In Dante’s Divine Comedy, he tells us that above the gates of Hell is written the phrase: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Hell is the final punishment for evildoers. The idea is that once you’re in Hell, there’s no hope for change or redemption, so you sink into despair. Hell is supposed to be the worst of all possible consequences. Hope, on the other hand, is supposed to be the thing that keeps you going even when times are tough. Many religious people hope for a pleasant afterlife for themselves and divine justice for all. Hope is one of the most powerful motivators, sustaining people through the worst of circumstances. But it’s precisely that kind of power that makes hope such a dangerous weapon in the hands of a villain, and why any Hell-on-Earth must include some modicum of hope.
Spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games below the jump.
Hope is one of the most important virtues. In many denominations of Christianity, hope is considered one of the theological virtues. Along with faith and love, hope is a special virtue that has a divine element. God “infuses” the soul with these virtues, and they act as the “foundation” of morality. They’re pretty powerful stuff. Faith gives us something to believe in. Love gives us something to do with that belief. But hope is different; it concerns the heart of the person. Hope is the gas in your engine that propels you down the road of life. It ignites your dreams, feelings, and imagination. Hope gets at the universal elements of what makes us truly human. This is precisely why hope is an invaluable weapon in a villain’s arsenal. Faith so often gets the bad reputation. We see religion used as an excuse to keep people ignorant and happy all the time in our stories. But the key power of religion isn’t in the faith, or the actual beliefs; it’s in the hope those beliefs instill.
One example of hope twisted for villainy comes in the form of “The Pit” in The Dark Knight Rises. The Pit is a prison, often called “the worst Hell on Earth”. The Pit includes a way for the prisoners to get out whenever they’d like. There is an opening to the surface, like a well, with little ledges circling around its walls to the top. Anyone can climb the ledges and escape at any time; there’s even a belaying system of ropes to help you. But there’s a gap between two ledges near the top that’s too far for (nearly) everyone to jump. In the movie, Bane describes why The Pit is so devious:
There’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has rotted here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.
The Pit gives its prisoners the false idea that they can escape. It lets them dream and imagine that they can, until someone imagines it long enough and hard enough that they believe they really can. The people who do escape, like Talia al Ghul and Bruce Wayne, only do so because they’re special. Even though they don’t have any special superpowers, we’re still led to believe that they’re extraordinary humans.
In The Hunger Games books and movies, President Snow knows the value of hope. Snow rules over a post-war, post-apocalyptic America called Panem, made up of twelve districts. Snow rules from the wealthy Capitol, and the further away citizens live from the Capitol, the less privileged and more oppressed they are. In order to further maintain power over his people, Snow instituted the yearly Hunger Games. All citizens are forced to watch teenage tributes from every district fight in a Battle Royale style death match until the single victor is crowned the winner. He or she is adorned with fame and fortune, and their district is awarded extra money and supplies. Because everyone must watch the Games, no one can ignore them. Because everyone will benefit if their district’s representative wins, everyone has a vested interest in the outcome. People living under an oppressive government naturally begin to hope for change, and that hope can spark a revolution.
By instituting the Games, Snow not only sends an annual reminder that he has the power to kill the citizens’ children, but he’s also giving the people’s hope a less incendiary outlet. The people no longer hope to overthrow the government, they hope to win the Games. That way, they don’t hope to change the status quo, they hope to be rewarded by the status quo. We see this in the wealthier districts closer to the Capitol; their special warrior academies for potential tributes make for elaborate rules regarding which of the many volunteers for the games gets to actually compete. In the poor, distant districts, tributes are chosen by lot, with the promise of more food for your family if you enter your name more than once. How much hope each community has to win the Games totally transforms the way each district approaches the games. The more hope you have of winning the Games, the happier you are with the status quo.
Snow’s undoing comes in the form of Katniss Everdeen, a tribute from the most disenfranchised district of them all. Katniss totally rejects the rules of the games when she and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta attempt suicide as the final two players in the Games. District 12 is so much poorer and so rarely sees victory of one of its own in the Hunger Games that the Games lose their hopeful power. Why bother hoping when you know that your tribute has next to no chance of winning? And when Katniss knew she could not win by playing by the rules, she quit playing all together. She forced Snow to change the rules, allowing her and Peeta to both win (Snow had to have a victor to parade around to the other districts, of course), and beginning Snow’s downfall.
Having too much hope certainly does destroy a villain’s plan. Snow failed because he didn’t give District 12 enough hope in the Hunger Games, so they found it in Katniss. If he had paid more attention to District 12’s poverty, made it easier for them to win the games, it wouldn’t have been a breeding ground for revolutionary discontent. Similarly, The Pit fails because it is only supposed to look like it’s possible to escape. Talia al Ghul proves that making the jump is possible, and Bruce Wayne is given hope through her story of escape. But hope is still a key part of designing a truly terrible Hell. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” may work if your goal is to meter out divine justice. However, if your goal is to torture your characters and horrify your audience, you’re going to need just the right amount of hope.