some thoughts on Maleficent

Maleficent-(2014)-59

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?”

SPOILERS AHEAD!

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 Maleficentpeople 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.

Comments

10 Responses to “some thoughts on Maleficent
  1. 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 know I’ve said this to you before, but as a professional fantasy writer, that approach really makes me look for something to bang my head against. :-)

    Quite possibly that is the approach one has to take in Hollywood. The movie-making industry is deeply bizarre to me, and you know how it works much better than I do; if you tell me the magic has to be reducible to metaphor before they’ll buy it, then I believe you. But one of the most frequent pieces of advice given to writers of speculative fiction (i.e. fantasy, science fiction, and supernatural horror) is that if you can take out the speculative element without really changing the story, that isn’t a good thing. It’s a sign that you’re using the spec element as window dressing, rather than grappling with it on its own terms, and therefore that you’re failing at writing good spec fic.

    Sure, there are going to be metaphorical connections. No question about that. But I speak in the plural for a specific reason: if it’s a one-to-one correspondence, X represents Y, then what you’re writing is not so much fantasy as allegory. The truly rich fantasies have multiple potential correspondences, which can be read in different ways by different people with different results — because the authors didn’t set out to say “okay, I am going to tell a story about rape using the metaphor of magic;” instead they said “I am going to tell a story about magic,” and it ends up saying things about rape and also power and also freedom and also fear of the Other and I could go on. Your “wing theft as rape” metaphor falls down for me at the point where the wings are returned: Maleficent was “healed” of the emotional trauma inflicted on her by Stefan when Aurora woke up, but the restoration of her wings is an entirely separate narrative moment, one that can’t really be paralled to rape recovery — unless it were taken a totally different route than the one we saw, i.e. Maleficent falling in love with a man again and having her wings regenerate, implying that she has now overcome her trauma and can enjoy sex again. Which is the pitfall of approaching the spec element as a metaphor: it encourages you to lock the story into that kind of straitjacket, with the result that the audience would feel beaten over the head with the message. (I could point out other places where your suggested allegory fails, but that’s the most obvious one.)

    A good fantasy is “really about” the fantasy. It is simultaneously about other things, too: the One Ring is an actual magical artifact crafted by an actual malevolent power; it has a history and fairly well-defined effects; but it is also a symbol of power in a generalized sense, and therefore the temptation and danger and corruption that power brings. It can be read as a specific metaphor for the atomic bomb — which people have done — but if Tolkien had approached it as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, then the story would lose its flexibility, its capacity to speak to people across decades and generations. Good fantasy can be timeless because it operates on its own terms, and therefore can adapt to its audience (or rather, be adapted by the audience).

    All of which, of course, is entirely aside from the fact that holy crap Disney made this movie? Two movies in one year where the story says “eh, forget the prince; female bonding is the important thing”? A film where Angelina Jolie gets to be the most badass thing on two wings we’ve ever seen? Awesome. More of this, please.

    • Todd says:

      I know that there are people who really get into sci-fi and fantasy world-building for its own sake, but for me the narrative has to operate on a human level or else there’s nothing for me to grab onto as a reader (or viewer). For instance, David Lynch’s Dune completely baffled me, and not just because it’s an impenetrable mess but because I had no idea what it was talking about (someone on the internet finally took me aside and explained to me that spice = oil). That may be a failing on my part, but that’s how fantasy works for me, as a metaphor for something real. And, by my reading, it’s specifically why fairy tales exist: to render uncomfortable truths bearable by translating them into metaphor.

      It doesn’t have to be a strict point-by-point metaphor, because then there’s no mystery, nothing to keep the reader in the thrall of the magic, but I find that, as a writer, it’s my job to find the human story within the magic before the magic is installed, because, the fact is, there is no such thing as magic, but there are such things as people, and people need stories. And while I don’t gain very much from Lord of the Rings as a metaphor for WWII-era Europe, I find all kinds of wonderful stories in it and its central metaphor of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

      As for Maleficent’s wings, I don’t see them as “damage done to her by rape,” I see them as “her power diminished.” I read her imprisioned/rejoined wings as her child freeing her power to help make her whole again.

