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What is a Story?: Revenge vs. Forgiveness

One of the most popular and dramatic themes underlying the movies is revenge vs. forgiveness, with a far greater favoring of revenge in the game of perpetrator vs. victim. Somewhere in between is the quest for justice. A classic way to characterize the forgiveness vs. revenge conflict is eye for an eye vs. turn the other cheek.


In the TV series, Revenge, a daughter is determined to seek vengeance on the people who destroyed her father's life. In the movie, The Three Burials of Melquiades, Pete Perkins, a Texan ranch foreman (Tommy Lee Jones) takes revenge on Border Patrolman Barry Pepper for killing Melquiades Estrada, a good friend of Perkins. The patrolman claims it was an accident while local sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yoakam) belligerently refuses to make an arrest.

Death Wish is one of the most well known "vigilante seeks revenge" movies. Accountant Paul Benjamin (Charles Bronson) goes on a killing spree to avenge the savage murder of his wife and a daughter left in a coma. Like The Three Burials of Melquiades and Spiderman, the criminal justice system fails to seek justice, leaving revenge as the only choice.

What choices does a victim have when the criminal justice fails to seek justice?

Even when the theme is something different, like family, loyalty, or redemption, revenge or forgiveness is often the pathway. All genres entertain the revenge vs. forgiveness theme, from comedies to thrillers to action/adventures. Some believe revenge is a form of justice, while justice is a form of civilized revenge.

Jealousy is frequently the basis for revenge. It almost seems as if the moral crime of having an affair is considered worse and less forgivable than even the most heinous of crimes. Interestingly, it's not against the law to have an affair.

Someone intentionally hurts someone else, and the rest of the movie is but one big response. Unintentional wrongdoing is more easily forgivable. Accidents happen. People make mistakes. But an accident or mistake is not as dramatic as intentional wrongdoing. Intentional harm is an expression of evil, and what's more dramatic than evil? Drama is often simply defined as "conflict." A slight expansion could be that drama--and the essence of all stories--is the conflict between good and evil, or right and wrong.

Revenge is not a viable option in real life. In real life, revenge can turn the victim into the perpetrator, creating a cycle of violence until either one ends up dead or both in jail. Revenge could be judged more serious than the original wrongdoing. But what choices does a victim have when the criminal justice fails to seek justice?

Cape Fear

In Cape Fear, the cycle of violence generated by revenge distorts any clear distinction between good guy and bad buy, perpetrator and victim. Defense Attorney Sam Bowden (Nic Nolte) withholds crucial evidence that could've prevented convicted rapist, Max Cady (Robert DeNiro) from serving 14 years. Bowden's conscience got the better of him, and instead of adhering to the cardinal rule of defending a client at all costs, he turns on his client instead--clearly a setup for revenge.

Sure enough, Cady spends the rest of the movie terrorizing Bowden and his family until the climax where one of them must die. Torture and/or additional suffering is part of the whole revenge package. Revenge includes not only an eye for an eye, but a match of the suffering and pain endured.

Cady is one evil character and most audiences cheer his demise at the hands of Bowden. But we're still left wondering, Didn't Bowden deserve revenge? Even though Cady is a criminal, isn't he also entitled to justice?

It's unlikely a criminal ever believes the punishment they received is in proportion to the harm done. In other words, if they could get away with it, they would. It seems utterly implausible that Cady--or any convict--would come to terms with his evil ways and forgive the cops, attorneys, judges and witnesses who dared to put them behind bars. Plea bargains alone can be the basis for revenge.

However, certainly there are convicted criminals who suffer remorse, and accept punishment without thoughts of exacting revenge. A convict also knows from experience how revenge--no matter how justified--can land them back in prison. In revenge, the victim becomes the perpetrator.

Revenge, as a noun, is something the victim seeks. As a verb, getting revenge means inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong done to someone else. The person seeking revenge does not have to be the victim. In a wrongdoing, intentional or otherwise, the goal is some kind of justice, which usually comes in the form of punishment according to law, rules, policy, and even our unwritten morals and ethics.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Jack Sparrow seeks revenge on his mutinous 1st mate Barbossa. After launching a mutiny during the quest for ancient Aztec treasure, Barbossa maroons Jack on an island. Barbossa and his mutinous crew take hold of the treasure only to find it cursed, turning them into the undead. Jack seeks revenge and to regain control of his ship, the Black Pearl.

