Quora posted my answer to the Huffington Post! The nancyhua.com version below has a longer ending than the Huffington/Quora because I feel more free to ramble on my own site (perhaps you’re surprised to discover I show restraint when writing on other sites, or at all. Here’s a way for you to contrast the difference between me writing haphazardly and even more haphazardly). This answer is rife with spoilers of Dickens, Dark Knight, and the meaning of life, so if you don’t want to be initiated into the mysteries of the universe, resist the urge to read on:
I didn’t notice Nolan was using A Tale of Two Cities until the Act 5 (or 7?…) burial scene where Gordon quotes directly from it, “‘Tis a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done,” at which point the incongruous stuff such as the scenes of blue collar people tearing fur coats off trophy wives suddenly had an explanation. Those scenes otherwise make zero sense to me: how are the middle class citizens of Gotham suddenly villains staging executions and mock trials?
Anyway, after realizing Nolan was drawing from Dickens, upon closer examination the parallels are pretty tight, right down to the twist ending of A Tale of Two Cities where Madame Defarge turns out to be the daughter of that murdered family paralleling Nolan’s reveal of that billionaire lady turning out to be the daughter of Ra’s Al Ghul. I guess even though Nolan tries to beat you over the head with it, you can’t be heavy handed enough these days, especially with old stuff like Dickens.
Aside from the big reveal in both works turning out to be that the orphaned girl grows up to be the mastermind killer seeking to avenge her family through mass murder, other parallels include:
1. Secret backstory: Batman, billionaire woman, Catwoman vs. Dickens’ Darnay, the DeFarges, the prisoner doctor dad.
2. Secret societies: Legion of shadows and conspiracy among the commoners such as the cement truck people vs. Dickens’ Jacques peasants conspiracy that began the French revolution.
3. “Recalled to life” and inventing a new name from prison: the child, Bane, and Batman escaping from the prison and Catwoman wanting a new identity vs Dickens’ doctor and Darnay each separately escaping the Bastille.
4. Twin or mirror identities in which one dies for the other: Batman and Wayne faking deaths vs Darnay and that drunk guy switching places in the final scene.
5. Faithful, bachelor servant: Alfred vs. Lorry.
6. Incompetent, oblivious leaders or the leaders being lecherous scumbags: that rich guy Catwoman seduces and uses as her cover or the mayor at his football game vs. the monsigniere.
7. Using the rich’s own weapons against them: using Wayne’s armory against Gotham vs imprisoning the rich in the Bastille.
8. The courtroom mock trial scene.
9. Hero returning to save the commoners who cry out for his help: Batman becomes Batman again and somehow goes from the Asiatic prison to Gotham because he can’t stand the sufferings of his citizens on TV. Similarly, Darnay returns to Paris because his old servant writes him pleading for help against injustice.
10. Misunderstood nobleman hero: Wayne and Darnay, both donate their entire fortunes to the poor before the works even begin (Wayne turns out to have invested everything in his nuclear energy project and Darnay forsakes his entire estate and changes his name, hoping the commoners will appreciate taking over his lands).
11. Baleful, brutish servant who executes mastermind mistress’s bidding: Bane and Madame Defarge’s husband.
Both Nolan and Dickens are firmly in the top 1%. Like Nolan, Dickens was a wildly successful celebrity writer in his times, widely acknowledged as a genius. However, Dickens was born into poverty, so while A Tale of Two Cities is strongly critical of the chaos and popular uprising, he was passionately empathetic with the poor and also condemned their abuse and the decadence of the rich. The donation of Wayne Manor to orphan boys would probably be something Dickens would admire.