      • but for me the narrative has to operate on a human level

        Ah — but you see, that isn’t the same thing as treating the fantastical elements as metaphor. Or at least it doesn’t have to be, and good speculative fiction should always work on a human level as well as a fantastical one.

        For starters, people’s belief in magic has been and continues to be real. Not a given specific manifestation of it, maybe — but, well, let’s say there’s a story in which somebody prays to a saint and is miraculously healed of their affliction. This is, from a subjective standpoint, an experience many people in reality have had. An atheist or agnostic would say it’s coincidence, or the power of mind over body; they would say there is nothing supernatural going on. But for person and others who share their beliefs, it is supernatural . . . and if you try to tell that story without understanding that mindset and the effect it has, then you will do a bad job of telling the story of someone healed by a saint. You will, at best, tell a story about somebody deluding himself into thinking he was healed by a saint.

        It’s the concept of cultural relativism from anthropology. You have to try to understand a thing as it is viewed by people in that society. If you don’t make the attempt, then you are not understanding the people very well. If I want to tell a story about people in a world where magic exists, my characterization depends on taking the magic as real, and then thinking through how it would affect them. Otherwise I am writing bad characters.

        While “spice = oil” can be a gateway into understanding Dune — after all, it facilitates travel and its production is fought over by many foreign powers — the limitations of that approach show up immediately: spice is also a drug which alters consciousness, and that is not remotely true of oil. “Spice = oil” falls down immediately when you get to the Fremen, for whom it is intertwined with their religion. If you only think of it as oil, you will write a flat Dune adaptation, because you won’t have the understanding necessary to handle the spiritual aspects of the central device. (Whether it is possible to write a good Dune adaptation in the first place is another question, but I’m leaning toward “no.” Exposition-heavy bricks rarely make good movies.)

        Spice = spice. Which bears a resemblance to oil crossed with peyote, plus some other stuff. :-P The human story comes about when you say: what if. What if we did have something that could do all these things. And what it if it were found in only one place. What would we do then? What things would we learn about human nature if that were true?

        The answer won’t be “something totally unrelated to reality,” because human nature doesn’t change. But conducting the thought experiment lets you approach it from angles that aren’t possible if you’re just telling stories about oil executives fighting over Nigeria or wherever, with a paint job on top.

        I’d like to think the books I write work on a human level, too. But I didn’t write, say, the Onyx Court series by asking myself what faeries represented. They represent themselves: immortal creatures with a serious iron allergy and the ability to do magic. Approaching them that way let me talk about power and compassion and grief and deception and the passage of time and yearning after things you can never have from angles that are not the same angles I could have used if the faeries represented ethnic minorities or anything else they might “stand for.” And I can guarantee you that most of the writers who are respected for writing fantasy approached it the same way. (Lewis is a notable exception, but a discussion of why Narnia’s strengths and flaws is way too long and digressive for this venue.)

        As for Maleficent’s wings, I don’t see them as “damage done to her by rape,” I see them as “her power diminished.” I read her imprisioned/rejoined wings as her child freeing her power to help make her whole again.

        But what is “her power,” in that metaphor? If cutting off her wings = rape, then the wings have to represent virginity or sexual wholeness or self-confidence or something like that. And how does her daughter restore those things to her, separate from the moment where the emotional trauma of love being shattered is healed by the realization of the love of the mother for her daughter? This is what I mean about the metaphor falling down: Stefan’s betrayal can be read as symbolic of rape, but the wings themselves don’t fit neatly into the scheme. At which point they are either extraneous to the story — a bit of spectacle to make the message go down — or else they escape the confines of a strictly metaphorical reading and are their own, fantastical thing, which can and do carry multiple meanings at once.

