Friday, July 4, 2014

Perspective from the Dark Side


I love summer movies. There's nothing better than entering a cold, dark theatre on a hot summer day, settling in with a big tub of popcorn and a cold drink and being transported to another place or time. But last week, Jason and I went to see Maleficent, a movie that was less of an escape and more of a reality check. 

As a kid, I was given the Big Golden Book Sleeping Beauty, which featured illustrations from Disney's 1959 film by the same name. Malecifent is painted as nothing less than pure evil, so I was curious to see the sorceress' side.

Disney portrayed folklore's "bad fairy" as
a horned menace with too much
purple eye shadow.
Image from Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty
Of course, the tale of Sleeping Beauty is an ancient one. It existed in oral tradition long before the father of the fairy tale genre, Charles Perrault, published it in his Tales of Mother Goose in 1697. Perrault's telling was informed by Gambattista Basile's collection of fairy tales the Pentamerone published in 1634. There are distinctions to these old tales—which in Basile's telling includes the rape of Sleeping Beauty—but the premise of a princess being cursed to sleep remains a consistent thread.

According to the Charles Perrault tale, the upon the birth of their longed for child, the King and Queen invite seven fairies to their daughter's christening party. They hope the magical creatures will bestow wondrous gifts upon their baby. The King and Queen spare no expense to please these special guests and commission custom-made golden place settings for the seven fairies. But when the big day arrives, they find they've made a royal faux pas. An old fairy shows up at the castle without an invite. According to Perrault, the oversight wasn't intentional, but due to the minor discrepancy that—because she hadn't been seen in a long time—everyone assumed she was "dead or enchanted." Seems like an understandable mistake. But the Royals are at a total loss of what to do. To their credit, they try to accommodate the senior citizen as best they can but she's pissed about the "sorry we thought you were dead" excuse. Maybe she's suffering from dementia or maybe she's just hurt over being left out. Regardless, she chooses to bestow her own gift on the baby—and it ain't a sterling silver binky. We don't know much more about the old fairy or why no one bothered to find out if she really was deceased. And, after her curse is bestowed, we don't hear from the old fairy again.

The Disney 1959 film version of Sleeping Beauty gives the old fairy a bad name—literally. Maleficent is the embodiment of malice, which according to Merriam Webster is the "desire to inflict injury, harm, or suffering on another, either because of a hostile impulse or out of deep-seated meanness."  Disney also gives the storybook villainess a facelift and the ability to transform into hideous creatures, like a dragon. Resplendent in horns and purple-black attire, Disney's arch-villaness, like her haggish precursor (pun intended,) Maleficent crashes the christening of the little Princess. Her appearance is much more overtly foreboding than that of an elderly woman (although let's face it, most of us are terrified of aging,) but her malicious baby gift is borrowed from Perrault, who apparently had a textile aversion. 

Enter the 2014 Hollywood version. The villainess (portrayed by Angelina Jolie) is front and center and provides us a new perspective on the making of the evil curse. And as it turns out, her story is far more lively than that of the dosing princess.

We meet Maleficent as an orphaned fairy child. She is the protector of her magical land. Grant you with long, pointy horns and dark wings, she isn't your classic good fairy type. Indeed she is a creature who is much more of the earth than are the trio of candy-colored sprites who end up as bumbling babysitters. As the tale unfolds from her perspective, we discover that Maleficent was betrayed. Suddenly we're rooting for her to take out King Stefan, the asshole who violated her trust and stole her wings. As the saying goes, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The film also reveals the perspective of the innocent princess, Aurora, whom Maleficent has cursed to a fate worse than death (ie: waiting for eternity for unconditional love.) Aurora, being pure of heart, doesn't judge Maleficent as evil just because she has huge scary horns, impossibly sharp cheekbones and ultra-thin arched eyebrows. Because she's met with acceptance, the child's goodness and compassion warm the cold-hearted fairy. Transformation happens. True magic manifests. Hatred and resentment melt into—yes!—true love.

What happens to our long-loathed stereotypical villains when we begin to understand what turned them to the dark side? We start to understand that perhaps there is no abject evil in this world. We see that villains—like heroes—are made not born. 

Accepting that we are collectively the authors  of our world's unhealthiness and suffering is not always easy. I want someone to blame, someone to pin my hurt upon, because I think that it will make me feel better or relieve me of the responsibility for my own actions. When I can open my eyes and see that everyone responds to life based on their experiences and their perception of those experiences, I come closer to realizing the truth. So if someone is treating me badly, I can bet my silver binky that she has experienced the same treatment (or worse) from someone else. And I can generate compassion for that person rather than hatred and fear. This is so much easier said than done! But seeing a movie like Maleficent reminds me of to consider more than my own limited point of view. I'm still wrestling with this final piece, but I know in my heart that everyone—even villains—deserves to live happily ever after.

Of course, Maleficent is just the latest Hollywood offering that shifts the plot line to the villain's perspective. The Star Wars series was perhaps one the first and most lucrative of these explorations of the nature of "good and evil." The Harry Potter series is another great example. In recent years, Hansel and Gretel, Alice in Wonderland, Jack and the Beanstalk have all received a revisionist approach on the big screen. On TV, ABC's current series Once Upon A Time has created an ongoing drama that explores the stories behind beloved fairy tales. Revisionist fairytales obviously has financial appeal or Hollywood wouldn't keep turning them into movies, but I wonder if the outcome extends beyond entertainment value. 

Will these perspective-shifting tales blow the lid off the stereotype that bad guys are 100% pure evil? Will Jack and his generation begin to realize that evil is indeed made, not born? If so, our media-saavy kids just might be inspired to stem the tide of suffering. I doubt that's Hollywood's aim, but it might just be a very happy ending.

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