Ides of March

What better context for revenge than the world of politics. In Ides of March, Presidential campaign staffer Stephen Myers (Ryan Gossling), gets a crash course in dirty politics when he's fired for cavorting with the other side. Myers exacts his revenge by threatening to destroy Governor Mike Morris's campaign with a recording proving the Governor had sex with an intern.

During the fallout, the intern takes her own life, with blame falling on Myers for forcing her to get an abortion and leave town to protect the Governor. But when he's fired and finds out the Governor was in support of letting him go, he tries to shift blame onto the Governor for the intern's suicide. Myers is not a nice guy. A young woman takes her life and a presidential hopeful is blackmailed in Myer's effort to coverup his own wrongdoing.

Godfather is the ultimate "gang" revenge movie where revenge is an endless "they hit us, we hit them" game.

When a convict or criminal seeks revenge against another convict/criminal, what redeeming values does the avenger have that make the audience care? Scarface (Al Pacino) is a drug dealer who hurts and kills many others, mostly out of revenge. Do we cheer for him or does the audience feel sympathy for the victims, even when the victims were out to kill Scarface?

It's a viable complaint to say movies notoriously glorify criminals. A favorite storyline is the Robin Hood character who robs banks in the name of justice. Bank robbers, goodhearted or not, had to use some kind of terror to perpetrate the crime. Is this forgivable even if the money is given to the poor?

Revenge can reach revolutionary levels--in other words, revenge turns to war. Social issues like slavery, the holocaust, spousal abuse, corporate politics and male domination generate a tidal wave of revenge stories, feelings that can last for decades. Zero Dark Thirty is about the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed out of revenge... or was it justice? Some may argue it was an act of self defense. Why was Bin Laden assassinated, when assassination is against United States policy, and instead he was not arrested and put on trial?

America went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was retaliation. It was payback. It was revenge. It was justice. However, history fails to acknowledge the circumstances that led up to the attack, that is, wrongdoing on the part of the United States. Is it possible for a nation to feel remorse or to collectively say, "I'm sorry?"

Revenge and/or justice takes many forms and is characterized in a variety of ways: "Gettin' even," a vendetta, retribution, an avenger (as hero), payback, settling a score.


In Philadelphia, revenge takes the form of a law suit, as a way to seek justice--justice being the civilized (legal) way of seeking revenge. In the movie, it's a civil matter vs. a criminal matter, another conflict that challenges the definition and nature of revenge, justice and forgiveness. The issues of AIDS and homophobia in the workplace are challenged by a wrongful termination suit, but the "perpetrators" are never charged with a crime. Lying, deception, prejudice, and especially ignorance or negligence, are very difficult crimes to prove. How does a victim of hate prove they are, in fact, a victim of hate?

Wounds can last for years, even decades. We can hate the dead even more than we did when the perpetrator was alive. Without some kind of closure, all we're left with is the hurt. Someway, somehow, we need to get rid of the hurt. We need to let go. But the failure to achieve justice can hurt more than the wrongdoing itself, especially when there's negligence or apathy on the part of the criminal justice system, a system we trust to protect and operate in our best interests by punishing wrongdoers.

There are many ways the criminal justice system can fail a victim. The hard rule of evidence, as necessary as it may seem, cannot always be proven. There's no smoking gun, no witness, no confession. Those working in the criminal justice system become jaded and feel little for the very victims they signed on to protect and serve. In fact, as in the case of rape for example, the victim is blamed because "she asked for it."

Police brutality is the ultimate expression of the failure of our criminal justice system. Police and justice officials are not immune to feelings and beliefs of hate, prejudice and bigotry towards others.

Virtually anything anyone does to someone else begs a response in the form of revenge, justice or forgiveness. When we've been wronged, however slight, we can choose to ignore it--which may or may not be a form of forgiveness--or do something about it. The underlying issue is, "How do we right a wrong?" Was the wrongdoing intentional? Was it done knowing it would cause pain or suffering? As Dostoevsky defined in his classic Crime and Punishment, "Is the reaction in proportion to the harm done."

