“That happens when you are being hunted by a creature in a mask.”
“You’re a Monster!”
“You have that look in your eye. From the forest, when you called me a monster.”
“You are a monster.”
“Yes, I am.”
Both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi draw heavily on classic film and literature monsters in characterizing Kylo Ren. The character is introduced to us as heavily shrouded in black, his posture and movements vaguely animalistic, and his actions – both while masked and unmasked – heinous. Kylo Ren orders the death of captured civilians, he tortures his captives, he murders his father, and he refuses to halt and then later orders the wholesale slaughter of the Resistance. His monstrousness thus runs deeper than the benign variety typical of the beasts whose distastefulness is merely skin-deep.
Kylo also has much in common with the monsters and villains of horror literature. Like Kylo, two of the most famous “monsters” in literature – Frankenstein’s Monster and the Phantom of the Opera – are portrayed as very sympathetic characters capable of a wide range of very human emotions in spite of their more heinous deeds. The Phantom and Frankenstein’s Monster are shown to experience loneliness. Frankenstein’s Monster is initially portrayed as an innocent, but is then driven to anger, then violence, then murder after but being repeatedly rejected by all who see him drives him to anger, then violence, then murder.
In both the musical and the novel The Phantom retreats to the catacombs of the Opera House both because his deformity makes him unwelcome among the general population and also to hide from those who would seek to punish him for his crimes. The musical portrays him as more sympathetic than the novel. In the musical his first victim is the man that had abused him in the gypsy circus. In the novel he had been a torturer in Persia prior to being forced to flee to France after going too far for the liking of the Persian government.
Kylo Ren is also shown to be a complex character. He’s shown as committing acts of great violence but he’s also portrayed as emotionally vulnerable. A comparison to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could be drawn with Kylo as well. Dr. Jekyll was shown to regret the crimes he committed as Mr. Hyde, and would spend the day following each transformation making restitution. Nevertheless, night after night he continued to drink the chemical cocktail that would turn him into Mr. Hyde. Kylo is shown at times in both The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi to be deeply conflicted and regretful of his crimes. His regret causes hesitation both before he kills his father and when he is contemplating killing his mother. With his father he willfully gave himself over to the Dark Side, like Dr. Jekyll downing his elixir. With his mother he hesitated and someone else took the shot.
Speaking of dysfunctional parental relationships. Frankenstein’s Monster has a very complicated relationship with his creator. The Monster wants nothing more than for Victor Frankenstein to accept him, but also hates him and seeks to cause Victor pain for rejecting him. Kylo mirrors this with his relationship with his family. He seems to feel that they rejected him when they sent him to train with Luke and he resents them for that, especially his father. He actively works to kill them, but shows a great deal of regret at doing so. Somewhere deep inside he still cares for them, especially his mother.
All three “monsters” have the character flaw of being easily provoked to violence and even murder. Frankenstein’s Monster murders Victor Frankenstein’s brother William and wife Elizabeth out of anger at his maker for his life as a lonely outcast. In the musical the Phantom is known to strangle people who get in his way. In the novel the Phantom is considerably darker, tormenting his victims in a torture chamber until they choose to hang themselves rather than endure it any longer. Kylo is shown to be prone to violent tantrums when angered. He’s also shown to have a callous disregard for sentient life when he orders the execution of the villagers on Jakku and orders that no quarter be given to the Resistance on Crait.
Kylo, the Phantom, and Frankenstein’s Monster also each have a certain redeeming quality. The Phantom is an artistic genius: a gifted musician, a composer, and architect. Frankenstein’s Monster is portrayed as having superhuman strength and survival abilities. Kylo Ren is portrayed as being extraordinarily gifted with the Force. The virtues that the characters possess serves to make them more sympathetic. The audience will consider it tragic that the “monster’s” talents are either being used for evil instead of good, in the case of Kylo and Frankenstein’s monster, or that their talents aren’t given the recognition that they deserve, as is the case for The Phantom of the Opera. The violence that the characters commit serves to remind the audience that, while the character may be sympathetic, they are still very much evil.
The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Kylo Ren are also all shown to be manipulative. The Phantom uses Christine’s fear of him and pity for him to get her to do what he wants. In the novel and the musical she fears what he will do if she disobeys him, especially what he will do to Raoul if the Phantom discovers their relationship.
[Side note: In both the musical and the novel Christine has compassion for The Phantom even though she is terrified of him, but the one she is in love with is Raoul, not The Phantom. Rey is shown to feel a degree of compassion for Kylo, but also a great deal of animosity. If Kylo is The Phantom to Rey’s Christine then that would make Finn Raoul. Like Raoul, he watches in helpless horror as the heroine is abducted and does everything in his power to try to save her. Ultimately, though, for both Raoul and Finn, the heroine is the one that saves them. Though unlike The Phantom, Kylo got a lightsaber slash across his cheek instead of a kiss.]
