Maleficent: the De-Villainized Villain

Disclaimer: this is not a film review.

This week I saw the Disney backstory film, now in theaters, Maleficent. I was excited to see it. I was anxious to see it.

Maleficent is my favorite of the Disney villains and she ranks highly among my fairy tale bad gals. I watched Sleeping Beauty before going this week, just to enjoy the simple evil of the 1959 version, in which Maleficent is primarily animated by Marc Davis. This Maleficent is prepared to kill a princess over being left off the invitation list. She is elegant. She is, “the mistress of all evil.” She is unapologetic. And there’s the rub…

[Spoiler Alert… but only if you haven’t already figured out that Maleficent (2014) gives the character a backstory and therefore exposes her softer side.]

The protagonist of my novel, my hero, sprang almost fully formed from my mind. He is complex, but he is not complicated to write. My antagonist, my villain, is also complex and he is complicated. If ever pressed to add up the minutes spent developing either character, my bad guy wins the majority of my time.

Writers understand that part of our covenant with our readers is to use complex characters in the foreground of our story. One-dimensional characters serve a purpose. They fill in the cast at the periphery. They are rarely the villain.

It seems that the 21st century malefactor cannot be simply evil; he or she will be de-villainized with depth, with motive, with backstory. Even the consequences of crossing the evildoer lose their malevolence; Maleficent of 2014 curses the princess to an endless sleep, not death (circa 1959).

I am not claiming this to be an entirely new trend. Certainly, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire, is one of the more successful ways in which a relatively one-dimensional antagonist is developed. I enjoyed the novel twice, the stage musical once, and I continue to read and re-read his topsy-turvy versions of our beloved fairy tales.

But wasn’t there something nice about that simply evil, unapologetic, no complex backstory full of childhood traumas, villain? The antagonist who is wicked for the sake of being so?

Maleficent of 1959 may not have carried an entire feature film (or stage musical), but when she called forth, “all the powers of Hell,” she said it with conviction and we understood that to cross her meant life or death.

To vilify or not to vilify? What is your take?


Image courtesy of Maleficent Facebook.

"Words without thoughts never to heaven go." ~Shakespeare

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