In Zero Dark Thirty, the story reveals a nation's right to hunt and kill a perpetrator in the name of national security (although assassination is allegedly against American policy). With Bin Laden, why was he assassinated instead of captured and put on trial? How ironic we are not given the same right to seek vengeance on the personal level.

Vigilantes are technically criminals. Spider Man is about revenge with doing good as a side benefit for society. Even the police captain ultimately forgives Spider Man because of all the good he did. But while he was doing so much good, he was also seeking revenge against the killer who killed his beloved uncle. One of the greatest and most popular films of all time, Taxi Driver, is about a seemingly disturbed vigilante who takes matters into his own hands by killing a room full of criminals. Was the infamous Travis Bickle (DeNiro) a murderer or a hero?

Taxi Driver

Crime is the most common setting for perpetrator/victim, happening on the personal level, and the easiest to understand when it comes to seeking revenge. Where revenge--or forgiveness--is most difficult is when intentional hurt is inflicted without evidence of any crime committed. The challenge becomes acute in a "he said--she said" scenario, or, "Your word against mine."

And of course, every perpetrator denies guilt and what more dramatic of a character is there than an obsessive liar who intentionally inflicts pain on others...and laughs about it.

Forgiveness could be an excuse, a failure to fight back. Forgiveness is cowardly and weak. Or, the opposite is equally true. Granting forgiveness while still holding a perpetrator accountable could be an expression of great strength. It shows compassion and empathy. Forgiveness is also a letting go of the pain and moving forward with one's life, even after a heinous wrongdoing--a way to heal.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness as a way "to grant free pardon and to give up all claim on account of an offense or debt."

Forgiveness is a dominant theme in Christianity, if not all religions. "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." "Forgive us our sins..." Forgiveness is a letting go of a variety of wrongdoings, i.e., anger, a disagreement, a mistake, resentment, indignation, or any number of lesser/greater offenses. But, some people believe only God can forgive.

Dead Man Walking is a story about the blindness of forgiveness and the failure to recognize pure evil.

Forgiveness could be a singular act, or a process that can take years, even decades. Forgiveness is a journey that doesn't necessarily have a beginning, middle and end. Forgiveness can be total or partial. It can be granted in varying degrees with or without expectation of something in return like punishment, remorse, or even an apology.

Sometimes it's harder to forgive oneself than others. We can set high standards for ourselves with no room for mistakes or failure. We will even punish ourselves, denying pleasure or restricting activity. A person can, indeed, be their own worst enemy.

When a perpetrator begs for forgiveness, the victim is more likely to give it. A lack of remorse is considered by most as unforgivable, from judges to victims. Not forgiving is a way of hurting back. Ultimate forgiveness is when there is no expectation or quest for restorative justice. It is possible to forgive even the remorseless. When a perpetrator is incapacitated or even dead, forgiveness is granted without expecting anything in return, either from the perpetrator or any formal system that administers justice and punishment.

It's impossible to imagine anyone going through life without experiencing some kind of wrongdoing. A mother denies treats because a room was not cleaned as promised. Documents were not delivered in a timely manner at work jeopardizing a deal in process or the risk of losing a client/customer. Road rage may be considered an epidemic by some. The simple cutting off of another vehicle or breaking too fast is cause for a revengeful beating or even shooting. Road rage could serve as the beginning of a thriller, where the person shot could be a major drug dealer or cop and the perpetrator who did the shooting runs from the scene of the crime.

The problem is that in spite of a general consensus that forgiveness offers many benefits, very few people actually know how to forgive. Just exactly how do you let go, especially if the wrongdoing is serious? It's also easy for others to advise forgiveness when they have no idea what it feels like to be hurt in the same way someone else has been.

We are a long way from learning how to reconcile pain, especially when it's emotional, mental or spiritual, other than to medicate it. It's one thing to suffer at the hands of nature. It's another to suffer at the hands of another human being who intentionally set out to hurt someone.

Revenge vs. forgiveness vs. justice: There's plenty of room for storytelling. When a character is hurt, the choice to forgive or avenge will determined where the story goes. How a wrongdoer is held accountable determines the end of the story.

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