Splitting Hairs: Dissecting The Villain Origin Story

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.

Photo Credit: Disney®
Photo Credit: Disney®

9 thoughts on “Splitting Hairs: Dissecting The Villain Origin Story

  1. This movie is going to be completely disappointing. They are changing most of the details of the original film. The 3 good fairies are now pixies, and have been completely renamed as ‘Flittle’, ‘Thistlewit’, and ‘Knotgrass’ (‘Flora’, ‘Fauna’, and ‘Merryweather’ are now only going to be on the animated TV series, “Disney’s Sofia The First.”). Maleficent is not in any way a victim, and we are not suppose to sympathize with her , like in the new film, when Prince Phillip slays her in dragon form. She is not “interested in peace”, and did not watch over Aurora her whole life, as Maleficent’s raven (who now has been changed to a shapeshifting human) finds Aurora on her 16th birthday. Maleficent was not betrayed by King Stefan, Aurora’s father, and he is not the illegitimate son of a fairy and a king. In “Sleeping Beauty”, Maleficent declares herself ‘the Mistress of All Evil’, and imprisons Phillip for 100 years so he cannot not break Maleficent’s curse with Love’s FIrst Kiss. The filmmakers removed the words, “and die!”, from the curse, which is completely wrong. The storyline is now changed to a war between fairies and humans, which was not the plot focus of the original film or fairytale. This is both a disservice to fans of the original film (like myself),and new, younger generations who will see the film, ‘Maleficent’ and think that it is the correct version of the story. I do not feel that it is appropriate to change Disney’s Ultimate Villain to some sort of victim, antiheroine, or misunderstood figure. It would have been much more interesting to show Maleficent’s rise to such a formidable, powerful being, with those details and gaps filled in, instead of a complete rewrite, with the idea of feeling sorry for her. P.S. Lady Tremaine (Cinderella’s stepmother) was not drawn as physically ugly, and I’m sure Cate Blanchett’s performance in that new live-action film will be more true to the Disney animated classic.

    1. I suppose that in this post-post-modern age, we may have to come to terms with the fact that original stories get fractured and re-imagined. Sometimes they follow what we envision and sometimes they don’t. But Disney changed the original Grimm’s Fairy Tale when they envisioned their first version of Sleeping Beauty.

      I agree that it would be much more interesting to see Maleficent’s rise to power. And I am also disappointed in this.

      As for Lady Tremaine, I suppose as a child I just always assumed that she was supposed to be ugly too, particularly since her daughters were always referred to as the “ugly step-sisters.”

      Thanks for your comments 🙂

  2. I am so disappointed how far they have deviated from the storyline and the characters. The story now is about a war between fairies and humans. In the original film. King Stefan-Aurora’s father, was not the illegitimate son of a fairy and a king, and did not betray Maleficent. She curses baby Aurora at the christening, to die on her 16th birthday. After Aurora pricks her finger and falls into a deep sleep, Maleficent, in front of the 3 good fairies, declares herself “the Mistress of All Evil”, revealing Aurora’s seemingly lifeless body, and hisses, “here’s your precious princess”, right before capturing Prince Phillip, mocking his heartbreak, and imprisoning him for 100 years so that he cannot break Maleficent’s curse with Love’s First Kiss. Now, the words, “and die!” have been removed from the curse, altering the details of the story. The 3 good fairies have now been downgraded to 3 pixies and have been renamed Thistle, Flittlewit, and Knotgrass (Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are now only on the animated TV series, “Sofia the First”). Aurora’s whereabouts were not discovered until her 16th birthday, by Maleficent’s pet raven Diablo, now a human shapeshifter, Diaval, in the new film, with Aurora stating that Maleficent has been “watching over me my whole life”. Maleficent did not want peace, and Aurora is not “the key to Maleficent’s true happiness”. In the original film she says to Phillip, before changing herself into a dragon, “Now, you shall deal with me, O Prince, and all the Powers of Hell!” With the new film, we are now supposed to feel sorry for Maleficent when Phillip slays her. If Disney wanted to do a true live-action film about Maleficent, audiences would be much better served with a story revolving around Maleficent’s rise to power. Instead, we have been left with a complete rewrite, with only some of the characters’ true names and traits remaining. It is disheartening the Ultimate Disney Villain has been inappropriately transformed into some sort of victim, belying the character’s original sadistic cruelty. I am distressed that younger generations will mistakenly believe this to be the correct version of the story and told to feel the child-killing evil fairy was wrongfully vanquished.

    1. I understand your distress. But, Disney changed the Grimm’s Fairy Tale version of Sleeping Beauty pretty significantly the first time around anyway. And they’ve done that with a lot of the original fairy tales.

      And nowadays, being in the sort of post-post modern realm that we exist in, I think these sorts of alterations and re-imaginings are going to continue being pretty prevalent.

      Maleficent was always my favorite villain too. And that was what initially excited me about the idea of this film. I’m sure I will still see it, just to see what they do. And I agree that a rise to power would make a great film. When I first heard about this movie, that’s what I thought they were going to do. Maybe someone will do something like that eventually.

      Thanks for your comments 🙂

      1. The tricky part of any fairy tale is finding the ‘original’ version. Even the Grimms versions were a collection and amalgam of various folk tales of similar origins. There is a French version of Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perault from the late 1600’s which is particularly harsh to our sleeping princess.
        I think the fun of folk culture, which is what post modernism has become, is the re-imagining of stories in different venues and different cultures. Not sure if I want to see Maleficent as a sympathetic character. I think her diabolical-ness and vanity need to be preserved.

  3. The character of Ursula the Sea Witch from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, was physically ugly but her personality was far from one-dimensional. She tricked the princess, Ariel, and countless other undersea denizens so that she could get King Triton’s kingdom and his powers of controlling the ocean. And Lady Tremaine, Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, was not drawn as physically ugly. Cate Blanchett will be playing her in the live-action version of Disney’s animated classic . Maybe they will do a better job with that movie.

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