Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Dark Knights

*There will be massive spoilers for all three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films as well as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. 
 
Introduction
 
Before The Dark Knight Rises was released, movie websites were updating the film nearly every hour with all the rumors and news about the film.  The one legitimate piece of information that came from Nolan and company that caught my attention was how the film was influenced by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.  As an English teacher, this definitely intrigued me.  Then the film was released and the geek war over whether it was the greatest or worst movie of all time commenced.  I’m exaggerating, but not all that much (seriously, just check the comments on nearly any post about superhero films in general). 
 
I’m not about to toss my pointless opinion into that battle.  I only bring it up because the Two Cities influence has been lost in the fog ever since.  I’m just as guilty as everyone else (this is being written a year after the release of the film, after all).  I watched the film and all I picked up on was Gordon reading from the novel near the end, there being a revolution in both stories, and the idea that Batman was like Sydney Carton, sacrificing himself for the greater good.  The reason why more aspects of the film didn’t occur to me was because it had been over a decade since I had read the Dickens novel. 
 
Flash forward a few months and I’m teaching the novel to one of my classes.  I read everything that I ask my students to read, even if it means reading it for the second (or more) time.  Before I assigned the book, I told my students that Rises was influenced by it, hoping to create more interest.  It seemed to work on a couple of students, but it really worked on me.  I was noticing many similarities between the entire Nolan trilogy and the novel.
 
While researching any references between the two works online, I was surprised that I couldn’t find a lengthy post comparing the two works.  (There might be one out there, but I didn’t find it in the immediate results.)  Everything I found was on the short side, pointing out the obvious stuff above and discussing how there are similar themes and whatnot.  So I’ve decided to try to point out as many blatant similarities as I can.  By blatant, I mean characters and events, not themes and messages.  Obviously revolution and stuff like that is similar; this is going to be more about which character was Darnay, Carton, Madame Defarge, Dr. Manette, etc. and which events matched up with the storming of the Bastille, the Reign of Terror, etc.  My advance apologies if this isn’t as succinct as it could be, but comparing a blockbuster with classic literature can get pretty messy, and I’m doing this for fun, not for a grade from a professor.  Anyway, here goes.
 
Characters
 
This comparison has to start with Bruce Wayne and Batman, of course.  When you consider that the main character is really two separated characters, it becomes obvious that Two Cities is an influence.  Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are opposites but look so similar that a jury agrees they could be confused for each other.  Darnay is mysterious but good, while Carton has lived a worthless life and yearns to do something good.  The two characters flip flop when it comes to which one is Batman or Wayne.  When Wayne does the fake partying stuff, he’s Carton.  When he’s Batman, doing the right thing, he’s Darnay.  The fake death of both Batman and Wayne causes a bit of confusion, especially since they both live on, in a way.  Wayne literally goes on to a happy life, and Batman lives on as a concept that anyone can be.  So Batman is Carton in that he died so Wayne/Darnay could live.  But Wayne is also Carton because he fake died so that the concept of Batman could live on.  It’s up for debate, but I think each theory is fair.  The most important part of this theory is that it makes the final scene more interesting.
 

After first watching Rises, I was a little disappointed that Alfred actually got to see Wayne enjoying life after Batman.  Leaving it open-ended would have been fine with me.  And I really liked the idea of actually killing off Bruce Wayne.  When considering Two Cities, however, that scene becomes a bit more necessary if Batman is Carton by the end.  What is the point of his ultimate sacrifice (giving up as Batman), if we don’t get to see if it was worth it?  Part of me still wished the ending had been a bit more bold, but I also like that Wayne’s lifelong struggle with crime and his own demons is essentially over.
 
Since Batman/Wayne is Darnay, that means whomever he loves must be Lucie Manette.  Therefore, Rachel Dawes is Lucie.  The problem here is that Lucie doesn’t die in Two Cities.  This means that Lucie changes characters over time.  This is truly a chink in the Two Cities comparison’s armor because Lucie and Darnay are quite faithful and in love; there’s no switching.  Not only does the character switch, but even actresses were switched out for the role between Begins and Dark Knight.  So Selina Kyle becomes Lucie, but Thalia al Ghul was Lucie for a bit, too.  See what I mean by this being the weak spot?
 

Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton
The only way Lucie can exist as a character in this comparison is if we consider Harvey Dent/Two-Face and Rachel’s relationship as a warning of how Two Cities could have easily ended in a more tragic way.  Dent would be Darnay and Two-Face would be a Carton who never redeemed himself, allowing all three to die.  A cautionary Tale of Two Cities.   
 
Back to comparisons that are a bit easier.  I know Dr. Manette is Lucie’s father and Rachel’s father is not around in the films so that doesn’t work, but there is a still a good connection with Lucius Fox.  Mainly, it’s because Wayne “recalls” Fox to life much like Lorry and company brought Dr. Manette back from his shoe-making.  Fox was a once brilliant man who had been locked away in basically a dungeon until Wayne found him and returned him to prominence, much like how Manette goes from prisoner to revolutionary hero.  Fox doesn’t factor into the narrative nearly as strongly as Manette does, but I think it’s an apt comparison.
 
Sticking with the old folks, Jarvis Lorry is Alfred.  Alfred is a proper British gentleman who serves as the caretaker of the Wayne family.  There’s really not much more to it than that.  Lorry was the driving force of the story of Two Cities (one could say he was the “truck” that carried the characters along…), and Alfred is more on the sidelines here.  But he’s still an essential character. 
 