In the musical The Phantom kidnaps Christine after singing a duet with her as part of his opera. In the novel Christine has made plans to escape with Raoul, but her pity for the Phantom prompts her to perform one last time as a way of saying goodbye and it is then that he takes her. Frankenstein’s Monster is shown in most film adaptations as something of an unintelligent brute. In the novel though he is quite eloquent. He pleads with Victor to make a companion for him. He tells Victor that the evil he has done was only due to the pain of loneliness and he will never harm another as long as he isn’t alone. Even though he has already killed Victor’s brother at this point, Victor is moved with pity for him and initially agrees to make a companion for the Monster. He later goes back on that agreement and the Monster retaliates by killing Victor’s wife. Kylo Ren is also shown to be manipulative. During his interactions with Rey in the Last Jedi he repeatedly needles her about her family. He preys on her loneliness and feelings of rejection to try to get her to turn to him.
The Phantom, Frankenstein’s Monster, and Kylo are also shown to have a driving motivation. The Phantom wants to be loved and accepted in spite of his ghastly appearance. This leads to his obsession with Christine as she is the only person to show him kindness and pity. Frankenstein’s Monster wants acceptance, especially from his creator, and absent that he wants his creator to make a companion for him.
But there is something interesting in how both the Phantom and Frankenstein’s Monster go about trying to achieve those goals that suggests a different motivation for Kylo Ren. The Phantom wants Christine to marry him and he uses the threat of violence in an attempt to compel Christine to acquiesce. In the musical he threatens to kill Raoul, the man he knows Christine loves, if she will not agree to marry him instead. In the novel Raoul and the man known as the Persian are trapped in the Phantom’s torture chamber and the Phantom sets it in motion. He has also rigged the Opera House with explosives and threatens to ignite them (which would not only kill himself, Christine, Raoul, and the Persian but also everyone else in the Opera house) if Christine does not agree to marry him. Frankenstein’s monster uses the threat of violence against Victor’s family, and the world in general in an attempt to compel Victor to create a companion for him. Darth Vader does something similar in Return of the Jedi. In an attempt to convince Luke to turn to the Dark Side he threatens to try to turn Leia if Luke refuses. Interestingly, when faced with a similar situation Kylo behaves in a very different way. In the throne room, after the slaughter of the Praetorian Guard, Rey implores Kylo to give the order for the First Order to stop firing on the fleeing Resistance ships. If Kylo’s ultimate goal was to get Rey to join him he had a very powerful tool that he could have employed to try to convince her. He knows she has friends aboard those ships that she is desperate to save. Why not give the order to cease fire and then tell her that he will allow the Resistance to escape if she chooses to join with him? Or tell her that he will give the cease fire order if she chooses to join him. With the lives of her friends at stake she wouldn’t be in a position to refuse. He doesn’t do that though. Instead he tells her that she needs to let them die and preys on her abandonment issues again in an attempt to convince her that she doesn’t matter to anyone in the galaxy except him.
When Vader was trying to convince Luke to join him in the Empire Strikes Back he used a number of different ploys to try to convince Luke. He praises Luke’s potential and offers to finish Luke’s training, he offers to help Luke overthrow the Emperor and end the war, and he tells Luke that he is his father offering Luke a relationship Luke thought he would never have. Vader uses multiple tactics because his ultimate goal is to have a relationship with his son. He doesn’t care what motivates Luke to make the choice to join him. He just cares about the end result.
With Kylo it’s different. When Rey refuses his offer he doesn’t switch tactics. Instead he berates her for still holding on and demands that she let go. For Kylo having Rey actually join him is secondary. What’s most important to him is how and why she chooses to do it. Ultimately Kylo’s deepest desire isn’t compassion or companionship. What he wants above all else is validation. It’s not enough for him that Rey simply chooses to join him. He wants her to make the same choice he did: to turn her back on those she cares about, to allow them to die even, and to give in to the Dark Side. It goes back to Kylo’s regret for his actions. He wants to reassure himself that he made the right choices. He thinks that if he can convince Rey to make the same choice that it will give him the reassurance he so desperately craves.
So where does Kylo’s story go from here? Well Frankenstein and the Phantom of the Opera might give us a bit of a hint. While both don’t necessarily have a redemption, per say, they do both come to repent for all of their evil actions. Victor Frankenstein pursued his creation to the north pole where he became ill and was eventually rescued by a polar exploration ship. The novel itself is the captain of the ship recounting the story that Victor told him. Victor eventually dies from his illness. Shortly after his tragic demise the captain found the monster in his cabin mourning his creator. The monster deeply regretted all that his actions had cost and vowed to hurt no one again. The last the captain saw of the monster was him disappearing out onto the ice. At the climax of The Phantom of the Opera the Phantom threatens to kill Raoul (and in the novel everyone else in the Opera House) if Christine refuses to marry him. Christine kisses him and her compassion changes his heart. He lets Raoul go and like Frankenstein’s Monster vows to do no more harm. In the novel he later commits suicide and Christine returns to bury him. In the musical he escapes to a life of lonely exile.
If the parallels continue, Kylo will also likely have some moment of repentance or redemption before the story is over. Given that the audience for Star Wars skews young it’s highly unlikely that he will willfully commit suicide as did the Phantom of the novel. He may sacrifice himself in one final act of heroism, but that would be a bit too similar to Darth Vader. Giving Kylo a bittersweet ending of life in lonely exile would, however, be a unique and fitting end for his character in this trilogy and would leave the door open for future stories about him.