Our theme for the month of March is “monsters.”
I’m starting a podcast about Redwall, the children’s epic fantasy book series featuring peaceful and heroic mice written by Brian Jacques. The podcast is called Re:Redwall and is still in development but should be out soon (you can follow us on Twitter if you’d like to keep up). My co-host, Derrick Kamp, and I aim to do three things with this podcast: remember, reread, and rethink the book series.
The first two goals are straightforward, but the third goal—rethinking the book series—requires a little more definition. We are not approaching the Redwall series with a posture that assumes that the books are wrongheaded or outdated and require some sort of correction in order to be considered valuable today. There may be some parts of these books that feel that way to one or both of us and we’ll certainly discuss any such instances as we go, but that’s not our premise. Instead, our rethinking of the series is aimed at considering how popular culture has changed from the time the book series was written to now, how that affects our reading of the stories today, and what that might mean for the newly announced Netflix animated series and film based on the books.
A prime example of this conversation is Redwall’s treatment of its villains. The villains in the Redwall universe are primarily rats whose motivations are wholly villainous and evil. The first book in the series, titled Redwall, features a rat called Cluny the Scourge. His motivations are not developed much further than his name—he is Cluny and he is a scourge. These rats (and other vermin like weasels and ferrets) are monsters interrupting the peaceful order of the world around them.
Popular culture is currently not interested in this type of monster. Good versus evil is still a part of the stories we tell and engage with, but our moment is one that seeks to complicate those dynamics further than a simple binary. Audiences do not trust a story that casts the good guys as wholly good and the bad guys as wholly bad, even in reboots and adaptations of existing stories. The Star Wars franchise originally operated in the dualistic good vs. evil—*ahem* light-side vs. dark-side—in the 1970s and 80s but opted for a greyer, more nuanced take on how good and evil works in its 2010s Sequel Trilogy. The MCU continually seeks to add at least some level of sympathy for villains, even those as powerful as Thanos.
This disinterest in monsters extends to children’s movies too. Movies made for children used to center their conflict around a Big Bad but now mostly create conflict from internal struggles or random forces of nature that make the hero’s journey perilous and difficult. Instead of Aladdin and the genie fighting the sinister Jafar, current heroes struggle against puberty or the vast expanse of the ocean. We either want a complicated villain or no villain at all.
I’m guessing the turn from the monster has to do with the psychology of viewing certain characters as “other,” which is encouraged by stories in which the villain is fully evil. There are certainly good reasons for moving away from this type of viewing, especially when racial stereotypes or other biases are used in the coding of such villains (see again: Jafar). Or perhaps the world events of the twenty-first century and the shift to viewing evil as a systematic force as well as an individual one have made simple views of good and evil seem quaint or inaccurate. In a century that has seen constant yet detached warfare based on unclear premises and the consolidation of wealth and power into massive corporate conglomerates that claim to be your best friend, it’s dangerous to view the other as only evil and perhaps even more dangerous to view the familiar as only good.
Whatever the reason, it’s a curious time to adapt a story like Redwall. I don’t think that this adaption needs to offer a nuanced take on a character like Cluny the Scourge or add a splash of grey to the pastoral red wall of the titular abbey in order to be successful. I like to think there’s a place for genre storytelling that doesn’t try to function as an allegory for our real world.
Or maybe our nostalgia life cycle will have reached the point where we’re hungry for stories whose stakes and dynamics are simpler and remind us less of the world we currently occupy. Maybe Redwall’s good mice fighting monstrous rats will be exactly what we want.
Jordan Petersen Kamp graduated in 2017. He works as the controller for Trellis, a certified Herman Miller furniture dealer located in West Michigan. In his spare time he enjoys talking about the books and albums he looks forward to reading and listening to someday—the ones that he’s definitely heard of but not heard or read yet.