some thoughts on Maleficent
Many years ago, I was up for the gig writing the movie adaptation of Scott Westerfeld’s wonderful sci-fi (then) trilogy Uglies, Pretties and Specials. I liked the books a lot and the idea, I thought, was a real fire-cracker: a dystopian future, a sci-fi trilogy, with a female protagonist, where each movie in the trilogy would examine the same society from a different point of view. It had never been done before and it was a huge opportunity. The producer who brought me the books was a respected big-budget sci-fi producer, and the project was set up at a genuine big-deal studio. All I needed to do was get a firm handle on how to tell the story and there was no way the project could not move forward.
Now then, in order to sell my “take” to the studio, I couldn’t pitch one movie, I had to pitch three; I had to pitch the entire trilogy. That meant that I had to sit down and write out treatments for three full features (for free — remember, I didn’t have the job yet).
The producer set up a pitch meeting at the studio. I went in. The executive in charge of the project was a really smart, really nice young woman, which I thought was perfect for the project — certainly, if anyone could “get” this project, it would be her.
I pitched the three movies. It took two and a half hours. The executive was floored. “That’s really amazing, Todd,” she said, “I’ve never heard anything like it, it’s one of the best pitches I’ve ever heard.”
Then she said “Is there any way to make the protagonist a boy?”
I laughed. “No,” I said. “No, there isn’t. The books, which are YA bestsellers, are titled Pretties, Uglies and Specials. They’re told from an exclusively female point of view, and are inherently about issues of beauty, societal pressure to be attractive, and female body image. There’s no way to tell that story with a male protagonist. Moreover,” I added, “You don’t need to make the protagonist a boy. The movie-going audience is perfectly ready for a female sci-fi protagonist. Pirates of the Caribbean (which was a smash trilogy at the time) has a female protagonist, and it’s a gigantic worldwide hit. Not to mention, James Cameron has made an entire career out of female sci-fi action protagonists, so we know it can work.”
She said “No, no, I get all that, but I can’t sell an expensive sci-fi trilogy to my bosses with a female protagonist.”
And that was that. The project was dead. (The IMDb tells me it’s still in development. Here’s hoping.)
A while later, my friend Nina Jacobson (who had hired me to write Antz while she was at Dreamworks) bought the rights to The Hunger Games way before it became a publishing phenomenon. Another sci-fi dystopian future, ten times more brutal and grim than the world of Uglies. That took real vision. (Fun fact: Nina first proposed the idea of Antz to Dreamworks because she liked the idea of a war movie with an entirely female cast — there’s no such thing as “male ants” in any practical sense. You can imagine how far that idea got.) The Hunger Games became an international publishing sensation, and then Nina’s movie got the book right enough to justify the audience’s support and was, similarly, justifiably, a worldwide smash.
Suddenly, movies with female protagonists seemed plausible. Frozen became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time, and now Maleficent is kicking box-office ass all over the world. Tom Cruise in a robot suit couldn’t beat Maleficent in its second week.
And now Maleficent has become the spearhead of a cultural conversation, and rightly so. It’s one thing that Disney has released a movie messing around with one of its iconic characters (although it’s worth noting that Sleeping Beauty was a notorious bomb when it came out in 1959), but Maleficent isn’t even really a “family movie.” It’s barely even appropriate for children. It’s a sometimes shockingly adult movie, and it’s remarkable that Disney let something this sophisticated, this dark and this powerful out of its corporate grasp.
The question remains, of course, “What does the protagonist want?”
Whenever I’m asked to adapt a fantasy narrative, the first thing I like to do is remove the metaphor and see if the story still works. Since there are no such things as fairies and magic and old-timey fairy-tale kingdoms, we have to remove all that stuff to figure out what Maleficent is “really about.”
I went with my writing partner Holly Golden to see it for a second time this afternoon (I took my 11-year-old daughter to it on Friday night; her response was that she liked it, but saw “the message” coming a mile away, that “message” being “You don’t need a prince, blah blah blah” — it’s a very different movie when you see it with a young girl) and what we came up with is this: Maleficent is about a powerful woman who, when she’s young, falls in love with an ambitious young man. The young man rapes the young woman in order to get ahead in his life, and leaves her to raise the child. The woman, bruised, battered and significantly less powerful because of the man’s betrayal and abuse, hates the child because of everything she represents — not just “men,” but her own naive, youthful bad choices. She’s so angry, she makes one more bad decision: she’s going to punish the man’s child for the actions of the man. As the child grows, the woman sees that she is innocent and good, and falls in love with her. The child’s goodness heals her heart, and, together, the two of them rise above the father’s treachery and make peace throughout their community.
Now, imagine pitching that movie to Disney, or anyone, really, besides Lifetime. A woman is raped, hates her child, but learns to love through the act of being a mother? That’s a Disney movie? And yet, there it is. (The first time watching the movie, I was wondering why Aurora’s biological mother has one scene and dies offscreen, and the “good fairies” who raise her are nothing more than comic relief. It’s because both are utterly beside the point; Aurora is, and always was, Maleficent’s daughter.)
The fact that this dark, intensely female, deeply felt story has been given a “Disney treatment” shows a huge amount of risk for the Disney brand. It’s almost as though they have finally discovered that “fairy tales” were always meant to function as the deepest, darkest metaphors for human cruelty and familial dysfunction. May the success of Maleficent guide them toward making many more such movies.
Also, Angelina Jolie totally crushes in a career-defining performance. Although my 11-year-old daughter did at one point characterize her as “Tomb Raider with wings.”
On a personal note, I’d like to add that, as a playwright, I always, always strove to write better parts for women and to write as many female protagonists as I could (I dislike the term “strong female protagonist” because it supposes that protagonists must be strong to be full characters). Three years ago I was puttering around town and suddenly thought “Why hasn’t there ever been a movie called Medusa?” I put together a pitch with my writing partner Holly and we pitched it around town for months. Everyone loved it, no one bought it. Then, after the success of Frozen, suddenly the idea seemed a lot more doable, and the fine people at Sony Pictures Animation bought it and hired us to write the script and hired the wonderful director Lauren Faust to direct it, and now, because of the success of Maleficent, people are starting to talk about it before a single frame of animation has been drawn. I find this both hugely exciting and and gratifying, as I’ve been waiting for decades to have this particular cultural conversation.