Lorry’s co-worker/subordinate was Jerry Cruncher, the messenger with a nefarious side job.  Commissioner Gordon is certainly not subordinate to Alfred or anything, but he does work as Cruncher in a way.  He represents the police which would be the blunt force of Cruncher, and he lies to the public about Dent.  He has a skeleton in his closet, and Cruncher digs up skeletons (bodies, really, but let’s go with skeletons for the sake of this article). 
 
That’s enough with the “good” guys.  People love Batman movies for the villains.  Unfortunately, I do not have a good comparison for the Joker.  The Joker has always represented chaos and evil anyway.  There isn’t really a personification of chaos in Two Cities, so if the Joker is anything, he could stand for the rising turmoil in the country of France before the true storm hits. 
 
Moving on from the Joker to some comparisons that are a bit easier to make, Bane and Thalia are a good starting point.  In Two Cities, Defarge appears to be in charge, but we find out that Madame Defarge is the true villain, fueled by her intense need for revenge.  In Rises, Bane appears to be the villain for much of the film, fueling the revolution, or “fire.”  We learn near the end that Thalia is the true villain, and she is also fueled by revenge.  (Although Madame Defarge's brutality is largely transferred to Bane.)  I know that Bane and Thalia are not married like the Defarges (and Madame Defarge definitely does not have sex with Darnay or Carton, as Thalia has sex with Bruce Wayne), but there is still an obvious emotional connection between the two.  The best connection is that both characters use the revolution as their excuse to also get revenge for dead family members wronged by Darnay/Batman. 
 
Ra’s al Ghul is in the same boat as the Joker in that he basically represents revolution in general as a way of wiping the slate clean.  But the Scarecrow can be connected in a more specific way.  It’s more of a cameo than anything, but Scarecrow is the judge who executes or “exiles” the people who have benefited the most from Gotham.  He is the dread tribunal from Two Cities which casts severe judgment for the sins of the past. 
 
Storming the Bastille
Events
 
The dread tribunal brings me to the events that are similar.  The trials and executions are pretty blatantly the Reign of Terror from the French Revolution.  They are described in Two Cities as the “felons” trying the “honest men.”  Perhaps all of the people being tried in Gotham are not completely honest, but the Scarecrow is certainly a felon.  Pretty much everything that happens in Rises represents the French Revolution, but there are specific phrases that tie it into Two Cities. 
 
When a soldier has to sacrifice himself for the cause, Bane assures him that “the fire rises.”  “The Fire Rises” is the title of a chapter from Two Cities.  The “fire” is the revolution, both of Gotham and of France.  It is also referred to as a storm in both stories.  “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” warns Selina Kyle.  And Rises is in the title, so there’s that.
 
As for events, the Storming of the Bastille is generally considered the beginning of the French Revolution.  For those who do not know, the Bastille was a prison.  Bane has already started the revolution at the football game (more on that in a second), but it really gets going when he storms the prison and arms the freed prisoners.  That one is fairly obvious.
 
The football game is a little less clear.  I consider this to be an accumulation of the events that cause the people to rise up in Two Cities.  Those events are the Marquis running over a child with his carriage and his subsequent murder at the hands of the vengeful father.  No child is killed by Bane (although we don’t really see what happens to that kid with the “beautiful” voice, do we?), but the mayor/Marquis is killed at the event.  Maybe the mayor isn’t as terrible as the Marquis, but he does represent a bit of power in Gotham.
 
Messages/Themes
  

"The felons were trying the honest men..."
I can’t leave it at just events and characters.  Not to turn this completely into a term paper (and good luck out there if you stumble upon this to use for an essay, because I’ve messed it all up for you by being so informal…), but the themes and messages have to be mentioned a little. 
 
Revenge is definitely a theme that resonates in both stories.  Batman’s very identity is based on getting some kind of vengeance or closure for his parents’ murder.  The actions of Two Cities are all about Madame Defarge getting revenge for what happened in the past.  I think that both stories take a negative viewpoint on revenge.  No one gains peace from it (Madame Defarge dies for it, and Bruce realizes that killing Joe Chill himself wouldn’t have done much). 
 
There is also plenty to say about revolution in general.  Both stories are negative towards it when handled in such a brutal way.  Overthrowing an evil power is not seen as a bad thing, but when you become just as, if not more, brutal than the previous regime, then how is that better?  This is connected with revenge in that when characters allow their emotions to take control, things get worse. 
 

 
Finally…
 
The Dark Knight trilogy and A Tale of Two Cities may appear to be unlikely bedfellows, but if the book is fresh in your mind, you’ll notice tons of similarities.  On that note, I’ll finish up by admitting that this is in no way a definitive comparison of the two works.  There are plenty of events and characters I didn’t even mention.  For instance, what about the mob in both stories?  What about the fact that each work has a character named Stryver?  Yeah, I skipped over some stuff.  The point is that comparing these two works is not just possible, it’s obvious.  This is just as deep as I want to go into it because if I have to look any further (like pausing Rises or reading Two Cities for the fifth time) then my enjoyment will turn into work. 
 
As an English teacher and a movie geek, the comparison between The Dark Knight trilogy and A Tale of Two Cities just makes sense and makes both works much more interesting.  I invite any fellow enthusiasts out there to find their own comparisons and whatnot, mainly because I want to read more stuff about this, especially if it didn’t occur to me (or cause me to do more work).  Sometimes it’s possible to look beyond the love/hate relationship people develop with the over-hyped movies and apply some thought to it all.  And if you truly love movies, then that’s something you’ll want to be a part of.     

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