        I think that in the end, the thing I mostly push back against is the notion that the metaphor’s literal reading is what the story is “really about.” It is one thing to say you the writer have to find your own emotional and thematic entry point into the story: that makes perfect sense to me. But to put it in terms of “this is only a metaphor, and here’s what the story is really about” dismisses the fantastical mode as trivial — decorative at best — and reduces the possibilities down to one. Since a multiplicity of readings is precisely one of the strengths of non-realistic storytelling and figurative devices in general (metaphor, simile, symbol), I feel like that’s selling the entire approach short.

        • Todd says:

          I totally agree that you can’t understand a story until you can look at it from the point of view of the people who wrote (or lived) it. But you can’t write a story for an audience today that supposes the point of view of people from another time (or from an imaginary time). It can’t be done, you’re always writing for the people of your time. Otherwise, what is the point of the story? And the stories that last are the ones that communicate basic human truths over hundreds or thousands of years. Some of the oldest stories ever are still being told today because, when you lift the metaphors of their times, the stories still resonate.

          And yes, for me, I can’t go to a place where “magic is real.” It has to be a metaphor. I’m a secular humanist, and I find that even (especially) religions function best as metaphors. I can’t believe in imaginary guys in the sky who have a plan for everybody or stuff like that. It’s silly on the face of it. And even the world of the ancient Greeks (to speak only of the ancient Greeks) isn’t so far removed from our times that I feel like their basic assumptions about god(s) and humans didn’t function in largely the same way as ours do now. Did the ancient Greeks truly believe that there were a bunch of gods up on Mt Olympus who threw tantrums and drove the sun around and changed into animals so they could go seduce ladies? Or did they understand on some level that all that was simply a metaphor for things they couldn’t understand?

          I totally get what you’re saying about your approach to faeries, and I think that’s exactly right, by creating these magical creatures you get to explore “power and compassion and grief and deception and the passage of time and yearning after things you can never have.” But faeries (or spaceships, or cyberworlds, or talking animals), in and of themselves, aren’t vital or interesting topics — they have to represent something human, and, in fact, I would argue that they cannot do anything but, since they’re created by humans and their stories are interpreted by humans. How could they represent anything else?

          As for Maleficent’s wings representing her power, I mean that quite literally. When she has her wings, she soars over her land, commands armies and vanquishes enemies. Without them, she’s greatly diminished — she can’t fly, her soul becomes cramped and cruel and her kingdom (her heart, or her domicile) turns dark and frightening. When her wings are restored to her (and Stefan’s power transferred to her daughter) she soars again and her domicile blooms once again.

          Finally, no, I don’t think each fantasy story must, or should, have one neat metaphor where, say, The Empire = the USA and Endor = Vietnam, because that diminishes everything and makes it all boring. But I do believe it’s impossible to tell a story about anything other than people. You can’t tell a story about a cat or a fairy or a robot or a tree or a fork without anthropomorphizing the character, it can’t be done. The fact that David Bowie is a Goblin King doesn’t make him something other than human; his powers and foibles remain resolutely metaphorical, while his penis remains all too startlingly real.

          • But you can’t write a story for an audience today that supposes the point of view of people from another time (or from an imaginary time). It can’t be done, you’re always writing for the people of your time.

            You just switched frames there, halfway through: writing from the point of view, writing for a modern audience. I think you absolutely should try to put yourself in a historical perspective when writing about history, if you’re attempting to do serious historical fiction. You won’t succeed, of course, any more than an anthropologist ever succeeds at fully understanding the viewpoint of another culture. But you have to try, and then translate the result for your audience (who are indeed modern and real). If you don’t try, then you’re writing modern people in fancy dress, and you might as well just write about the modern day.

            Some of the oldest stories ever are still being told today because, when you lift the metaphors of their times, the stories still resonate.

            That is also true of biographical accounts, in which nothing is a metaphor. I feel like the term “metaphor” here is being stretched beyond its actual meaning: you aren’t talking about symbolic replacement of one thing with another as an aesthetic device, but rather about the differences between the viewpoint of the audience and that of the characters (or author).