The chaos and violence against the rich is something criticized in both Dickens and The Dark Knight Rises- even Catwoman repents and decides that maybe it wasn’t what she wanted after all. A Tale of Two Cities struck me as being about karma and breaking the cycle of evil: Madame Defarge allows vengeance to consume her life so that she’s indifferent between good and evil. As long as you allow this to happen, you’re doomed no matter what your original victimization was because despite coming from a family victimized by the rich, Defarge is clearly the villain in Dickens’ book who ends up pitilessly killing many innocent people. In contrast to Madame Defarge, Darnay tries to break the cycle of careless decadence by forsaking his lands and title. After assuming a new name and occupation, he achieves happiness and love. Darnay’s twin/mirror, the drunk dude whose name I forget, also breaks his cycle of wastrel drunkenness by taking Darnay’s place at the guillotine, finally redeeming himself and gaining a tragic yet noble sort of dignity and heroism.
Like A Tale of Two Cities, The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of ideas about rebirth. The billionaire lady is stuck in the past and loses all likeability- I don’t understand her obsession with her weird quest to redeem her dad to the point that she commits a mass murder-suicide. Alfred is continuously bugging Wayne to finally break out from the past which he ends up successfully doing, which I guess is supposed to be a positive ending. Catwoman is also all about breaking from her past and also finally succeeds, which is supposed to be a victorious note in the movie.
Thematically Nolan and Dickens are both saying that even if stuff sucked a lot in the past (like Mom dying in prison and everyone getting the plague and having to climb out of the pit you were born in with a weird, deformed, masked dude as your only friend), you have to somehow get over it! Life is unfair and it sucks! But there can be heroes (ranging from vigilante billionaires/ French noblemen to petty thieves/ drunken lawyers ) who are self sacrificing enough to try to rescue the community from the injustice they’ve been suffering under for ages. And instead of chaotically turning against said heroes and vilifying them for sticking their necks out, the community should be noble and self sacrificing in turn, the way those policemen finally got out of their homes and senselessly/ admirably rushed into a mob of criminals shooting machine guns… And unlike how Madame Defarge convinced the French Revolutionaries to guillotine Darnay anyway despite first acquitting him- don’t do that.
Even if you got dumped by Maggie Gyllenhaal, or had your family murdered by rich men, or had your family and childhood crush murdered by criminal men, or were forced into a life of crime, or the woman you love will never love you back even though you explicitly told her you LOVED her (she can’t love you bc you’re Batman/ an alcoholic/ not as cool as some blue-eyed, blond politician), or you were wrongfully imprisoned in the Bastille or some horrible pit for 17 years, if you don’t get over it, change, and move on with life, you’ll become a joyless jerk who even the aged family servant finds unbearable and escapes from. Despite initially seeming cool, principled, and focused while you’re menacingly and impassively knitting the names of your enemies into shrouds, eventually everyone will decide you’re actually a relentless psycho that they’re scared to hang out with, chalking up the regrettable night they spent with you to meaningless rainy, dark, mansion sex and living happily ever after with the ex-thief turned do-gooder.
Sure, you killed a lot of people and destroyed a lot of wealth. But after everything your enemies are happy and you end up dead! (Spoiler: Madame Defarge gets shot by a maid. (Other spoiler: Gotham is actually Pittsburgh by the sea! Wow! Go Steelers!)) So even if you have a really good reason and suffered a lot unjustly due to people who don’t deserve the love or money they’re swimming in, don’t turn evil. Instead, be awesome and help others because there are always impoverished orphans who are way worse off. Orphans like Oliver Twist or Josh Gordan-Levitt remind you life is not all about you, and your suffering, and your revengenda. And if you do become really powerful one day, don’t act like those jerks who hurt you. Even though they suck and annoyingly always seem to avoid punishment, just let it go, work on using science or getting rich so you can solve the energy crisis (hopefully in a less obviously WMD way to the extent that Morgan Freeman put a timer on the thing), and enjoy life by falling in love, vacationing in Florence, becoming the celebrity author of David Copperfield whose works inspire blockbusters by celebrity writer-directors like Nolan, etc.
It’s a positive message saying everyone should have some compassion and that any individual can be a hero as long as there’s love. I think the message came out more naturally in A Tale of Two Cities than in The Dark Knight Rises, but it’s there in both.