Just how do you rework a classic fairy tale, offering something new and different to audiences whilst still maintaining the magic? Maleficent (2014) balances new and old in this wave of live-action adaptations of old animated classics. Interestingly, unlike Cinderella (2015) and Beauty and the Beast (2017), Maleficent is the Wicked-esque version of Sleeping Beauty (1959) where the titular Maleficent receives a rich backstory. This twist on the classic tale has not been used for any other Disney live-action adaptations. Maleficent is unique in not only being able to keep to the bare bones of the original, but also insert some new twists and subversions of fairy tale tropes.
With the character of Maleficent having very little background in the original, the screenwriters had large creative freedom in fashioning her story. Sleeping Beauty starts with her arriving uninvited to Aurora’s christening and cursing the one person who had no influence on the celebrations, solidifying her villainy easily and straight away. Maleficent begins with her as a young whimsical fairy, and her life in the magical world of the Moors. The Moors is a bountiful and lush paradise, populated with other similar magical creatures. One day, Maleficent meets a young human boy of a similar age, named Stefan.
Stefan is from the neighboring Human Kingdom, which unlike the Moors, is a place of avarice and arrogance. Like Maleficent, Stefan appears in Sleeping Beauty as a King, but Maleficent shows his humble beginnings as a penniless young boy. He and Maleficent hit it off and become close friends as the years go by. But as the two mature, their conflicting natures push them apart. While the Moors’ kindness influences Maleficent into becoming a benevolent protector, Stefan’s harsh life and cruel environment shapes him into something more malevolent.
Maleficent and Stefan have had their roles swapped from the original. While Maleficent was the antagonist in Sleeping Beauty, here she is shown in a sympathetic and sensitive light. While you might not agree with her choices in this tale, she is now our hero. While Stefan, who was a good if somewhat bland king, is now a far more dangerous force than Maleficent ever was in Sleeping Beauty. This swap of the inhuman other into our heroine, and what was the traditional upholder of justice into our villain, is one of the first subversions of fairy tale traditions in this adaptation.
Without going into spoilers, the hardships Maleficent faces shapes her character, and this effects the wider characters into play. Furthermore, it is about survival. It’s about this woman with incredible, natural powers trying to survive in a world which seems fit to crush her. It’s not a shock that those seeking to vanquish her are men. Maleficent’s experience is comparable to what many woman faced in previous centuries. Ostracization for being smart and having the gall to exert their skills just like the men. While history honors a few lucky women, those that didn’t enjoy wealth or connections, society often labeled witches. I need not tell you what they did to suspected witches. I don’t think it’s a coincidence how they took a character feared because of her immense powers and made her into a tragic heroine.
But don’t let these changes put you off, the framework of Sleeping Beauty is still prevalent in Maleficent. Yes, Aurora is born. Yes, she gets cursed. Yes, she is sent away from her parents. But in between these key components of the Sleeping Beauty story, Maleficent pushes its influences in. As the tale progresses, we see how Maleficent and Stefan react and resolve the various events which unfold in their lives. In particular, we witness just how far these two will go to get revenge or redeem themselves.
Aurora, rather the main character in Sleeping Beauty, is now the catalyst for events in Maleficent. The plot advances after she is cursed at her Christening. She is the thread that keeps Maleficent and Stefan connected to each other. Aurora is fundamental to the tale. As far as any major differences between Sleeping Beauty Aurora and Maleficent Aurora, there are few. Maleficent Aurora has a more inquisitive and bold spirit, but it’s easier to advance the plot if one of the main characters is actively seeking answers instead of sitting around idly. Plus, this slight character adjustment ensures Aurora is no longer stuck in the past with Sleeping Beauty.
Can it be said Aurora and Maleficent result from a modern influence on fairy tales? Possibly. Both Aurora and Maleficent don’t stand by, they take hold of their own lives and weave their own stories. But they both embody the virtues promoted by such stories, such as love and heroism. Stefan rather, represents the old tales, where men were the heroes and saviors of the stories. Meanwhile, women were forced into two roles, either the beautiful women (like Aurora), who were the damsel-in-distress prizes to be won, or powerful women with evil powers which needed to be destroyed (like Maleficent). I won’t reveal the twist, but despite of this modern talk, the film ends with a Happily Ever After.