Friday, July 08, 2005

The Road to Redemption

In the July 1st At the Back Fence column on AAR, Anne Marble discusses the theme of redemption in romance novels. Oddly enough, in the last two days I've experienced two stories that run the spectrum of redemption from one extreme to the other. I personally do like redemption stories. Perhaps this is because I prefer tortured heroes, and tortured heroes always seem to need to be redeemed. Granted, I have a healthy scepticism about the power of love to redeem, but when I'm escaping into a romance novel, it's one of many unrealistic scenarios I'm willing to buy.

My two extreme redemption stories came in the form of the movie Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (I know, just go with me on this one) and the book Jackson Rule by Dinah McCall. Both stories feature heroes with criminal pasts, but both stories diverge widly when it comes to how those heroes were redeemed. What follows includes SPOILERS for both, so read on at your own risk.

In LCTR:TCOL, Lara seeks the help of Terry Sheridan (played by the very sexy Scot Gerard Butler). Terry is an ex-Royal Marines commander turned mercenary and traitor, and Lara has him sprung from some remote Siberian-like prison to help her locate...well, just leave it at helping her. Throughout the story it is revealed that a) Terry and Lara shared a love affair in the past and b) Terry and Lara still have feelings for each other. So Terry is presented as hero material, and I settle back to watch the road to his redemption.

The first stretch of this road - the first big move toward redemption in most such stories - is to learn that the crimes the hero has committed were either false, a case of an innocent taking the fall, or the reasons for the crimes not only understandable but expected given some extraordinary circumstances. Terry stands accused of abandoning his men, so maybe there was a darn good reason he'd done so. Maybe he'd been leading the enemy away or had been kidnapped and brainwashed. Something that would let us believe he never would have willingly done so and is therefore truly Good At Heart.

In Terry's case, we find out pretty fast that he did indeed commit the crimes. Not only did he commit them, he admits that he found doing so pretty easy. The guy is guilty and for no good reason that we can tell except greed, which does not a hero make. He didn't pass the First Redemption Milestone.

No problem. There are other ways the hero can be redeemed.

For example, he can show true devotion to the heroine, risking his life to save hers. Terry does this. Or at least, he does a pretty darn good job of covering Lara's back. And if he doesn't exactly risk his own life above and beyond the fact that bad guys are shooting at him pretty much non-stop, he does manage to save the day on the few occassions when it looks like Lara's a goner.

So, he passes Redemption Milestone 2 and is on his way to true hero-hood.

Redemption Milestone 3 comes in the form of having the chance to revert to his old, evil ways and choosing to take the high road. The heroine trusts him and he comes through.

Terry does do this in a sort of backassward way. At one point in the story, Terry has his hands on the artifact that he and Lara have been searching for. He could make a break for it, taking the artifact with him. He doesn't, but I honestly can't say if this is because he has been redeemed or if it's because Lara was standing there with him and could have given him the fight for his life if he tried. The general sense I got was that he had no intention of taking the artifact.

Finally, Redemption Milestone 4 often involves the heroine giving the hero a chance to walk away with everything and he chooses not to take it. In Terry's case, Lara handcuffs him to a bedframe and tells him he is free to go start the new life he was promised in exchange for helping her. She no longer needs him and confesses that she fears he will not be able to withstand temptation. For both their sakes, it's better if he just moves on.

Terry chooses to go the distance with Lara, which puts him in place to save her life yet again. Instead of taking his freedom and money and starting all over, he sticks by her side.

So if you look at the fact that Terry passed 3 of the 4 Redemption Milestones, you'd be satisfied that this guy has turned over the proverbial new leaf. He's now worthy of our heroine, and our HEA is clearly in sight, right?

Except in this instance, Terry isn't redeemed. Because when it comes down to the end and he's required to walk away from the final prize, love isn't enough. He can't resist the lure of untold riches and be satisfied in having the love of a kick-ass woman like Lara Croft. When he insists on taking the deadly treasure they've found, she tells him he can't have it. That's not acceptable to Terry, and since Lara takes no shit from anyone, even incredibly sexy guys she loves, well, his ticket is bought.

