“Why So Dark?” A Christian Perspective on Dark Storytelling
In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Joker famously muses, “Why so serious?” When considering the current slate of fantastical storytelling in many popular films and books today, we might similarly ask, “Why so dark?”
The fantasy genre has always contained dark themes and violence. Those who dismiss fantasy as mere escapist fairytales for kids have likely never read or watched much classic fantasy. Still, the genre is arguably at its best when darkness is not an end unto itself, but a backdrop for heroism and optimism to break through. In recent decades, these latter elements have seemingly been snuffed out by a growing fixation on gloom and darkness.
For example, despite all being influenced to some degree by The Lord of the Rings, the most popular fantasy television shows in recent memory—Game of Thrones, The Witcher, The Wheel of Time, American Gods, etc.—are largely anti-Tolkien in their approach. Whereas the fantasy genre traditionally offered an escape from the grim and painful realities of life, now people must scamper back to reality to escape from these grim, violent, and hellish dystopian fantasy worlds.
Why is there such a fixation on darkness in so many of today’s imaginative storytelling? Why have hopeful and optimistic tones or narratives become out of fashion or reserved for children?
Too Grown Up for Optimism
Perhaps part of the reason for the trend forward darker storytelling is what we might call the The Empire Strikes Back hypothesis. Almost universally acknowledged as the “best” Star Wars film, Empire is also known as being the “dark” one (which is somewhat of a misnomer, as it is certainly thematically dark, but by no means tonally dark). Now, almost without exception, the two promises given to fans about upcoming sequels are that they will be “bigger” and “darker.” In this way, “darker” has become shorthand for “more mature.” The implication is that dark and angsty themes are truer to real life, whereas bright and hopeful stories are comforting lies for sheltered and innocent children.
There is a certain degree of irony with mindset. “Dark and gritty films are better because they more accurately reflect real life,” declares the moviegoer in the air-conditioned comfort of their home, watching a pristine 4K television, and surrounded by more luxury and conveniences than the kings of the ancient world. To intentionally and repeatedly indulge in dark and despairing stories is perhaps a luxury for a culture that often knows little of true misery or discomfort.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with darker films. Many of the greatest films ever made have been dark and tragic. In fact, “tragedy” is arguably the oldest narrative genre. Storytelling should probe the darker nuances of the human experience. There is much pain and hurt in this life, and nobody makes it to the end of the journey without scars. Dark stories are powerful and necessary. They reflect a true and important part of what it means to be human—but only a part. To accurately portray the full picture of what it means to be human requires a healthy balance of both darkness and light; a balance perfectly encapsulated by the Christian Gospel.
The Gospel: Darkness & Light
The Gospel is the greatest story ever told. No story has ever captured the fullness of life as accurately as the Bible. Scripture holds nothing back in its raw exploration of the reality of both light and darkness. The Bible is a book where the sensual love poetry of Song of Songs can exist alongside the dark, angsty psalms of David. The Gospel story showcases the peak of human failure and despair while also laying the foundation for the unfathomable promise and hope of human redemption. The necessary co-existence of light and darkness in the Gospel is evident in the stark contrast between the Cross and the Resurrection. The Gospel is incomplete and false without both events.
In the same way, modern storytelling presents a false, or at least incomplete, understanding of human life without exploring the reality of both light and dark. To indulge in unrelenting despair and darkness is like the Cross without the Resurrection. It tells the truth about pain and suffering but lies about the equally true reality of eternal life and hope beyond that pain. On the other hand, to be immersed only in bright and cheerful narratives—as much Christian storytelling unfortunately tends to do—is the Resurrection without the Cross. It offers feel-good sentiment and hope without telling the full truth about how much that joy truly cost.
That is not to suggest that every story must also always emphasize both elements. Not every story needs a redemptive arc. There are moments where it is appropriate to dwell on the darkness of this world and to lament. Dark stories remind us that there is real evil in this life, beyond the protective walls of our comfortable lives.
But Christians are ultimately called to live in the light (1 John 1). Fantasy stories can also be embraced in their full escapist glory; not an escape from reality, but an escape to a reality that seems far removed from present difficult circumstances. There is value in dark stories, but there is also power in hopeful stories that shine light into the darkness of the world. There is no shame in mature adults enjoying a “happily ever after” story. Indeed, as the Gospel beautifully reveals, perhaps no narrative motif comes as close to reality as that.