            I can’t believe in imaginary guys in the sky who have a plan for everybody or stuff like that. It’s silly on the face of it.

            You don’t have to believe in those things. (I don’t believe in faeries. Oops, just killed Tinkerbell.) You do, however, have to empathize with the people who do believe in them — real or imaginary. If you can’t empathize, then you, for example, will never be able to write anything better than a caricature of a religious person. You’ll be sitting there the whole time going “this is silly, and therefore this person is silly for believing it.” That person isn’t consciously interacting with a metaphor for things beyond their understanding — however much it may be easier for you to imagine it that way. They’re interacting something they genuinely believe exists. Writing the former mentality means writing a secular humanist going through the motions, not a religious character.

            As for Maleficent’s wings representing her power, I mean that quite literally.

            The problem with interpreting that as metaphor is, rape does not nebulously deprive women of “their power”: it inflicts specific kinds of harm, most of which are not represented at all in the movie. It can be physically damaging; okay, that one is in there. It causes women to lose confidence in themselves and question their own judgment and actions, both before and after the event itself; Maleficent doesn’t exhibit signs of that at all. It inflicts fear and damages their ability to trust other people; Maleficent shows no fear and trusts Diaval quite readily. All too often, it leads society to blame the victim and say she brought it on herself; that’s completely absent here. So I honestly think that reading does a disservice to both sides of the equation — the fantasy and the real-world significance — and a Maleficent movie in which Stefan’s betrayal is really intended as a metaphor for rape would be an extraordinarily different film from the one we actually got. (Or else it would be an abominably bad treatment of rape as a subject.)

            Ultimately, Maleficent‘s fantastical elements are not not a coded way of talking about rape. The movie is fundamentally a story about how men are willing to hurt and discard women in their pursuit of their own desires, and the women find ways to become whole again. And that isn’t a metaphor; that’s a theme. (Just as “the One Ring represents power” is a theme, not a metaphor. I mean, that’s like saying “the atomic bomb represents power.”) Themes are hunky-dory, and fantasy has them just the way all stories do — though of course hammering on a theme too directly is rarely a good idea, since that way preachiness lies. I feel like that’s possibly a more accurate term for and approach to what it seems like you’re reaching for, which is the question of how a fantasy story can and does speak to a real-world audience.

            • Todd says:

              I think we’re saying the same thing but coming at it from two different directions. If you’re writing a story about people who believe in magical things, yes, absolutely, the magic has to be real to those characters. But that’s not the same thing as saying that the reader has to believe in magic in order to understand the story.

              We are in complete agreement about historical fiction and biography. One of the things that fascinates me about, say, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, is that you can’t really get the full impact of that movie unless you actually surrender yourself to the worldview and limitations of those characters. If you don’t do that, watching the movie is like watching paint dry. If you’re able to do that, it becomes overwhelmingly powerful and emotive and action-packed.

              I don’t even mean to argue that Maleficent is any kind of valid or useful story about rape. It’s what you say it is, a story about a woman harmed by a man who fucks her over in order to get something for himself, and who then discards her, and how she deals with that.

              (She does, however, for what it’s worth, very much come to question her own judgment and actions – that’s what the whole narrative is about. She curses her child, then finds that she can’t even remove her curse when she herself wants to. I interpret that as a metaphor for how a parent’s decision cast a die; the die can’t be recalled, but the parent can make amends.)

              • But that’s not the same thing as saying that the reader has to believe in magic in order to understand the story.

                Pretty sure neither of us is trying to argue for that. :-) I do, however, think the reader and writer both have to take the magic seriously within the context of the story. (One of the failings of fantasy movies before the last decade or so was that the directors seemed incapable of taking what they were doing seriously; they always had to wink at the audience, hey, this is all kinda goofy isn’t it, nudge nudge. Though in part I blame that on the fact that the special effects were goofy; it felt like the directors were laughing at their own work as a defense against you doing the same.)

