War and fiction

(Image courtesy of author)

Everyone remembers that moment in Return of the Jedi when the Emperor, watching Luke battle it out with Darth Vader, tells Luke, “Give in to your anger. Join me!” And then, of course, the moment that Luke throws the lightsaber away and says, “No. I’ll never join you. I am a Jedi.”

It was a critical cinematic moment and a pivotal plot point in the Star Wars story. But Luke’s decision was one everyone watching knew he would make. After all, he’s the “good guy.”

In media and literature, the divide between good and evil was always easy to parse. My kids watched Little House on the Prairie and wanted to be Laura, not Nellie. They read Harry Potter and wanted to be friends with Ron, not Draco. They watched Lord of the Rings and wanted to follow Gandalf, not Sauron. Fiction teaches empathy, the experts say, and by sharing these stories with my children, they were learning to choose good friends and make moral decisions. Ultimately, lessons learned through Harry Potter or The Hunger Games tend to be stronger and more impactful than a lecture from Mom. As they grew, those lessons played out in advanced literature classes and film study groups where the battles between good and evil, while more complex, still boiled down to the basics. It was always easy to find the hero.

Now that an actual battle between good and evil is on our figurative doorstep, those clear lines between Death Eaters and Wizards, Jedis and the Empire are suddenly blurred. The moral clarity of fiction reading has not played out in real life  The rhetoric exploding on college campuses and in the media regarding actions that used to be universally evil – rape, murder, kidnapping – is instead excusing and dismissing them like themes in a Disney Villians movie. Suddenly, there’s context. Osama Bin Laden is a patriot. Hitler had understandable intentions.

I don’t know when there was a cultural turn towards the celebration of “the bad guys.” Maybe it started with that viral video of a young girl at Galaxy’s Edge in Disney Studios who chose to kneel before Vader instead of fighting alongside Luke. Parents jumped on the bandwagon, encouraging their kids to do the same, and soon hundreds of toddlers were embracing the Dark Side on TikTok and Instagram. Or maybe it started with the popularity of the villain backstories: the parental trauma of Elphaba from Wicked, the sad story of Cruella from 101 Dalmations, the inability of Arthur Fleck to access medication in The Joker. Somewhere along the line, it became fashionable to applaud the bad guy, to understand his position, to see the context behind evil.

To be fair, the bad guy has always been the easier side to take, something that may have been lost in my simple attempts at teaching morality through fiction. Rachel Goldberg, whose son Hersh Goldberg-Polin was kidnapped from the Nova Dance Festival and is still being held captive in Gaza, said it straight out in her speech to the UN: “Hatred of the other, whoever we decide that other is, is seductive and sensuous…Hatred is easy.” In all my books and movies, that fact is true. It’s easier to live in the Capital and cheer on The Hunger Games than to participate as a tribute from District 13. It’s easier to live in Malfoy Manor and consort with Death Eaters than to live in a cupboard under the stairs with cruel relatives. Living well on the Death Star is easier than studying in a swamp in Dagobah. Evil lives better, dresses better, and always has better food.

The world is exploding around us, and the battle to be on the side of morality and good is difficult to fight. It is so simple to follow the masses, parrot catch-phrases, and join the side that is loudest and largest. In this battle, I find myself dumbfounded by the world that I could always define in terms of stories and movies. I am shocked by how easily so many have shifted to embrace terror, excuse rapes, and glorify death. The banners of oppressive governments and villains living well in Qatar are carried through the streets of Democratic countries, playing out the overt tropes of the dark side from our collective fandoms, and no one seems to notice.

After October 7th, I waited for my favorite authors and filmmakers to denounce the violence and terror that took place in Israel with the same enthusiasm they embraced every other political movement. Their silence was a strong wake-up that the lessons of morality and right and wrong in fiction have nothing to do with reality. We may all identify with the hero in our classrooms, but on the battlefield of life, evil is, as Rachel Goldberg said, easy and sexy. Nazis will rise, and people will join their ranks. Terrorists will attack, and people will celebrate on the streets. Never again will be an unfortunate refrain.

My only consolation is that my ancestors have seen this movie before and survived it. This might be my first rodeo witnessing the absolute insanity of the world, but I have to be content with the knowledge that even if the world is full of plebians blindly following the collective mob, it isn’t all bleak. It may feel like we are alone, but I know we are not. Besides, history often mirrors the one trope of fiction that usually holds true: the good guys win.

About the Author
Adina Ciment is a writer and educator from South Florida. After teaching High School English for 30 years, she launched The Raven Writing Company, a private tutoring company. Her essays have appeared on HuffPost, Kveller, Tailslate, and Aish.Com and she has been a keynote speaker for various non-profit organizations. Her first book, "Wasn't Expecting This" will be published in July of 2024.
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