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This started as a list of the most attractive on-screen heroes (according to me), not just literary heroes on screen. But when I realized the all of the men I selected were also literary heroes first, I just had to alter the theme a bit and explore why.
In thinking through each character, I realized that there are some similar qualities across them – loyal, protective, not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, not afraid to buck societies rules (eventually). In thinking through each performance – I realized that I liked very specific things – a look, the journey, the subtly of the performance, the actor truly becoming the character.
But, even more important, ALL those qualities are elements I’ll have to make sure I try to weave into my own heroes moving forward as a writer. So, without further ado, here they are…
5. Hawkeye – Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans
Adapted from the book by James Fenimore Cooper (loosely). I’ll be honest – I never was able to get through the book. So my selection of this character has more to do with the movie. Hawkeye is smart, capable, a man’s man, irreverent, and follows his own path. The pent-up passion between him and Cora is a work of art. And his transformation from a man reluctantly helping this woman and her friends to risking everything to save the same woman who he now loves is wonderful to watch. Daniel Day-Lewis is, of course, a phenomenal actor. Nuf’ said.
4. Rhett Butler – Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind
Adapted from the book by Margaret Mitchell. The quintessential anti-hero, Rhett Butler is, at first glance, just as ruthless and selfish as Scarlet O’Hara. But what makes him a great hero is that he does truly love his wife and hopes for her love in return, or he wouldn’t be so devastated by thinking she’d go to Ashley when Melanie died. But even more compelling is the love he shows for his daughter – amazing to see this cynical man so humbled by his child. And Clark Gable’s on screen performance is incredible – strong, funny, smart, and likable. You root for Scarlet to see the light.
3. Atticus Finch – Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird
Adapted from the book by Harper Lee. This is one of the more understated performances of all time and that’s what made it great. Atticus Finch is, at first glance, a simple character – a widower trying to raise his two children. But his willingness to risk society’s disdain and even attack to stand up for what is right is admirable. Doing this while being a solid father shows men everywhere what a real man looks like. In any “top heroes” list, Atticus Finch is inevitably near if not the top. Even the author said, “In that film, the man and the part met.”
2. Ben Quick- Paul Newman in The Long, Hot Summer
So technically this isn’t just one role. The movie draws from a few Faulkner stories as well as Tennessee Williams. But this is one of the sexiest performances I’ve ever seen. Though perhaps I was just getting caught up in Newman’s baby blues. The role of Ben Quick is another one of those anti-heroes. This man carries the weight of his father’s negative legacy with him everywhere. But he’s smart and turns those smarts toward bettering his position in life. He manages to fall in love at the same time, and I think is as surprised by that as anyone. His pursuit of Clara is spine-tingling. Very subtle by today’s standards, and that’s what makes it so incredible.
1. Mr. Darcy – Collin Firth in Pride and Prejudice
Adapted from the book by Jane Austen. Technically a mini-series rather than a movie. Mr. Darcy is already my all time favorite literary hero. He starts out as very reserved but ends the book as a man of passion. What makes this performance extra special is that Colin Firth can deliver a look like no other actor. It’s impossible to describe – a subtle combination of admiration and watching and longing and reserve and fascination. It gives me goosebumps every time. That combined with the character make for a great cinematic hero.
Here’s what I find very interesting… I had to go fairly old school to find my top 5 for this list. The most recent is Pride and Prejudice (1995) and it’s almost 20 years old.
Now, I will admit that I’m a classic movie junkie. But I have to wonder if the performances of late fall short of my expectations for that hero (Edward Cullen)? Or perhaps the heroes aren’t quite as hero-worthy? Though I feel that’s less true. And there are some great heroes out there who are more recent like Daniel Craig’s portrayal of James Bond, or Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Arragorn from Lord of the Rings .
However, I don’t seem to be the only one in this boat. Take a look at AFI’s list of the top 100 heroes and villains of all time (not literary – just movies). The majority of all those movies are pre-1990s even.
Either way, those are my top 5 – take ’em or leave ’em!