One day, during my freshman year of college, my Literature professor asked the class a seemingly simple question: What is a hero? I raised my hand. This was a question I had thought a lot about while working on my own writing, so I felt qualified to answer, even if I knew my answer wasn’t going to be exactly what the professor was looking for.
“A hero is someone who suffers, whether through a tragic flaw in their own character or through an external force,” I said. “The heroic struggle is not only against an antagonist or villain, but against the suffering itself. In the end, the hero manages to perform an act of good in spite of — or even because of — that suffering.”
I had a few examples in mind, both from literature and personal experience, when I said this. There was Frodo Baggins, who experiences physical and mental anguish, loss, and betrayal on every step of his journey before committing a selfless act to save those who, in a sense, have inflicted that pain upon him. There were the tragically flawed heroes of Shakespeare, whose Hamlet is plagued by his own indecisiveness and suffers for it at every turn through the horrific consequences of his impulsive but well-meaning actions. There were the doomed heroes of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Sometimes a Great Notion.”
There was my own father, who toiled in a nightmarish, oven-like blade factory for decades to give his sons the opportunities he felt he never had. He had his own “tragic flaws,” to be sure, but more than anything, he faced the great Enemy Without a Face, the menacing but untouchable fog of a society that wanted nothing more than to pound him into the ground (the same fog, perhaps, as that glimpsed by Chief Bromden in the opening scene of “Cuckoo’s Nest”). But for all the suffering that followed him from childhood into his final days, he succeeded in giving me the skills I would need to survive the world that haunted him.
Unfortunately, my vision of heroism as tragedy did not sit well with the professor.
“No no no,” he replied, waving his hand dismissively. “I’m talking about heroes in the literary sense. The classical sense. A hero is a character of noble birth and unnatural talent who performs great deeds in pursuit of honor.”
Technically, he wasn’t wrong. And I can’t say I was surprised by his reaction; In 5th grade, I answered an essay prompt about “Heroes of the 20th Century” by writing about a Holocaust victim and was similarly “corrected.” But the professor’s dismissive attitude was also representative of what I saw — and still see — as restrictive cultural ideas about what constitutes heroism.
The Dead Zone — Tragedy as Heroism
When it comes to film (this is supposed to be a film website, after all), this sort of suffering hero is as rare as they come — The Lord of the Rings being a notable exception. It’s important to clarify that I’m not talking about films like The Last Samurai, Avatar, or Dances with Wolves, which, despite having tragic elements, tend to depict legendary martyrs pursuing — you guessed it — honor and glory. They also tend to transpose historical and cultural suffering onto white saviors, which has been discussed adequately elsewhere (for the record, I still like these films). Nor am I talking about the murdered-wife-and-kidnapped-child trope that fuels tragedy-chic violence from a neatly manicured but oh-so-depressed bad boy.
No, I’m talking about real suffering. The kind that overwhelms the hero physically and mentally, the kind that isn’t overcome merely by defeating a villain or learning a life lesson that could have been gathered from a Saturday-morning cartoon. This is suffering that can only be defeated by the sheer power of the human will, almost always leading to an emotional climax that I believe is unmatched in its power by any other type of story.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I recently re-watched “The Dead Zone,” a film from 1983 that was somewhat popular upon release but has been largely forgotten by today’s moviegoers. Directed by David Cronenberg and based on a novel by Stephen King, “The Dead Zone” is not a typical horror film. Rather than relying on gore, jump scares or a cackling, mustache-twirling villain, Cronenberg grounds the film’s horror in the suffering endured by the film’s main character, Johnny (Christopher Walken).
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
After a serious traffic accident, Johnny, a mild-mannered schoolteacher in rural Maine, experiences the following series of unfortunate events, in order:
- A coma that lasts for 5 years, during which his girlfriend marries someone else. No, she does not have a change of heart after he wakes up — they remain separated despite the love they share.
- The emergence of an ability to sense tragedy in the past, present or future of anyone he touches. This quickly becomes a painful burden, as he cannot touch anyone without receiving unwanted information through shocking, violent flashes. He is forced to become a social pariah by skeptical reporters and an ever-needy public desperate for his help.
- The death of his mother, due at least in part to stress caused by negative media coverage of his newfound abilities.
- The discovery that he is not recovering from the coma, but is in fact slowly dying.
- A bullet wound in the shoulder, sustained while helping the police track down a serial killer.
With a list like that, one might expect the film to be hopelessly dour, even pointless. But the immense suffering Johnny endures affords the film tremendous emotional weight as it builds toward its climax, when he must choose whether to assassinate a U.S. Senate candidate he knows will eventually become a tyrannical president who will start a devastating nuclear war.
Fictional characters are often presented with a weighty moral decision, but they are usually in a position that makes that decision relatively easy. Perhaps they are the “chosen one,” surrounded by an adoring cast of sycophants that will honor their heroism with joyous whoops or an ecstatic parade. Perhaps the hero is so uncommonly intelligent that he “defeats” the choice itself, finding a way to do the right thing without suffering any consequences.
In Johnny’s case, only he knows what Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) — a shrewd politician whose violent vindictiveness and borderline insanity is unknown to the public — will do in the future. Going through with the assassination means being known not as a hero, but rather as a black mark on the history of the nation. That makes “the right choice” the ultimate act of selflessness from a man who has every right to be selfish.
Indeed, Johnny receives no material reward for his final act. While he misses the kill shot, he does manage to end Stillson’s political career, effectively preventing nuclear war. But he is mortally wounded in the process, and though he is comforted by his former girlfriend — whose love for him still lingers — she will be forever confused, perhaps even angered, by his actions. There are no convenient fantasies of martyrdom, no adoring masses. No easy outs. Only one true source of solace exists for Johnny as he dies: he did the right thing.
If that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, I don’t know what will.
In a culture that punishes outcasts but hails disingenuous modesty as heroism, here is the black sheep of heroes who just wants to be left to die in peace. Here is a hero who claims victory over the cruelest adversary of all: pain.