The Dark Knight and Graham Greene

Rook_Hawkins's picture

The Dark Knight and Graham Greene

By Rook Hawkins


In light of this films recent success, and having cued some fascinating dialog on this message board, I felt it may be a good time to express some of the methods I use in classical literature using The Dark Knight as a layman’s explanation.  Granted, there is little evidence outside this representation to prove that Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer used Graham Greene in their creation of the character Joker for this film, played incredibly well by Heath Ledger.  This is more for fun, for you to enjoy, and perhaps may even turn out to be right in the process.

This article examines both stories and assumes, between them, exist a common thread of character development, where tropes are drawn together to form the antagonist.  In this case, the intertextuality is the use of Graham Greene's story in order to form the foundation of the character, the Joker.  Whether the creation of this character as written by Nolan and Goyer owes tribute to the original comics, or this Joker was a representation of their own well-educated minds, the similarities present here will be viewed as purposeful.  In other words,  Nolan and Goyer, or the originator of the Joker character in the comic series from the 80's where Nolan and Goyer pulled a lot of their movie foundation from, utilized the character of T in this short story as a model for the Joker.  Because this is an assumption that can probably never be proven, it must remain clear that this is only taken in the nature of entertainment, and this short study can only exist in a manner which is not comprehensive.  But, enough of this and onto the meat.

The Joker has some scary qualities in this movie.  In an interview with MoviesOnline, Goyer and Nolan make the following statements in regards to Joker’s character:

DAVID GOYER: He doesn’t have a cause, so you don’t have to justify any of his actions. So he’s one of these rare instances in telling a story where the whole point of the character is that you’re not justifying what he’s doing.

JONATHAN NOLAN: His emotional life consists of pleasure and watching the world crumble around him.

Indeed, at one point in the movie, Joker makes a large sum of money, but burns his share.  At another point he makes it clear that he hates plans.  Plans are fragile and organized, but when plans are deviated from, people panic.  Interesting of all, his antics aren’t personal.  He doesn’t hate batman for anything, nor does he hate Harvey Dent, or Rachael, he just wants to watch the world burn in chaos.  He is a complete anarchist, all right. 

While I watched Joke burn the money, my memory struck me, recalling a scene from a short story by Graham Greene, The Destructors.  In his little pros, Greene’s character Trevor, is an addition to an established gang of street urchins calling themselves the Wormsley Common Gang lead by a kid named Blackie.  On one estranged day, where the story picks up in medias res (that is to say, it starts in the middle of the events), Trevor—or as he is known, T—shows up late.  Blackie questions him.  T makes note that he had been to the house of Old Misery (real name: Thomas).  The house had apparently withstood two dud shells from a bombardment, with two craters narrowly missing the house, which stood defiantly between them. 

T is the sort of character who has no origin.  He just is.  And, as Greene writes through his narrator which is never named, he “was giving his orders with decision; it was as though this plan had been with him all his life.”  His cursory use of the loo of Old Misery’s house had led his mind to mischief.  “T raised eyes, as grey and disturbed as the drab August day. 'We'll pull it down,' he said. 'We'll destroy it.'”  But his calm, collected manner does not behoove a terror.  That is perhaps what is most scary about this allegorical character.  He acts.  And his action is bent on destruction.  Usurping Blackie’s role as leader, he decides that Old Misery’s house is just too beautiful to exist.  The whole gang is pressed into destroying it from the inside out. 

The most telling scene is where T and Blackie are in a room together after the rest of the gang leaves.  After the first day of destruction, Blackie asks T if he found any loot, as prior to T’s intervention, the gang was all about stealing things.  T pulls out a wad of paper money.  Blackie thinks he should distribute it among the gang members.  T remarks that they aren’t thieves.  Rather, the money was to celebrate.  It was a time of rejoicing for T.  He pulls out a lighter and ignites the money one note at a time.  T is celebrating the destruction of the world under his feet.  He is an anarchist, who like Joker, just wants to see the world burn.  He cannot be bought, his price is chaos.  During this scene, T remarks “I'd like to see Old Misery's face when we are through.”  “You hate him a lot?” Blackie asked. “Of course I don't hate him…. There'd be no fun if I hated him.”  His plan was set, but what his plan consisted of was chaos. 

