Donald Clarke: Not every villain needs a harrowing origin story

Timothée Chalamet’s Wonka is the latest example of trend that refuses to go away

Timothée Chalamet on the set of Wonka. ‘The merest mention of Netflix’s imminent Willy Wonka origin story causes me to slump into a coma.’ Photograph: Timothée Chalamet/Twitter

Earlier this week, images emerged of Timothée Chalamet in costume for the immicohjvyuva&65…………{*

Sorry, the merest mention of Netflix's imminent Willy Wonka origin story causes me to slump into a coma. Allow me to lift my brow from the keyboard and wipe away the drool. I am constantly surprised to discover Chalawonk actually exists and is not just something I expect to happen because that is how the 21st century rolls. Did I also imagine a film on Wile E Coyote's early life featuring Tom Holland as the young predator? Well, I am writing on Wednesday. By the time you read this it will almost certainly be in pre-production. So, I won't bother to check.

It is only fair to acknowledge that the personnel behind Chalawonk is impressive. Paul King and Simon Farnaby, who worked on the terrific Paddington films, are directing and writing. The cast also includes such good eggs as Olivia Colman and Sally Hawkins. Allow me to mouth the words "it could be great" through fiercely gritted teeth.

Chalawonk, nonetheless, is a peripheral part of a regrettable movement in popular culture. Save us from movies and TV series detailing the psychological development of familiar villains. Villain, you say? "Call me old fashioned," filmmaker Jessica Ellis wrote as the images landed. "I grew up in an era where a movie told us 'here's an old weirdo with a chocolate factory designed to murder children who transgress' and we were like 'no further questions'." Wonka qualifies.

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This is not a new development. Towards the end of the last century, George Lucas surprised Star Wars fans by putting the young Darth Vader at the heart of The Phantom Menace. George MacDonald Fraser's essential Flashman novels may take place after Tom Brown's Schooldays, but they are still in the business of humanising and fleshing-out the villain from that novel. It is a decade and a half since Thomas Harris interrogated the adolescence of Hannibal Lecter in Hannibal Rising. A year or two before that, Gregory Maguire's hit musical Wicked made the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz into a protagonist.

In recent years, however, the phenomenon has threatened to take over popular culture. Maleficent pranced about the villain from Sleeping Beauty. Joaquin Phoenix trod the dangerous line between empathy and pathology with his Oscar-winning turn in Joker. Bates Motel dealt with Norman Bates's early life. Cruella did whatever the heck it did.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros Pictures/ via AP

It as if the entertainment industry has been hijacked by the Daily Mail’s worst caricature of the “bleeding heart liberal”. Rather than locking up the murderers of Gotham City or the dognappers of 1970s London, these Guardian-reading social workers are finding them comfy beds in lavish mental facilities – with, no doubt, a “colour television” on every wall – and inviting them to blame it all on the absence of a father figure. Boo hoo!

The most misconceived of the lot was surely Ryan Murphy’s Ratched. By seeking to explain how the antagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became a sociopath, the series missed the entire point of Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s film adaptation. Nurse Ratched is a perfectly sane functionary whose cruelty springs from her state-authorised mission to maintain establishment dominance. The horror of Kesey’s story is that she, by society’s standards, is the normal one.

The best of these re-inventions tease out universal cruelties in the original stories' treatment of their villains. Wicked works at the uncomfortable sense that the Witch's perceived ugliness is tied up with her malevolence. What right-thinking person would not prefer to dress like the gothic villain rather than the exhaustingly sunny Glinda? There was a genuine and palpable sadness in Norman Bates before he took to chopping up poor Marion Crane in Psycho. Those prequels are tweaking at instincts we already possessed.

Unfortunately too many of these confections fill in gaps that were better left unfilled. Ellis is not wrong in her implication that sometimes it is better to “ask no further questions”. The mystery is part of the appeal. If every deranged action has a rational explanation the villain is turned from a character into a mechanism.

These stories are also rarely so brave as they seem. We are always dealing with a personality who exerts a guilty attraction. You can’t deny that Hannibal Lecter is a good conversationalist and an interesting cook. By way of contrast, ask yourself why an origin story for the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang is close to unthinkable. Sometimes the implications are too awful to permit ironic variations.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the form, there is no possibility of it going away any time soon. As we have noted in this space before, familiarity is now a more transferable currency than old-school celebrity. If the audience has heard of a character then it will keep hearing about them until Earth spins into the sun. Everlasting gobstoppers are barely so durable.