The Dark Knight Rises Pre-Game

July 19, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises is, of course, the single most important event this summer, and possibly this year, and so we pre-game these things with hi-fi and lo-fi context.

A reporter at the junket last week asked Nolan about parallels between TDKR and, no kidding, A Tale of Two Cities:

“When [Jonathan] showed me his first draft of the screenplay, and it was 400 pages long or something, and had all this crazy stuff in it…when he handed it to me, he was like, ‘oh, you’ve gotta think of like ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ which of course you’ve read,’” Nolan recalled, ramping up for a moment of self-deprecation. “I said ‘oh yeah, absolutely.’ I read the script and was a little baffled by a few things and then realized I had never read ‘A Tale of Two Cities.” [The room burst into appreciative laughter here.]

“So I then got the book, read it, absolutely loved it, got completely what he was talking about…then when I did my draft of the script it was all about ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and really just trying to follow that because it just felt [like] exactly the right thing for the world we were dealing with, and what Dickens does in that book in terms of having all of these different characters come together in one unified story with all of these great thematic elements and all of this great emotionalism and drama.”

Now we all got into a discussion of this at the WFB office, and have you read A Tale of Two Cities? Fortuitously, the single volume of Charles Dickens’ work I’ve actually read is A Tale of Two Cities in Mr. Forst’s sophomore English class. Generally, you walk away with three things: The opening (It was the best of times…), the ending (It is a far, far better thing I do…), and the unmitigated villainy of Madame Defarge ().

But there is a little more to that, which George Orwell’s essay on how Charles Dickens is no hero of the proletariate outlines to stellar effect.

(Credit to National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke for recognizing that I was describing the Orwell essay, written in 1940, on Twitter rather than a TNR or Slate piece written in like February. Time has sort of flattened out for me, like Firely. I was going to really actually write a good long post, but we are where we are, but work is ruining my ability to tell time. Basically, I’ve become Kanye West.)

So here’s the hi-fi shot:

As a matter of fact, A Tale of Two Cities is a book which tends to leave a false impression behind, especially after a lapse of time.

The one thing that everyone who has read A Tale of Two Cities remembers is the Reign of Terror. The whole book is dominated by the guillotine — tumbrils thundering to and fro, bloody knives, heads bouncing into the basket, and sinister old women knitting as they watch. Actually these scenes only occupy a few chapters, but they are written with terrible intensity, and the rest of the book is rather slow going. But A Tale of Two Cities is not a companion volume to The Scarlet Pimpernel. Dickens sees clearly enough that the French Revolution was bound to happen and that many of the people who were executed deserved what they got. If, he says, you behave as the French aristocracy had behaved, vengeance will follow. He repeats this over and over again. We are constantly being reminded that while ‘my lord’ is lolling in bed, with four liveried footmen serving his chocolate and the peasants starving outside, somewhere in the forest a tree is growing which will presently be sawn into planks for the platform of the guillotine, etc., etc., etc. [...]

In other words, the French aristocracy had dug their own graves. But there is no perception here of what is now called historic necessity. Dickens sees that the results are inevitable, given the causes, but he thinks that the causes might have been avoided. The Revolution is something that happens because centuries of oppression have made the French peasantry sub-human. If the wicked nobleman could somehow have turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge, there would have been no Revolution, no jacquerie, no guillotine — and so much the better. This is the opposite of the ‘revolutionary’ attitude. From the ‘revolutionary’ point of view the class-struggle is the main source of progress, and therefore the nobleman who robs the peasant and goads him to revolt is playing a necessary part, just as much as the Jacobin who guillotines the nobleman. Dickens never writes anywhere a line that can be interpreted as meaning this. Revolution as he sees it is merely a monster that is begotten by tyranny and always ends by devouring its own instruments. In Sydney Carton’s vision at the foot of the guillotine, he foresees Defarge and the other leading spirits of the Terror all perishing under the same knife — which, in fact, was approximately what happened.

And Dickens is very sure that revolution is a monster. That is why everyone remembers the revolutionary scenes in A Tale of Two Cities; they have the quality of nightmare, and it is Dickens’s own nightmare. Again and again he insists upon the meaningless horrors of revolution — the mass-butcheries, the injustice, the ever-present terror of spies, the frightful blood-lust of the mob.

Orwell also identifies kind of the hero structure of Dickens’ novels — where you have the Good Rich Man Who Behaves Decently. A Tale of Two Cities doesn’t have that guy, it has Sidney Carton, the half-derelict who comes through silently. If you wanted to get into hero structures you can graft on, I’d opt for Last of the Mohicans (the hilariously gratuitously violent book, not the 1992 Coexist movie). James Fenimore Cooper’s novel exists in a lawless frontier (like the lawless urban environment of TDK) and positions the, basically, American Badass Archetype (Hawkeye) of the outsider vigilante who rejects conventional standards embodied by the white knight army officer.

Anyway, the entire section on A Tale of Two Cities in the Orwell essay is excellent prep for the movie’s thoughts on the economy, according to Sonny Bunch who’s seen it.

And now the chaser. The creator of the character Bane said yesterday:

He’s far more akin to an Occupy Wall Street type if you’re looking to cast him politically. And if there ever was a Bruce Wayne running for the White House it would have to be Romney.

Boom. Get ready for some bleak excellence. Believe it achieve it.

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