This week, Disney released the first trailer for the summer 2014 movie, Maleficent. The movie tells the story about how Maleficent became evil (and apparently it didn’t have to do with her mother naming her Maleficent because that would just be ironic). If you haven’t seen the trailer yet and don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the video below.
Origin stories like this have become very popular in the past few years. Wicked and Gregory Maguire is probably a likely start to this trend. Wicked tells the story of the Wicked Witch of the West. This story plunges the reader (or viewer) into the story of Dorothy and Oz but from a completely new perspective. Elphaba (as she is called) is not evil. Instead, it is a series of circumstances that lead to her evil reputation. Many stories in film, television and literature have followed suit and all mediums are rife with examples of universes being rewritten and explanations given for who became what and why.
I find these sorts of stories intriguing, particularly with commonly told stories because it allows a different or new perspective to come forward. But some people aren’t as sold on these stories like I am. One of the commenters on the message board beneath the trailer (on another link) complained about these retellings and asked why the bad guys can’t just stay evil. Why indeed.
Villains are characters that have always piqued the interest of readers in part because they aren’t afraid of repercussions and they cannot perceive of their own failure. Morality tales don’t play a prevalent role in our lives in modern society, but fairy tales still remain relevant and popular among readers because they connect the adult back to his or her childhood. We desire to share our childhood experiences with our children. But, because we have grown up, our tastes and our understanding of the universe have changed.
At a first glance, focusing on the villains may seem like a way to make fairy tales relevant to adult audiences in a different way, particularly since children seem to identify most frequently with the good guys. But this isn’t exactly the case. As adults, or even as we begin to grow up and realize that the world is not as black and white as we understood it to be in our wide-eyed innocence phase, the complex villain intrigues us. Throughout life, we learn that good and evil are not so separate and there may be elements of good in the bad guys and elements of evil in the good guys. We learn that the world isn’t fair and thus our steadfast perception of good and evil begins to waver.
But it isn’t just our personal experiences in the world that tailor our perspective. It is also through the gaining of knowledge. The advent and understanding of psychology was an important step in the fracturing of the concept of the villain because with psychology we learn that there are other factors, invisible to the naked eye, that influence behavior and rationality. The intrigue and popularity of the origin story for the bad guy, therefore, is a significant piece of modern storytelling. It reflects our modern understanding of the universe as a whole. And, the understanding of chemical balances and imbalances and nature versus nurture validate our belief in the complex nature of life and exemplify our desire to have and experience stories that are believable and realistic (to a certain degree).
If you go back to the original story line for Sleeping Beauty, you will see that this is a revenge story. The thirteenth fairy was slighted by the king and queen. Thus, in retaliation, she curses the baby, declaring that when she is fifteen, she will prick her finger on a spindle wheel and die. Disney takes this story and changes it, making the fairy evil through and through and naming her Maleficent. What Disney does, essentially, is take away the origin for the story of Sleeping Beauty. It flattens it and makes it one-dimensional. How many unaltered stories can you think of that do not express the origin of the villain? I can only think of one, maybe two. But the second is borderline.
Iago is probably one of the greatest villains in literature. He is evil purely for the sake being evil. Shakespeare never indicates a motive for him. The second one that comes to mind is Richard the III. In his soliloquy, he declares that “since I cannot prove a lover/I am determined to prove a villain,” (1.1.28, 30). Richard the III is borderline because one could argue that Richard’s declaration that he was not “shaped for sportive tricks” is reason enough for his evil deeds (http://www.monologuearchive.com/s/shakespeare_046.html#HQlDG8K3xH18OCUu.99). Perhaps this isn’t enough to be a motive. But it is an origin story. It tells you where he came from just like the Grimm’s version of Sleeping Beauty tells you the origin of the revenge plot for the thirteenth fairy.
If we continue along the line of Disney villains, we will see another trend that flattens the character of the villain. Most Disney villains are ugly. Think of the evil stepmother from Cinderella and Ursula from The Little Mermaid. This is a very old concept that does not appeal to viewers who are no longer one-dimensional thinkers. In the Victorian era, villains were typically unattractive for their inner ugliness was reflected in their outer visage. But unlike Disney variations and more classic villains, the modern villain is not necessarily ugly. He or she could as easily be beautiful as hideous. It just depends on the route that the storyteller chooses to take. This is significant because it reflects the idea that villainy is now connected to perspective. The bad guy doesn’t think he’s evil.
In a lot of stories, the villain does what he thinks is right. One of my favorite ideas for a villain story comes from a book written and published in the eighties called Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward. It’s a book I’ve written about before on this blog (which even got a comment from the author herself!). Basically, the world is about to end because good has conquered evil. Therefore, to save the world, a group of characters become villains to keep the balance of power in check and keep the world from ending.
Even modern vampire stories have origin stories. Henry Sturges from Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter tells Lincoln his origin story concerning his violent transformation into a vampire and the subsequent murder of his lover by the very vampires who changed him. Throughout the story, it is difficult to tell whether Henry Sturges is a good guy or a bad guy. He walks that thin line between the two.
So, why do we need origin stories and, specifically, why do we need the origin story for Maleficent? Well I suppose that her story is not a necessity for life on earth continue. But the presence of this story shows that Disney is trying to modernize in some ways, particularly because the villain is played by a woman (Angelina Jolie) who is in many circles considered to be exceptionally beautiful in a unique way. But, most importantly, the story of Maleficent is significant in the literary and film worlds because it brings a freshness to a very old and well-known story. It is brought back to life in a way that makes sense for the modern perspective and expectations that the modern, experienced viewer (potentially) deserves and expects.