Top 10 Dislikable Protagonists in Film

Top 10 Films puts on a glum face to take a look at the great “Dislikables” as we check out protagonists who have few – if any – redeeming features.

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If you’re stuck with a protagonist for a 90 minute-long journey, it tends to makes the experience a lot more enjoyable if you actually like them, or if they’re at least relatable in some way.

It’s one of the first rules of scriptwriting taught in film schools, and even to an audience member who isn’t aware of such basic principles the likability of a main character usually has a massive (and often subconscious) impact on the film’s overall enjoyability… or lack thereof. That’s not to say there aren’t any great films with intensely unfavorable lead, but it’s a very bold move on the part of the writer to include one.

For better or worse, here are ten films, which feature protagonists with few (if any) redeemable features.

For the most part we’ll leave you to decide and discuss in the comments as to whether the movies they appear in are worthy of merit…

Garfield (2004 + 2006)

While the original Jim Davis strips raised the odd smile every now and then (at best), it wasn’t because the titular Garfield was an incredibly likeable cat that you would want to have in the house; he’s lazy, smug, destructive, steals food, torments the dog and antagonizes his owner in general. A cat, then.

Translated into film, and any ambiguity flies right out of the window: Garfield is a horrible character, and if he existed in real life there would be very few people who wouldn’t want to turn him into a rug within a week of ownership.

Sideways (2004)

Make no mistake about it: Miles Raymond and Jack Cole are douchebags. If we’re being honest with ourselves, even their names are a bit douchey.

But they’re dislikable in entirely different ways. Cole is a cheating, borderline-misogynistic jock who uses everyone around him for his own ends. Miles Raymond is a whiney, failed hack writer who is embarrassingly hung up on his ex and seeks solace in wine.

The pair don’t even change much over the course of the film, making their dislikability irredeemable. Surprisingly, in the face of all that it’s one of the most compelling films of the early 2000s and picked up numerous awards for its overall charm.

Sex and the City (2008 + 2010)

Carrie Bradshaw is a fairly innocuous character and difficult to hate, but she has some very dislikable traits nonetheless. She’s self-absorbed, vain, defines herself through her relationships and constantly seeks approval from others around her. That’s just to name a few.

Some critics point to Bradshaw’s relatable nature and status as an ‘every woman’ as the reason for the character’s popularity, but how many women can afford a downtown Manhattan apartment, $400+ shoes and the amount of cocktails Bradshaw drinks on her single income as an on-off columnist? It’s very difficult to relate to her life, but it’s exceptionally easy to dream of having it.

The TV series and film drew an equal amount of praise and derision for its empowerment of women, but regardless of which side of the fence you’re on it still jars that the main characters claim total independence from men… despite most of their conversations and actions revolving around them.

Oddly however, the sequel passed the Bechdel Test.

Fancy that.

Harry Potter (2010 onwards)

This is an great example of a character who takes a turn for the worse. While Harry Potter himself is a great hero, don’t forget that there is a long period just before his final victory that he turns arrogant, paranoid and even outright violent.

It all comes good in the end, of course, and the darkness gives the grown Potter a sense of character depth (much in the same way that Frodo Baggins turns a bit nasty leading up to the destruction of the wrong ring). But whichever way you butter it, Harry acts like a bit of a jerk at certain points in the last two movies.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

While a lot of sympathy can be afforded to each of the four leading characters in the disturbing Requiem for a Dream, none of them are people you’d like to hang out with in real life (unless crazed drug fiends are your crowd of choice).

The Twilight Saga (2008 onwards)

Unless you’re a diehard fan of the books, you can pretty much pause the screen at any point during any of the five Twilight movies and you’ll have a still shot of at least one dislikable character.

Ella Swan and Edward Cullen are, individually, easy to hate for more reasons than we could possibly explore here. Put them on screen together and it’s an unsettling chemistry to say the least.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Dr. Lecter is a rare entry on this list because he’s one of the few characters we love, despite the fact that – on paper – we should despise everything about him.

There’s very little to praise about a man who would stab a flautist in the heart with his own instrument just for playing a few notes wrong, or who is happy to peel off a police officer’s face to wear as a mask. But his suaveness, intelligence and curious sense of morality more than redeem for his monstrous psychosis.

Unless we’re talking about his portrayal in Hannibal Rising, of course. That abomination made us want to peel our own faces off.

Funny People (2009)

Adam Sandler isn’t a stranger to unlikable protagonist roles, and Funny People is certainly one of the best examples of Sandler at his worst. The self-absorbed comedian George Simmons does a number of reprehensible things during the course of the movie, building to a point where we’re glad to see another character give him the kicking he deserves, but this moves his story arc to the redemption phase and he ends up a lot less detestable than he starts out.

Star Wars Episodes I-III (1999 Onwards)

We can all pretty much agree that the prequel trilogy is inferior to the original Star Wars movies, and there are many factors which feed into that. One of them is that Episodes I-III featured some leading characters who drew extreme vitriol from Star Wars fans.