The Intertextuality of the movie The Dark Knight and The Destructors is interwoven between these two characters: the Joker and Trevor.   Perhaps it is Alfred who cues us, the movie goers, to this more than Joker does himself.  Alfred says, “Because some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”  The Joker is the quintessential Trevor.  Although Alfred doesn’t take all the credit for curing us in, the Joker reveals this himself in the film.  Batman asks Joker why he doesn’t just kill him, and to this the Joker replies, “I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, you... you complete me.”  Batman is Joker’s ultimate test.  He cannot turn the world into chaos without turning Batman on his head with it.  And like Trevor and the Wormsley Common Gang, he destroys Gotham from the inside out.  He goes after the best of the city, and turns them dark.  He destroys them.  Trevor went after the beautiful house, not because he had a personal vendetta with Old Misery, but because it was beautiful.  It was art. 

Another intertextual trope is the idea of planning and plans in general.  Joker remarks to Two-Face that he isn’t a fan of plans. 

“You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are.”

Like T, who burns the bills for celebration, he causes chaos because he doesn’t know what to do with order except cause more chaos.   Trevor does explain his actions to Blackie while burning the bills in a similar way that Joker is explaining himself to Two-Face.  “All this hate and love…it’s soft, it's hooey. There's only things, Blackie,” things that can, and will, be broken.  T did not plan to tear down the house as Blackie had planned to get free rides while stealing from the occupants on the buses.  T’s ideas are random, they come with purpose, and the purpose is always to cause anarchy.  He plans for destruction, but nothing beyond.

In the end, ironic as it may be, the house is not completely destroyed by T or the gang.  It is left to stand on its own, barely a shell of what it was.  The beams are tied to a lorry, and when the driver pulls away, the house comes down, right in front of the driver and Old Misery who was trapped in a bathroom when he came home early by T.  The lorry driver laughs aloud.  One can almost imagine the story ending in an alternate way.  “How dare you laugh,” Old Misery said. “It was my house my house.”  “Why so serious?” asks the Joker.   “I'm sorry. I can't help it, Mr. Thomas. There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny.”    



Atheist Books, purchases on Amazon support the Rational Response Squad server, which houses Celebrity Atheists. Books by Rook Hawkins (Thomas Verenna)

rab's picture

That was a fascinating read.

That was a fascinating read. I loved The Dark Knight but I wasn't familar with The Destructors. Learn something new every day.

Support the Separation of Church & State!
Freedom From Religion Foundation

totus_tuus's picture

An interesting post

An interesting post indeed.  I've always meant to get around to reading Greene, but never have.  I've heard I'm really missing out. 

I've actually been looking at another literary influence on this movie, that is St John of the Cross, the 16th century Carmelite mystic.  The title of the movie struck me right off since, as a Third Order Carmelite, I am intimately familiar with John's work Dark Night of the Soul.  If I ever get my thoughts together and commit them to writing, I'd be happy to share them with you.  If you ever get a chance, take a look at Dark Night (now that you've seen Dark Knight) and tell me what you think.  Most of the parallels between St John and the movie involve the conflicts between the Batman/Bruce Wayne personae of the movie's hero.

The Graham Greene influence doesn't surprise me at all, though, since the whole movie is rife with Catholic thought.

"With its enduring appeal to the search for truth, philosophy has the great responsibility of forming thought and culture; and now it must strive resolutely to recover its original vocation." Pope John Paul II

great read

It's funny... I was having a drunken discussion with my friend at the pub last night about 'The Dark Knight'. I was saying that the way in which the Joker just wants to see what happens when he tears Gotham City apart (as oppose to commiting crime out of rationality) mirrors Graham Greene's 'The Destructors'.

It then struck me that the Joker burns the money - much like Trevor burns Old Misery's money - wow.

Then this morning I typed in "dark knight graham greene the destructors" on google...

Low and behold someone has articulated this drunken discussion in an essay!