bookshelves (how did we miss the glorious Smaug? or his ancestor Fafner?) and then you will have plenty of villains for your own list.

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