I recently watched the movie Se7en. It was… well, a decent movie, but I have a serious problem with it.

The basic premise of the movie is that there is a serial killer trying to send a message of repentance. He killed one man for gluttony, another for greed, another for sloth, another for lust, etc. The seven deadly sins. And so in an attempt to learn more about his psychology, the cops themselves read Dante’s Divine Comedy, some Aquinas, some medieval morality plays, and so on. They even eventually catch him by scanning the public library records and seeing who had checked out all those books and books on serial killers. Makes sense, right?

Well… no. The thing is, the concept of the seven deadly sins is damned simple – there’s seven of them, namely lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, wrath, envy, pride, in ascending order of seriousness. You don’t need any research to learn that. What the killer would have found from those books was what exactly those sins mean. But there seems to be no evidence that he did – the person he punishes for pride isn’t guilty of pride at all, but rather vanity – a sin most people see as the same as pride, but which according to the seven-deadly-sins system is not at all the same.

The one thing he did seem to get from them was the concept of contrapasso – punishing them with their own sins. But even this he didn’t really follow very well. The punishments of the gluttonous, lustful, and wrathful made sense, kind of – the glutton is forced to eat until his stomach burst, the prostitute was raped until dead, the wrathful main character was made angry enough to kill someone and then get punished for it. I didn’t really understand the punishment of the greedy lawyer, so I won’t comment on that. The supposedly slothful drug dealer was tied in his bed and allowed to atrophy – I don’t see how it punishes sloth to force someone to be slothful. There’s no evidence he was slothful before that was done to him. The envious had no contrapasso whatsoever – he just got himself shot. And the vain model who supposedly was prideful was forced to choose between disfigurement and death, and chose death – a sin, sure, but that’s not what pride is, I don’t think. She didn’t die in an act of pride, she died in an act of envy, I would say…

Anyway, the point is, there’s no reason the killer would have had to read all those books to get the idea of killing one person for each of the seven deadly sins. He didn’t seem particularly erudite to me.

So why was that element inserted into the plot? My suspicion is that it is because many people don’t even know that much about the seven deadly sins in the first place. To them, what he was doing did seem to require a great deal of education. At UD, we read Dante, we read Milton, we read Aquinas, and we were kind of laughing at the movie and how the murderer didn’t really seem to be using the source material at all. (We also tried to draw connections between the actual punishments of sinners in the movie and Dante, but alas, there were none to be found. If there were, it would have made the movie much more interesting, in my opinion.) But most people don’t, and so it probably would have seemed mysterious and intellectual.

I suppose this is more of a problem with our culture in general than the movie itself – we no longer can write a book or movie and expect the audience coming in to have already read Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and many others. That’s probably an unfortunate side-effect of books and movies no longer being written for the upper classes, for people who could afford to get an actual education and had the time to read those things, but rather geared towards a general audience…


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