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Just how much do a 2012 comic book film and an 1859 British novel have in common? I’m about to answer that question!
“When Jonah showed me his first draft of his screenplay, it was 400 pages long or something. It had all this crazy stuff in it. As part of a primer when he handed it to me, he said, ‘You’ve got to think of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ which, of course, you’ve read.’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I read the script and was a little baffled by a few things and realized that I’d never read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. It was just one of those things that I thought I had done. Then I got it, read it and absolutely loved it and got completely what he was talking about… When I did my draft on the script, it was all about ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.”
A year ago, The Dark Knight Rises was released in theaters. However, it contains some literary roots that go much deeper.
At the end of The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), most people probably recognized the excerpt from the closing lines from A Tale of Two Cities (ATTC) by Charles Dickens :
“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
On the surface, I thought it was pretty cool that the Nolan brothers incorporated lines from one of my favorite books. However, after I read Nolan’s quote about the inspiration for the film, I began to think about just how much of the film really does tie into the classic novel. In this two-part series of posts, I’m going to explore the parallels between the two works.
These posts will contain major spoilers for both The Dark Knight Rises and A Tale of Two Cities.
Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are two very different men who look nearly identical. A noble man troubled by his aristocratic family’s abuse of the peasantry, Charles leaves France to become a teacher in England. Sydney is a lawyer and a dissolute drunkard who claims he doesn’t care for anything in life. Both men are in love with the beautiful Lucie Manette, but it is Charles who marries her.
When he receives word that his faithful steward has been arrested and his estate has been burned by the surrounding peasantry, Charles returns to free his man. However, he is arrested himself for being an aristocrat who fled the country. Although Charles is nothing like the other abusive, decadent members of his class, the revolution demands atonement for the sins of his peers and ancestors.
At the last moment, Charles is saved from the guillotine when Sydney uses their nearly-identical appearance to switch places with him in prison. Charles is free to return to England with his family, while Sydney, who has found meaning for his life at last, dies in his place in Paris.
Like Charles and Sydney, Bruce Wayne and Batman are two halves of a whole. Bruce is part of the wealthy Gotham aristocracy, playing the role of a shallow, uncaring billionaire that Selina Kyle and others automatically group with the cruel, careless elite. Batman is a noble figure and Bruce’s outlet for fighting injustice.
Like A Tale of Two Cities, there is a theme of imminent sacrifice throughout The Dark Knight Rises. Alfred pleads with Bruce not to throw his life away by becoming Batman again. Miranda Tate and Selina Kyle both offer Bruce the chance to leave the city and start a new life elsewhere. “You don’t owe these people anymore,” Selina tells him. “You’ve given them everything.” Bruce replies, “Not everything…not yet.”
Feeling responsible for Gotham’s fate, Bruce returns home in the last act of the film just as Charles returns to France to sort out the affairs of his neglected estate. To other fans and me, there was a creeping inevitability that Bruce was going to make the ultimate sacrifice for his city. But we were wrong – it was Batman, not Bruce, who had to die. Sydney and Batman are both part of the sacrifice that is demanded before the world can see “a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.” The deaths of Sydney and Batman also allow Charles and Bruce to escape and live out normal lives elsewhere. (And perhaps like Charles, Bruce will eventually start a family.)
During his 18-year imprisonment in the Bastille, Dr. Manette writes an account of the circumstances that led to his unjust arrest. An aristocrat brought him to a house where a young woman lay dying, but Dr. Manette was unable to save her. He discovered that she had been raped by an aristocrat, Evrémonde, who then mortally wounded the girl’s brother when he tried to seek revenge. Dr. Manette’s attempt to report the crimes only resulted in his incarceration so he would not reveal the dark deeds.
The forgotten letter surfaces years later at Charles Darnay’s trial, as Charles is the son of the cruel Evrémonde and thus held accountable for his family’s actions. Dr. Manette is horrified that his written account causes his own son-in-law to be sentenced to death.
In The Dark Knight Rises, Jim Gordon writes a speech to reveal that Harvey Dent, driven nearly insane by tragedy, died a murderer instead of a hero. He had agreed to let Batman take the fall for the deaths in order to use Harvey’s image as a beacon of hope for Gotham and as a catalyst for an act that would keep criminals behind bars. However, he decides the time is not right to reveal the truth and tucks the written speech back in his pocket.
After Bane takes control of the city, Gordon plans to get behind a camera to rally the people of Gotham. However, Bane beats him to the punch and reads Gordon’s speech in front of Blackgate Prison, revealing that the trusted police commissioner had lied to the public. He uses the truth to justify releasing the prisoners locked up under the Harvey Dent Act.
Yet another letter in Gotham never reached its intended destination when Alfred decided to burn Rachel’s farewell letter to spare Bruce more pain. To get Bruce’s attention, Alfred finally reveals the truth to him 8 years later, and is horrified to realize that the lost hope of a life with Rachel had actually been keeping Bruce from moving on after her death.
The Dark Knight seemingly ended with the message that sometimes the ugly truth has to be hidden for the greater good. However, in The Dark Knight Rises, we realize that covering up the real story ultimately only made things worse for Gotham and Bruce respectively. It seems that the people’s faith in Jim Gordon is shaken, as is Bruce’s trust in Alfred. Subverted for too long and brought to light at the wrong time, the revelations in Dr. Manette’s account similarly only makes things worse for our hero, Charles Darnay.
Check out Part 2, where we will discuss revenge, revolution, resurrection, and more.