At the end of the movie, I felt kind of let down. I liked Terry. I bought every inch of the Redemption theme and was excited over the prospect of Lara and Terry becoming a team, at least in the bedroom. When he proved to be as corrupt at the end as we were told he was, I was very disappointed.

On the flipside of this redemption coin is the hero Jackson Rule in the book, Jackson Rule. The book opens when Jackson is being released from prison after serving a fifteen year sentence for murdering his abusive father. He's spend nearly half his life locked up after spending his formative years being physically, emotionally and mentally tortured, so he's ripe for redemption.

And sure enough, as the story unfolds Jackson passes every single Redemption Milestone there is.

Skipping the first for a second, Jackson saves the heroine, Rebecca's, life more than once. Not only that, but he risks his own life to save a child from a burning building. For a while I wondered if he was really an angel disguised as a human.

As for the third milestone, Rebecca quickly comes to trust Jackson with her business. He has access to her money and could easily take it and run. In fact, the situation was so frequently staged such that I kept waiting for a bank deposit to disappear and Jackson to be the first one blamed. Never happened, and I was highly surprised.

The fourth Milestone was easily passed at the end of the story when a pregnant Rebecca buys Jackson a new motorcycle (his had been destroyed in the previously mentioned fire) and tells him he's free to ride away from her and his child. What do you think Jackson does? Yeah, no big surprise there.

Back to the first milestone, the whole "innocent of the crime" or "good reasons for the crime" issue. From the second Rebecca sees the scars crisscrossing Jackson's back, we as readers have already forgiven Jackson the crime of killing his father. Clearly the man was an abusive monster who deserved to die, and we only feel sorry that Jackson had to spend his life in prison.

Except, McCall doesn't even stop there. She had safely crossed that line but she pushed on with a near-the-end twist involving Jackon's sister, Molly. I won't reveal here what that twist is, but I can admit that I had a feeling from pretty much chapter 2 that what happened was the case. The twist came as absolutely no surprise to me.

So here we have two heroes who walked the Road of Redemption, one successfully and one not so much. Thing is, as much as I loved Jackson Rule (and I did love this book - so much I read it in a single day), the hero and his redemption rang so much less real to me. Because in the end, it turns out there was nothing to be redeemed. Jackson really was an angel wrapped up in ex-con's clothing. He tried to appear tough and menacing and hardened beyond the ability to love, but nearly every single thing he did spoke to his being completely the opposite. By the end of the book, I almost didn't like Jackson because he was too perfect.

Terry, on the other hand was really bad. And I liked him. Right up to the very end, I wanted him to succeed. Maybe that's why it was so hard to have him fall down. He was fully three dimensional - neither completely good nor completely evil.

All of this to say, I think redemption works best when the hero (or heroine for that matter) is so well rounded that at any given moment we can imagine him going either way. Then his redemption, when it happens, is real because it's a choice he's made.


MaryF said...

I love, love, love Terry Sheridan. I was also really disappointed in the ending of that (though there is an alternate ending that shows him redeemed). In my WIP, I'm working on a hero's redemption (inspired by Terry), so this article was very helpful.

Lynn M said...

Oh! How do I get ahold of the alternate version? Is it on the DVD? I watched this on Showtime so I haven't seen any special features.

Yeah, Terry represented pretty much my favorite kind of hero - a confident alpha male who's border line bad-guy but we all know deep inside he's got that heart of gold. Sexy to boot, he matched the heroine step for step and with that cocky grin on his face. I think this is why the ending was so hard to take for me. I know Lara Croft can't be bogged down with a love interest, but dang, did they have to end it *that* way?

MaryF said...

Yes, the alternate ending is on the DVD. I think it might have been a cop-out to use it, though. Still, I would have been happier.