Chief among them was Anakin Skywalker. While Anakin’s character itself was cinematographically sound, his scripting and portrayal in the later movies was not. Across the six year span of sequels, disappointed audiences watched him grow from an irritating child to an petulant megalomaniac.

Jumper (2008)

Oh, it’s Hayden Christensen again, this time as quantum-leaping protagonist David Rice…

… and once again, about as charming as half a dead fish.

Written and compiled by Zeke A. Iddon.
Zeke A. Iddon is a professional writer, amateur YouTuber and full-time wearer of hats. By day he’s a lead consultant for his friends across the pond at the New York Film Academy, and by night… he’s usually just a guy eating noodles and playing xBox. He’d like to think he isn’t a dislikable protagonist in real life, but one can never know.

More on Top 10 Films you might like: Top 10 Downbeat Endings | Top 10 Martin Scorsese Films | Top 10 Movie Cops

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  1. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    Interesting list; interesting topic. Other knee jerk considerations:

    (1) Al Pacino in Scarface: The theory behind the classic Hollywood film model tells us that, by the end of a movie, the protagonist should have gone through some kind of rite of passage (or learnt something about themselves), thus coming out as a wiser/somewhat better person by the end. In Scarface this theory is pretty much turned on its head (with a certain amount of audacity, I might add)as Tony Montana is the same mean spirited bastard at the end of the story as he is at the start. No wonder no tears are shed when he is shot to death.

    (2) David Thewlis in Naked: Johnny arguably starts the film as a rapist; by the end he’s nothing more than an over-educated, over bearing, anti-social whinger with no real spirtual centre … nor does redemption seem forseeasble in the future. Basically, he’s just too smart for his own good.

    (3) The four libertines in Salo: One of the most distressing things about the film (and pretty much all of it is distressing) is the fact that this quartet of murderers/pedophiles/perverts/tortures/fascists/heritics get away with the carnage they cause – they don’t get their comeuppance. Salo could well be the definitive cinematic statement on hatred.

    (4) Michael Douglas in Basic Instinct: There’s just nothing likeable about the character, leaving much of the audience hoping that he will eventully get knifed by the psycho bitch.

    (5) Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: She may not be a protagonist in the spirit Zeke’s above treatise, but Nurse Ratchett is so unlikable that she won a reasonably unknown therspian the Oscar for best actress.

    (5) Ed Harris in Walker: He’s a complete power hungry bastard from go to whoa.

    (6) Joe Spinell in Maniac: It still astounds me (especially after seeing a documentary about the man) that he did this film. Not just unlikeable, but completely detestable.

    (7) John Malkovich in Con Air: Cyrus Grissim is one of our worst fears personified – a mean, brutal and clever murderer. Sure, its a bravura performance, but never during the movie do we sit and think: “He may be completely terrifying, but he’s got his good points.”

    (8) Klaus Kinski in Aguirre, The Wrath of God: He’s a difficult man to like after he orchestrates a revolt, puts an idiot in power and then leads the rest of his crew to their deaths on the Amazon.

    (9) Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction: I once knew a feminist who absolutely hated this film because the lead character was betrayed as such a manipulative bitch. Yes, it’s a darkly funny film, but she’s probably someone you would want to avoid.

    (10) David Caruso in Jade: To be fair, I don’t think there is one sympathtic character in the whole film.

    (11) David Hess in (the original) Last House on the Left: OK, we are not meant to like him, but he does a pretty good job nonetheless.

  2. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    Some bold choices on this list. I think some might take issue with many of the choices here. I certainly don’t. I love Sideways despite its dislikable protagonists and I also hate Hayden Christensen in just about everything he’s in. I might add William Peterson’s Richard Chance from To Live and Die in LA to this list. That guy is so unlikable that I’m actually relieved when he meets his maker.

  3. Avatar
    Jack Deth Reply

    Interesting choices and defenses, Zeke.

    I still think Brian Cox was, for his brief time on screen a much better Lecter than Anthony Hopkins ever was.

    Never got the hang of ‘Sex and the City’. Sarah Jessica Parker has always stuck me as a nine year old girl playing dress up. And not even pulling that off very well.

    One of my own personal favorite protagonists is Nick Nolte’s often frightening Ray Hicks in Karel Riesz’s ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’ from 1978. Moving confidently in areas best reserved for Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin. Yet staying true to his own narrowly defined code.

  4. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    If we’re going down this road, I’m saying Adam Sandler in almost every film he’s ever been in.

    Except Punch Drunk Love – he was great in that.

    Everything else? Blegh!!!

  5. Avatar
    Pete Turner (@ilovethatfilm) Reply

    Dislikable protagonists? Borat. It’s a love/hate thing.

  6. Avatar
    Lights Camera Reaction Reply

    Requiem for a Dream is a perfect example, even though I love that film.
    Most recently, The Bling Ring is another example.

  7. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    Funny list, there are two I would include – Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa and Matt Dillon in There’s Something About Mary.

  8. Avatar
    Alex Withrow Reply

    Interesting mix of films. Sex and the City 2 contains the most unlikeable movie characters I have ever seen, so those movies definitely work here.

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