Let’s face it: everybody loves a good villain. No great book or movie is complete without one: without Lord Voldemort and the ever-rising body count of his victims, the Harry Potter books are just a cute kid series about a magical boarding school. Sometimes we end up with a sneaking liking for the villain; sometimes we read through a book with murder in our hearts and prayers on our lips that the bastard will finally get what’s coming to him. In any case, here’s my list for some of the greatest fictional villains ever to gnash their teeth.
1. Milady de Winter, The Three Musketeers (Alexander Dumas)
Dumas’s swashbuckler about a quartet of rapier-wielding French chevaliers is generously stocked with villains, including the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu and his “living blade” Rochefort. But it’s Milady de Winter we all remember, the beautiful blond assassin who schemes, seduces, plots, and murders her way through a trail of hapless victims. Her finest hour: imprisoned before she can murder her latest target and guarded by an incorruptible Puritan jailer, she takes a mere week to seduce the Puritan and wangle an escape–persuading him, on her way out the door, to assassinate her target for her, and of course take the fall.
Faye Dunaway as Milady de Winter in the original 1973 “Three Musketeers.” MdeW has been played by many actresses, including Rebecca de Mornay and Milla Jovovich, but nobody ever matched Faye Dunaway for silky menace.
2. Mordred, the King Arthur tales
The story of the semi-mythical King Arthur has been told by more authors than anyone can count, but they all hold one thing in common: Mordred. Sometimes he’s a scheming knight and sometimes a whining wheedler, but he’s always the poison apple in Arthur’s Camelot and he always brings it crashing down. His finest hour: when the sneaky little toad leads armies against his father, tries to marry his father’s queen, and ends up stabbing his father through the head in their final fight as he is killed himself with a spear.
Mordred in black, on the verge of killing King Arthur
3. Magua, The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper)
I admit I’m going more off the movie “Last of the Mohicans” than the book, since I find the movie splendid and the novel all but unreadable. Cooper’s villainous Huron warrior was no picnic; a vicious drunk who pursues the noble half-Indian frontiersman Hawkeye and his friends across hundreds of turgidly-written pages. But the movie’s Magua is elevated into something truly teeth-chattering: a cold and ruthless warrior who uses the the French and Indian War as a means to further his personal revenge against the English general who destroyed his life. You can’t call Magua a nice guy, not when he calmly cuts out the heart of the general while the man is still alive, telling him his daughters are next on the list . . . but Magua always wrings a certains sympathy from me. His finest hour: when he is wordlessly stared down by a quiet English girl and decides–arbitrarily, whimsically–to let her live.
If this guy says he will eat your heart, he ain’t being metaphorical.
4. Miss Minchin, A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
She may not cut anybody’s heart out with a tomahawk, but this girls’ academy headmistress from a 19th century children’s book is one of the most evil bitches in literature. From the start, Miss Minchin resents little Sara, her newest and richest pupil whose quiet manners and adult intelligence make the headmistress feel like the greedy pretentious cow she is. When Sara is orphaned and left a pauper, Miss Minchin loses no time turning her former prize pupil into a scullery maid and making her life one long living hell of hunger, cold, and abuse. Her finest hour: when she spitefully makes a point of interrupting Sara’s birthday party to tell her about her father’s death, and bundles her straight on down to the kitchen to start scrubbing floors. Every time I read it, I long for a time machine and a machete.
The uncomfortable moment when a manipulative adult realizes that an intelligent child sees them for exactly what they are. Adults rarely forgive children for this.
5. Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott)
The classic anti-hero of literature. He’s introduced as the villain of this medieval set-piece, a dark and brutal Templar knight who hounds the heroic Ivanhoe, but he’s much more interesting with his forthright passions and his tangle of inner wounds than the hero, who doesn’t much evolve beyond loyal and blond. Ivanhoe spends most of the book lounging around on a stretcher recovering from a wound, while Bois-Guilbert stamps around swearing, scheming, sword-fighting, and swash-buckling. His finest hour: when he is trying his damndest to win the love of the proud and lovely Rebecca, not caring one whit for the fact that she is a Jew and by the standards of his day lower than pond scum. I always wish Rebecca had just gone for it, instead of pining for boring old Ivanhoe.
