What’s the best portrayal of good you’ve seen in a movie or book?

Darth_VaderEvil is easy. Not just easy to do, but easy to portray in writing or film. Think about all of the interesting, memorable evildoers in literature and film: Count Dracula, Ebenezer Scrooge, Michael Corleone, Darth Vader, Benjamin Linus. Most exciting stories revolve around the reaction of heroes to dramatic evil, whether it takes the form of murder, deceit, theft, or any one of countless instantly-engaging acts of villainy.

Even the goodness portrayed in most of our stories is defined as a specific response to evil. The heroes of film and literature may be good people before the villain appears on the scene, but we don’t pay much attention to their goodness until they’re provoked by evil—and even then, the goodness we’re most interested in is that waged in opposition to evil.

Can you think of any good examples in film or literature of genuine, Christlike goodness practiced for its own sake? Are there characters whose kindness, grace, or compassion is even more striking than any portrayal of evil?

gandalfI was surprised at how easy it was to call to mind effective portrayals of evil, and how challenging it was to think of memorable, inspiring examples of good. One that occurs to me is the portrayal of Gandalf in the opening scenes of Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (both the book and the movie). Before the evil Sauron or his minions appear on the scene, Gandalf is portrayed as someone who genuinely loves, without condition, the meek and humble. He’s one of the most powerful figures in the land, and yet he takes time every few years to pay a visit to the diminutive hobbits (who are ignored or scorned by some of Gandalf’s peers). He laughs with them, helps them put on dazzling parties, and watches out for their well-being without a single selfish motive. Once the story proper kicks in, Gandalf’s goodness becomes more closely defined by his fight against evil; but his kindness up to that point is inspiring and Christlike.

Do you have a favorite example of good portrayed stirringly and effectively in art?

6 Responses to “What’s the best portrayal of good you’ve seen in a movie or book?”

  • John D. Martin says:

    Since you spend a good portion of your essay on Tolkien, let me start my response with a thought on why it’s portrayal of good is so effective. When the Lord of the Rings:Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, one of my former colleagues in Medieval Studies pointed out that the genius of the book was in making virtue attractive. The virtuous characters such as Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, and Sam are at turns caustic, stern, judgemental, clever, foolish, arrogant (or apparently so) amiable,comical,kind, noble, merciful, magnanimous and brave. They are fully fledged human characters- splitting between them various aspects of Christ-symbolism (Aragorn= Christ the Healer and King, Frodo= Christ who bears the weight of evil, Gandalf=Christ the Miracle Worker and foe of demons). Tolkien was wise enough in his choices- and took 18+ years to make them- to give the world characters who embody virtue without being clumsy mouthpieces in the mould of sentimental morally didactic literature.
    To address the question more generally, though, I would have to challenge the notion that there is a paucity of models of goodness in popular culture. Though the influence of Humphrey Bogart in popular culture is less than it was in my own youth, the roles he is remembered for and which Warner Brothers’ screenwriters created often with him in mind were those of men who overcame their own vindictive or selfish impulses and chose the good, self-sacrificing act for the sake of others. Cases in point, Rick in Casablanca and Charlie in The African Queen. Both men are heavy drinkers, cynical and in Rick’s case, deeply embittered by past losses. When confronted with the opportunity to sacrifice of themselves to save or protect others, though, they overcome their worst selves and do it. An even better model might be Gary Cooper as the sheriff in High Noon, who resists every attempt by the world around him- his friends and neighbors specifically- to persuade him to act as a coward and run from the murderer, Frank Miller. He stays and risks his life to protect people who would not do the same for him (c.f. Romans 5:7). There’s are some more examples from the realm of science fiction that I would like to mention, and perhaps I will have time to do that tomorrow.

  • John D. Martin says:

    Continuing from Friday- The realm of science fiction offers a number of examples of goodness that define goodness as nearly synonymous with the capacity of self-sacrifice. Since you asked for the best, I would suggest the consistent depiction of goodness as self-sacrifice in the overlooked Babylon 5 series from the 1990’s. A number of episodes of the series even put a particularly Biblical emphasis on this capacity (“Comes the Inquisitor” and “Walking through Gesthemane”). In the former, an alien “Inquisitor”, who is charged by his masters with finding the true motives of his victims, pushes two of the series’ main characters to near death to find out what they would die for. The answer the “Inquisitor” is looking for is “No greater love has no man than this: to give up his life for his friends,” and not for glory, or even for a noble cause (and yes the show does give the quote from John in its entirety). In the other, a serial killer whose mind has been wiped of the memory of his crimes is tracked down by the families of his victims. Now a Benedictine monk, he is given the chance to flee their vengeance, but decides it would be better to face them- if that’s what it takes for them to feel justice for the crimes he perpetrated.
    Goodness as expressed in compassion is harder to find expressed well in film, I think. The best examples I have on my shelf here are “Seven Samurai” and “Tender Mercies” In the first film, it is compassion for the suffering of the defenseless farmers that moves Kenbai to accept their offer and defend their village from the raiders. The farmers have nothing to offer him and his men, barely even food to share, and the decision to defend them is costly. In “Tender Mercies,” Mac, played by Robert Duvall, returns to comfort his ex-wife on the death of their daughter, even though the ex-wife has been downright hostile to his attempts to express his remorse for the end of their marriage. He demonstrates a willingness to share her grief in spite of her unforgiving attitude toward him. He has nothing to gain from it all.

  • The best portrayal of good in a book is found in the four gospels. If you want to become smarter than most preists and pastors, learn a gospel. http://biblek12.com/gospel will help you.

  • Tiffany says:

    The best example of good portrayed in a movie that I’ve seen in a long time is in “Grand Torino” where Clint Eastwood’s character learns to overcome his prejudices and sacrifices himself for his friends. It is very raw, realistic and moving. I used to live in a neighborhood just like that, and I can imagine this happening.

  • Desi says:

    Just a month or so ago my family & I watched a fiction movie called ‘Joshua’. It is a lovely picture of who our God is. After seeing it I ordered several more copies with the thought that this movie is a great introduction for someone who has not met the savior. I will just give them away. Also, has anyone read a book called ‘The Shack?’ Also fiction, also very loving picture of God’s love.

  • Mimi says:

    For me the most inspiring good character in a book is Jean Valjean of Les Miserables. After being shown mercy when he could have rightfully been sent back to prison, Jean Valjean makes it his mission to show that same mercy to others. Although he makes mistakes as in the case of Cosette’s mother, he rectifies the situation by raising Cosette as his own. He works hard and aims to help others thus gaining the love and respect of others. This is so a picture of our lives in Christ. We have been shown great mercy, not to lord it over others but so we too can show the same compassion that our Lord showed us. We too like Jean Valjean make mistakes but our aim should be to humbly admit them and do what is good from there on.