Whilst most images of evil on television conform to a broad range of identifiers, such as wrongdoing and darkness, the lines between good and bad can easily be distinguished when applied to the context of modern television due to fundamental flaws which can be identified through semiotic analysis. Semiotic analysis is used to understand and interpret signs, the meanings of signs, and the interaction of signs and sign systems.
When looking at older Fantasy feature films such as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the main protagonists are seen as tall and bright, such as Gandalf, which can signify strength and purity whilst the opposition is seen as dark and deformed, such as the orcs, which can signify death and corruption. Another more theoretical construction is depicted through attitude rather than appearance in the case of the hobbits, although they are not physically representative of good-ness, their personalities and actions exude a level of trust, nobility, and support which is a desirable feature of societal norms.
Charles Sanders Pierce (1839 – 1914) identified three possible relationships between signs and the objects to which they refer. Iconic relationships are physical similarities such as the way good beings are closer to humanistic appearance like the elves and dwarves whilst evil beings shift more physically to display non-human characteristics such as the men Sauron brings into battle being warped with piercings and face tattoos, or orcs and goblins which have pointy teeth, fully blackened eyes, and charred skin. Indexical relationships can be shown as a cause and effect way of identification such as war drums signifying the arrival or presence of trolls and goblins which can give us a sense of foreboding as we understand that war drums are representative of violence whilst horns and trumpets represent the arrival of good such as colourfully armoured men on white and light brown horses which portray a hopeful atmosphere. Symbolic relationships are habitual or conventional such as the names of elves and humans like Legolas or Aragorn showcase a more societally complex dynamic whilst orc names like Azog, Bolg, and Gorbag have more guttural identifiers that make us think of nomadic tribes rather than a cultured institution. Lord of the Rings is useful to showcase the extreme ends of morality through signification.
In Harry Potter, connotations form a large part of a watchers interpretation of the movie. In relation to the houses of Hogwarts, Gryffindor is denotational for a mythical creature made up of a lion and eagle, both of these creatures have connotational aspects of strength, beauty, and ferocity; this is mimicked by the pupils personalities as Gryffindor is brave and courageous through their actions. This can also be related to Slytherin, as its name and emblem are denotational of snakes and how they move. Typically, snakes are connotationally regarded as slimy, untrustworthy, and dangerous (Roland Barthes, 1915 – 1980; Paul and Tim Wall, pg 58). A more simplistic example can be founded in Valentin Volosinov’s theory of multi-accentuality which forms the idea that a word is polysemic and so can be difficult to distinguish. This can shift the idea of good and bad into a form of Venn diagram with obvious evil such as deformity and death, obvious good such as light and life and in the neutral overlapping zone you will have ideological concepts such as authority which can be both very good in ensuring law and order but also could mean a rise of the power-hungry and corrupt; this is shown in Harry Potter with the character of Dolores Umbridge who is authoritarian; showcased as a bad character, she desires conformity and respect however she isn’t the actual evil in the movie as she uses her authority to attempt to protect the children which means she exhibits morally neutral intentions (Valentin Volosinov, 1895 – 1936; Paul and Tim Wall, pg 61). Harry Potter represents a more humanised method of good versus evil, however the sides are still obviously abundant as Harry desires peace and Voldemort desires power.
Game of Thrones is a very new form of Fantasy, and here the line between good and evil is blurred. The main distinction is between House Stark who stands for chivalry, honesty, and loyalty and House Lannister who stands for greed, money, and popularity which are identified as being vexatious. Even with this distinction, when you humanise evil acts it can make consumers feel empathetic or understanding towards the wrongdoers. Game of Thrones represents the closest boundary between good and evil as the latter has been completely humanised to be constitutive of relatable actions, although there are some obvious evil doings such as pleasure through torture and revenge, aspects such as betrayal and execution are used as a method of creating a sense of sympathy for evil characters and actions within audiences.
The main protagonists from the start of GoT are identified as the Starks who always commit to performing honest and good acts or at least acts that they believe are for the best. This is in contrast to the Lannisters who work for their own gain, and although many viewers can learn to love some characters, such as Tyrion, it is based on more empathetic reasons, as he chose to become a better person. The underlying message is that the Lannisters are out for their own gain and so are depicted as the worse of the two sides.
In conclusion good and evil can be identified through more obvious characteristics such as physical and emotional extremes but can also be found in relatable slights that are exhibited within our own society such as truth over lies, family over money, or compassion rather than indifference. We can identify these examples through semiotic analysis, even slight dissimilarities between evil and virtuous characters allows us to fully understand the line between good and bad in books, television, and film.