Ciaran Hinds as Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert in the 1998 mini-series Ivanhoe. Oh my, he makes my heart pound every time.
6. Courtney Massengale, Once An Eagle (Anton Myrer)
Oooh, he’s a nasty piece of work: an unnaturally charming psychopath who does his best to prolong the bloodshed of World War I, World War II, and Vietnam so that he has enough wars to vault himself up the chain of command in the US Army. He is the lifelong enemy of the book’s hero, a quietly heroic farm boy named Sam who fights through the century’s wars for all the right reasons and sees Massengale for the calculating snake he really is. His finest hour: Massengale has so many, it’s hard to pick. When he comes within a whisper of persuading McArthur to invade China, just to see what happens? When he deliberately witholds reinforcements from Sam’s men in the Pacific, ensuring the massacre of the entire division? Let’s go with the moment when Massengale, as an object lesson to his rebellious wife, tells her with quiet pleasure about the pet squirrel he starved to death as a boy because it nipped him.
Cliff Potts in the 70s miniseries of “Once An Eagle”: a young Massengale busy smarming his way up the military ladder.
7. Dolores Umbridge, Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling)
I know, I know–Voldemort is the real villain of the Potter series. Very true. But somehow I found this sugary little psychotic much scarier. There are plenty of villains who swish around in black cloaks planning to conquer the world. Villains in pastel twin-sets with kitten posters on their walls who talk sweetly about the necessity of torturing children for the greater good are much rarer and more frightening. Her finest hour: Forcing mouthy children to write I will not tell lies as punishment–in their own blood, leaving permanent scars on their hands. Anyone else think Umbridge never really got a good enough come-uppance by the end of the series?
I swear I had a few teachers in middle school like this.
8. Sheriff of Nottingham, the Robin Hood tales
Technically Robin Hood has evil King John to contend with in his fight for freedom, poor people, and the absent King Richard. But King John had enough on his plate without obsessing all the time about the misdoings of one outlaw archer, and all those medieval balladeers were smart enough to give Robin Hood a villain-on-the-scene: the Sheriff of Nottingham, heartless tax-collector and arch-nemesis who generally gets hoodwinked in the end of every story. His finest moment: he masterminds an archery contest just to capture Robin Hood, and Robin manages to win the contest and get away clean.
Alan Rickman chewed up Kevin Costner’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” as the Sheriff of Nottingham – the best thing in it.
9. Obadiah Hakeswill, the Richard Sharpe novels (Bernard Cornwell)
A splendidly quirky villain to match up against Cornwell’s splendidly swash-buckling hero Richard Sharpe. Hakeswill is a frankly insane British army sergeant who manages to survive Sharpe’s enmity for several books, which is more than most villains can do. Hakeswill twitches, schemes, steals, murders, and has decidedly creepy habits of quoting inaccurate Scripture and talking tenderly into his hat where he stashes a picture of what might be his mother. His finest hour: his conviction that he can never die, born out by his adventures in India with a young Sharpe where Hakeswill is variously thrown into a tiger cage, a snake-pit, and three major battles without suffering a scratch.
Talk about chewing the scenery: Pete Postlethwaite as Hakeswill, twitchy and deeply scary in the Richard Sharpe mini-series.
10. Livia, I, Claudius (Robert Graves)
One of the great villainesses of all time–this Roman Empress could eat Milady de Winter alive and pick her teeth with the bones. She never personally lifts a single manicured finger in violence, but she slanders, disposes of, or outright assassinates an entire string of relatives in order to make her son the next Emperor of Rome. Her finest hour: getting rid of the current heir by recruiting a niece to stage a rape, masterminding an exile, then taking care of loose ends with an assassin. You can’t say the woman wasn’t thorough.
She may have been a multiple murderess, but she had style.
So these are my top ten villains. Honorable mentions go to the slithery Saruman from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei from George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, the spiteful geisha Hatsumomo from Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, the coldly methodical Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Big Jim Rennie from Stephen King’s Under The Dome – a small-town official who doesn’t swear by gosh because it’s against Jesus, but commits murder without a qualm. All of them, in their various ways, kept me turning the pages breathless to see what they’d do next.
Let’s admit it: sometimes it’s fun to root for the bad guy.