                You have to accept the terms of the what-if. To go back to the Dune example: you have to accept that the Voice the Bene Gesserit use is genuinely capable of affecting and even controlling people’s minds. That isn’t the same thing as believing you can learn how to use the Voice, but if you don’t buy in for the purpose of the story, it falls apart.

                Barry Lyndon is one of those films I have the score for but have never watched, so sadly, I can’t speak to that particular instance. I kind of want to check it out, though, since I know enough about both the 19th century (when the source was written) and the 18th century (when the story takes place) that I think I might be able to get a lot out of it. Though I’m not sure I can get into the mindset of 1975 Kubrick. . . .:-P

                Regarding Maleficent questioning her judgment: yes, she changes her mind about the curse. But that, to me, is not the same thing as what I was trying to describe. She doesn’t fret over whether she should go to the castle and confront her betrayer/metaphorical rapist. She doesn’t tell all the fairy folk not to follow her anymore because she’s stupid and weak. She doesn’t ever ask whether she did something to deserve what Stefan did to her. She does not, in short, act like a rape victim, except in brief moments here and there.

                And that’s why I push back against the “metaphor” approach to fantasy. If X = Y at the beginning of the story, then it needs to continue to = Y throughout, or you’re doing a bad job with your metaphor. Whereas if you approach it as theme instead, then you can say, “okay, when Stefan roofies Maleficent and then she wakes up and realizes what’s happened and curls around herself and starts screaming and crying, that’s going to make some of our viewers think of sexual assault.” But then later on you can have the wings in a trophy case and now they’ll think about hunting and also the way men steal women’s authority or achievements and claim them for their own, and you can have the whole thing where the human kingdom fears and hates the fairy kingdom Just Because, which when you map human to Self and fairy to Other (and Self to male and Other to female) becomes a much broader and more interesting statement on gender relations than the metaphor approach would have given you.

                • Todd says:

                  I think we can agree that tidy metaphors are boring. The reason I think so is because a tidy metaphor limits the metaphor’s ability to resonate throughout time. If (as some say) L. Frank Baum was “really” writing about the US’s adoption of the gold standard (or some such thing), hoo-boy is The Wizard of Oz an ineffective piece of political satire. But, as I argue, if The Wizard of Oz (and I’m talking about the MGM musical here) is “really” about the inner workings of a girl’s mind on the edge of womanhood, it never gets old. And I could go down the line and explain what each and every character and location represents, but at some point I would start to sound stupid because, as you say, at a certain point the plot points and story elements leave the realm of metaphor and enter the realm of theme. For instance, I couldn’t tell you what angry sentient trees “stand for,” but I do know that apples have been symbols of knowledge and sexual development for thousands of years. Does that mean that the angry trees symbolize something-or-other regarding Dorothy’s sexual awakening? I dunno, maybe, it’s interesting to think about, but it also works as a mere plot point: Dorothy is hungry and tricks the trees into giving her apples. Dorothy isn’t appreciably “different” after getting the apples, she’s not smarter or anything, and anyway all of Oz‘s “intelligence” chits get used up by the Scarecrow. Either that, or I’m just imposing a structure where none exists because that’s how the narrative strikes me. Which is another thing people do.

                  We also agree that the make-believe world of the narrative has to be believed by the characters of the narrative if it’s going to have any weight. (I just spent the weekend watching the Alien movies in rapid succession, which get progressively worse as the characters become less and less interested in what’s happening to them — in the first movie, you’ve got characters who are terrified beyond measure; by the last movie, you’ve got cartoon characters running around a spaceship making quips and bugging their eyes.)

                  I also think we can agree that Maleficent is a much deeper and more resonant narrative than anyone has any right to expect from Disney at this point in time.

                  Speaking of King Stefan, one thing that I wondered on a second viewing was, hey, with all those lords and aristocrats trying to become king, how come nobody challenged Stefan’s rule after they found out that he hadn’t really gotten rid of Maleficent, especially after she makes it clear that she’s alive and well and means harm to the kingdom and he responds by letting the kingdom fall to ruin and holding conferences with Maleficent’s wings. Here’s a dude who went from farmhand to candle-lighter to king; certainly a pair of fairy-wings wouldn’t keep him in power for that long. The idea of an all-powerful king, right or wrong, is a narrative trope that Game of Thrones has rendered ridiculous.

