The other day, I spotted a billboard poster for Death Wish. I was surprised they’d remade it, though when studios are inclined to focus on trotting out more of the same rather than experiment, I shouldn’t have been. After all, if it was successful enough to generate four sequels, there must still be mileage in it…
But it set me thinking about revenge movies. Okay, I know the original was dressed up as being about tackling criminals when the police can’t but, ultimately, it was about a man seeking vengeance for the murder and rape of his wife and daughter.
Clearly, murder and rape shouldn’t be treated lightly and, if either happened to a loved one, it’d be understandable if your gut reaction was to take revenge on the perpetrator(s). I have a close friend who was raped, and my own response focused on a burning desire to take the culprit and very slowly remove his genitals. So, I understand why this kind of story takes that direction. But there seems to be a missing ingredient: how does the victim feel? And what does she (because it usually is a she) want as an outcome?
I’m happy to be proven wrong, but the chances are that most books and films of this ilk were written and/or commissioned by blokes. The protagonist is usually a bloke as well, so the response comes from a third party (husband, lover, son, brother), rather than the victim themselves.
So the person going out and getting the revenge is doing what they think is right, but what would the victim want?
In a meeting I attended the same day I saw the poster, I was asked for an example of a regret I had, and I remembered an incident eleven years ago.
At the time, I was in the throes of splitting up with the mother of my children. Earlier in the year, we’d booked a holiday and planned to take the kids away, and each of them was taking a friend. The holiday couldn’t go ahead as planned but I agreed to take the four kids on my own.
As an aside, can I strongly recommend that no lone adult should ever take four children on holiday… There were several challenging incidents, but here’s the relevant one.
In my (largely futile) attempts to remain calm on the holiday, I shut myself away in a bedroom periodically. On one occasion, my peace was shattered by a sudden cry of pain followed by rapid footsteps. I jumped off the bed and opened the door in time to see my daughter rushing past in tears and clutching her head, closely followed by her friend.
Quick to react, I stormed down the hallway to the living area to find my son looking pleased with himself. There was history here, so I had no doubt who’d caused my daughter’s pain and upset. It quickly became apparent he’d been larking about with an empty plastic water bottle and eventually thrown it at her, the open end striking her on the forehead. It wasn’t going to be a life-changing injury, but I could understand why it hurt.
My response to this was to rage at him. How could he be so irresponsible? What the hell was he playing at? Couldn’t he think about the consequences of his actions? Those questions and more were put to him and, undoubtedly, in less coherent and more colourful language.
Eventually, rant over, I went to see how my daughter was. I don’t know how much time had passed. Probably only a few minutes, though it seemed longer. Still, by the time I got to her and asked how she was, she didn’t want to talk to me.
To this day, I can’t say exactly why she didn’t want to, but I’ve reflected on it a lot and come to the conclusion that what she needed right after being hit was to be given attention and comfort. Instead, I’d chosen to go and exact revenge on her behalf instead of providing her with what she really needed.
Clearly, my daughter was neither raped nor murdered, but my response was not dissimilar to that of the so-called heroes of these revenge films. I didn’t go and shoot my son but, as the saying goes, I let him have it with both barrels. Was this what my daughter wanted? Following an act of violence (albeit small scale), did she want to see more aggression? Or did she want to know that her dad was there to look after her?
And, if that’s the case, from any victim’s point of view, what do they really want? Support, understanding, reassurance? Or for their father to leave them at home while they go out and wreak what they consider to be revenge on the bad guy?
An increasing number of women writers are venturing into these areas, so I’m sure different perspectives will be seen in the future. But that doesn’t mean us blokes should stick with the myths.
I don’t have any immediate plans to write a revenge thriller, though I am currently writing a short story with vengeance as a theme. What these reflections have made me do is consider how I should approach it – or anything similar. A male protagonist may still have the same reaction, but is the victim he’s trying to help really going to fall into his arms gratefully afterwards, or would she do something else? I’ll ponder that, but I’d be interested to see what other people think.