Everybody’s weighing in on Maleficent. Any time you have a magical story, especially one involving dark but misunderstood protagonists, the pagan community climbs on board. Add to that some very palpable metaphors about humans, greed, and our relationship with the Earth, and Maleficent has proven to be very popular in the community.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers
Wild Hunt columnist Heather Greene has done a wonderful job of both discussing these themes from the film and also reviewing it. One of my favorite parts of her piece is her discussion of the film’s “fallen angel’” theme. The framing of Maleficent the classic Disney villain as Luciferian figure who falls from grace, but ultimately succeeds in bringing balance and light to humanity, re-unifying the human race with paradise, was the heartbeat of this film and, for me, provided the energy that powered a large part of Maleficent’s story.
I’m not going to review Maleficent here. Suffice it to say that I agree with Heather Greene and also wish that King Stephan’s story had been more fully realized. We understand that he is dishonest at the very beginning when he is caught stealing jewels from the Moors; we also learn early on that he is ambitious. These two qualities are a dangerous, MacBeth-esque pair that produced a very bad king. I only wish that we had a little more of a glimpse into how he ascended so far up the ladder.
Still, the movie isn’t called Stephan. Maleficent is the main character and Maleficent drives the story. Thankfully, Angelina Jolie captures Disney’s dark fairy beautifully.
More importantly, I’ve become fascinated with a new trend in movies, stage, and television: the deconstruction, reconstruction, and retelling of classic stories from the villain’s point of view. Maleficent seems to have cemented this theme into our pop culture consciousness.
The beginnings of this “Reframing” theme, as I’m calling it, goes back at least as far as Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. In that musical, the stories from classic fairy tales intertwine with each other, and the Witch drives the action. She isn’t the enemy to defeat; she’s more of a redeemed trickster who eventually gives up on humanity’s foolish ways.
The Wizard of Oz has been reframed more than once. The most popular version, and perhaps was the first to truly re-cast the villain as the hero, is the book and musical Wicked. The musical especially capitalizes of re-framing evil as good. It begins with the Munchkins asking Glinda how someone can become as evil as Elphaba (later the Wicked Witch of the West). Glinda, Elphaba’s high school bestie, blanches and tries to tell her story.
“Are people born wicked? Or do they have wickedness thrust upon them? After all, she had a father. She had a mother, as so many of us do…”
Glinda goes on to reveal how Elphaba was ostracized for her green skin, had parents who hated her, and was forced to serve her wheelchair-bound sister. She was smart and had knowledge of current events. She could see outside the Wizard’s hegemony. When she saw the Wizard doing evil things, she rebelled and became the victim of a vicious PR campaign to reframe her as “wicked.”
Speaking of the Wizard, Oz the Great and Powerful also re-casts a morally difficult character. Sure, the Wizard is still a fraud and huckster from Kansas in this one, but at least he uses his skills to save Oz (and to create his enmity with the Witch of the West).
Arguably the most accomplished feats of re-framing, and certainly the most complex, are in TV’s Once Upon a Time. The labyrinthine twists and turns taken within the elaborate plot of this story is a whole other post (or three). Almost every character has a life in the Enchanted Forest (fairy tale land) and our world. That means that every actor is playing at least two characters. With time distortions, alternate worlds, and flashbacks, every character is different depending on where, who, and when he/she is.
This is particularly true for the two “evil” characters. Rumpelstiltskin (Mr. Gold) is reframed as a coward, turned jilted husband, turned evil magician, turned regretful father, turned abandoned son, turned pawn shop owner, turned lover, turned hero, turned lunatic, turned slave, turned nice guy (but not really). You can never really trust him, but you begin to understand and sympathize with his motivations.
The Evil Queen (Regina) is almost as complex, but she is in the more classic style of this genre: she didn’t begin wicked. It was thrust upon her by the naive Snow White (Mary Margaret) and her ambitious mother, Cora. As we see her history, we see her grow from starry-eyed to vicious and back again.
Once Upon a Time even succeeds at recasting Peter Pan as a really nasty villain while turning Captain Hook into a redeemed hero and lover.
Why spend so much time talking about these different stories? Something about reframing bad guys clearly appeals to us. I like to think it’s a sign of a maturing society, one which is learning to see good terms beyond black and white. These characters not only contain lots of grey, they embody a whole spectrum of color. Each of their actions needs to be evaluated on a much more finely calibrated scale than simply black hat/white hat.
A common argument against stories that reframe like this is that it isn’t the “real” story. Maleficent did not turn her raven into a dragon- she became the dragon; J.M. Barrie never wrote anything that suggested that Peter Pan held Wendy Darling captive in Neverland. While this is true, it misses the point.
Reframing stories, especially classic fairy tales, is almost a postmodern exercise that allows us to deconstruct a tale and rebuild it to suit a different purpose. It allows us to see that “the villain is always the hero of his/her own story” and encourages us to see things from different points of view. In social psychology, out-groups are always believed to be both A) all alike and B) bad because they’re not like us. The remedy to this is to spend time with the other group and learn to see things through their eyes. Reframing stories, in their ever-increasing popularity, give us more opportunities to do exactly that. They help us see past the black white and grey and into the reds and greens and purples of someone else’s life. This is a vital skill in our modern, internet-connected era.
Maleficent is a very successful exercise in reframing. It brings us into the world of a character that always seemed so dark and foreboding and rewires her into a powerful, essentially good woman who made a couple really bad decisions. We’ve all made bad decisions. It also flips the script on the king and queen, changing them from a picture of radiant goodness in to greedy, manipulative, just plain awful people. In both cases, it is when each accepts the intricacies of the other that there can truly be peace.