                  • And I could go down the line and explain what each and every character and location represents, but at some point I would start to sound stupid because, as you say, at a certain point the plot points and story elements leave the realm of metaphor and enter the realm of theme.

                    I think the point I’m trying to make with regard to Maleficent is, you’re already in the realm of theme rather than metaphor, because the metaphorical “rape” reading holds water only briefly (the roofie scene, and then kind of sort of when Aurora’s born), and then after that it vanishes as if it’s never been. In which case I don’t think you can say that’s what the story is “really about”. What the film is “really about” is a man betraying a woman for his own gain and her getting her own back — which isn’t a metaphorical reading at all. It’s 100% literal. And that’s why I say that ultimately, the actual connecting line from fantasy to the real-world human audience is thematic (we all know what betrayal feels like, and also love and ambition and all the rest of it) rather than metaphorical (we’re telling a coded story about rape recovery).

                    With regard to The Wizard of Oz, you’re already on weird ground there, because the story explicitly frames the fantasy as not-real. It doesn’t matter how Oz characters interact with magic, because they’re all just constructs of Dorothy’s imagination anyway. If the Wizard suddenly turned into a vampire and tried to drink Dorothy’s blood, it wouldn’t be an incoherence within the story-world, because the actual story-world is Dorothy’s mind, not Oz. The intervening layer changes the equation quite a bit.

                    One of the interesting things about the history of fantasy as a genre, and specifically Tolkien’s role in basically creating fantasy as a genre, is that it prizes realistic coherence within the fantasy frame. Which means it’s playing a different game from surrealism (which doesn’t care about the verisimilitude of what it presents) or allegory (whose coherence has to come from its underlying metaphors, regardless of their surface effects) or other related forms. If you’re trying to play that game, then you have to go back and forth between “what kind of story am I trying to tell, therefore what kind of world should I set up to tell it” and “how does this world operate, ergo how can I tell my intended story within it” (the latter being how you tell stories set in the real world). The moment you say “my theme requires that X happens here, even though that doesn’t actually fit within this setting on its own terms,” you’ve stopped writing good fantasy.

                    Speaking of King Stefan, one thing that I wondered on a second viewing was, hey, with all those lords and aristocrats trying to become king, how come nobody challenged Stefan’s rule

                    Everything to do with the human kingdom falls down pretty hard, which for me is one of the places where I don’t think the film is as solid as it could have been. Why does Stefan, random farmboy, want the throne? HE JUST DOES OKAY SHUT UP. Why does the old king attack the fairy kingdom? BECAUSE IT’S THERE OKAY SHUT UP. Why does nobody challenge Stefan’s rule? THEY JUST DON’T OKAY SHUT UP. You can’t even chalk it all up to fairy-tale logic, because man, I studied fairy tales in graduate school, and they don’t work like that. :-P The film isn’t quiiiiiiiiite sure how realistic it wants to be about the world of its story, and because it kind of dodges that question, it misses some opportunities to layer in extra bits of significance.

  2. BenjaminJB says:

    I have not seen Maleficent and I don’t want to get in the middle of this interesting dialogue.

    But I can’t pass a discussion about the fantastic (and I’ll throw in science fictional) elements–reality vs. metaphor–without referencing this excellent Kate Beaton comic about Verne and Wells.

    If you wanted to read more on this subject, I could recommend a whole set of essays–from such greats as Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ–that circle around this topic. There’s been some pretty wide swings on that issue among working writers.

    (Though I can’t help seeing room for both approaches, sometimes even in the same work: I’m not sure I could point to a single metaphorical read for the vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but many of the demons literally announce what they are metaphors for. Somewhat unavoidable when you have a fear demon show up and be smaller than expected once you confront him.)

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