Arts Commentary: The “Maleficent” Syndrome — Making the Villain the Hero

Perhaps because real life is so painful, so tragic, we cannot bear to see evil in full flight. Evil must be relative, it must fly on wings of rationale, on a broomstick of retribution.

"Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). Photo: Frank Connor

“Maleficent (Angelina Jolie). A portrait of evil transformed. Photo: Frank Connor

By Jason M. Rubin

“I’ve got a story, ain’t got no moral/Let the bad guy win every once in a while.”
– Billy Preston, “Will It Go Round in Circles”

In literature and drama, there have always been likable bad guys, villains with whom we sympathize, such as Fagin in Oliver Twist or Norman Bates in Psycho. Because they are seemingly so desperately helpless and hopeless, we connect with them, sometimes even root for them to avoid the punishment they are due. At the same time, there are heroes we don’t necessarily like, such as Alex from A Clockwork Orange and, perhaps, even Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby. The trio of protagonists in House of Sand and Fog are all fatally flawed, whereas in The Godfather, we like some murderous gangsters and hate others – to put a finer point on it, in The Godfather Part II, doesn’t everyone love it when Al Pacino as the soulless Michael Corleone slaps Diane Keaton’s Sweet Polly Purebread clone Kay across the chops?

Lately, the moral ambiguity surrounding our heroes (and antiheroes) and villains, has reached what might be its zenith. Classic villains of literature and film, enshrined in the valhalla of Evil, are being made over. Not only are they becoming likable — they are seen as more heroic than the heroes who originally vanquished them.

The latest example of this is the just-released Disney movie Maleficent, the title character being the evil scary fairy who put the curse on Princess Aurora in the 1959 animated Disney adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. Yet in the new movie, we see her first as an angelic (literally, for she has wings) little girl, sweet and friendly yet protective of her land and its inhabitants. She becomes the villainess we expect her to be by the time Princess Aurora is born – yet the development of her character does not end there. Suffice it to say we are left with a radically new interpretation of Maleficent, one that pleases the audience (and all fans of titular star Angelina Jolie).

The arc of Maleficent’s makeover will be familiar to those who have seen the Broadway play Wicked or read the novel on which it is based. Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz before you-know-who dropped in. It is a female buddy story featuring two unlikely BFFs: Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Because we see Elphaba as a child – our culture still believes in the inherent innocence of youth – we immediately perceive her differently then when she appears so abruptly and terrifyingly in The Wizard of Oz. We have empathy towards her, even though we know what must come to pass.

There’s another game-changer: psychology. In contrast to the fairy tales of the Grimms (or even Disney when Walt was still alive), we care today how our monsters came to be. What challenges and injustices did they face in their formative years? What powerful forces in the modern world acted upon this essentially good person to turn him or her into an evil monster? In Wicked, Elphaba is the fruit of an adulterous affair between the Munchkin Governor’s wife and a vendor of a green elixir; her mother then died while giving birth prematurely to a second child who would be permanently crippled. Elphaba is hated by her peers, cannot find love, and ultimately must battle her mentor. All of this gradually draws her character ever closer to the dark side, until she becomes the epitome of evil.

And yet, because we have witnessed her journey we empathize with her and root for her. By contrast, goodie-goodie Glinda is sickeningly pleasant; the audience doesn’t care for her at all, except when she acts sympathetically and lovingly towards Elphaba. The heroine is less likable than the villain, so any victory she earns will be only half-won.

The same dynamic occurs in Maleficent, but it takes the transformation from innocence to villainy to redemption even further. Of course, the filmmakers take enormous liberties with the source material (as Disney has done since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the Brothers Grimm never even named the dwarfs). Perhaps the greatest flaw in Wicked is that, while great efforts are made to connect what we know of The Wizard of Oz (film version, natch) to this prequel, not all the foreshadowing works — some of it fails completely. By contrast, in Maleficent we are given an ‘invented’ story that is more interesting than the source, which effectively improves on the simplistic waif/witch female duality of the Disney film versions.

Ursula in "The Little Mermaid" -- perhaps she could use some therapy?

Ursula in “The Little Mermaid” — perhaps she could use some therapy?

Why are we reassessing our villains? There may be good reasons for the renovation. Every day, the news is filled with real-life villains, most of them firing weapons into schools and workplaces or detonating explosives in public places and at public events. And, after the initial outrage is expressed through social media and candlelight vigils, the news energizes our curiosity: Why did this person do this? What were the signs? What clues were there that, if properly noticed and reported to the right people, might have prevented this tragedy? We all are armchair Freuds. It was his inept mother. The peers who bullied him because he looked different, dressed different, acted different. In the dark of a movie theater, we can shed light on the forces that transform personalities. Yes, we see it right there, not twenty minutes into the film, there is the first clue. We can get that in a movie: it never happens that way in real life.

The truth may be that real life is so painful, so tragic, we cannot bear to see evil in full flight. Evil must be relative, it must fly on wings of rationale, on a broomstick of retribution. Maybe even evil isn’t so evil after all. In Sunday School I was taught that people are born with inclinations towards good and evil: we were given the freedom to choose. In Wicked, Elphaba ultimately seeks justice. Maleficent, too, is guilty chiefly of externalizing her pain, but she clearly has the same positive values as – and a great deal more sense and sensitivity than – the good fairies assigned to protect Aurora.

The question becomes, then, how far does this trend go? Could an audience bear a more sympathetic portrait of Adolf Hitler? Surely at one time he was a happy-go-lucky boy. Could any amount of character reassessment make Hitler even approach likability (ironically, Mel Brooks came close in The Producers). That may be too extreme an example; after all, we’re talking about true evil incarnate, not a fictional character. What if Dirty Harry were remade from the perspective of the serial killer Scorpio? Or, to keep it to the relative safety of children’s fare, could even Ursula from The Little Mermaid benefit from a little psychoanalysis?

I won’t suggest an answer, but the trend is worth watching. In the meantime, Maleficent is a magnificent effort; that it was written by a woman, Linda Woolverton, whose Disney credits include such particularly exceptional films as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, may explain the sympathetic re-imagining of the title character’s personality. It is a welcome makeover.

Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 29 years, the last 14 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012. He regularly contributes feature articles and CD reviews to Progression magazine and for several years wrote for The Jewish Advocate.

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