Angelina Jolie brings your childhood nightmare to life with Maleficent

As Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie as the evil fairy from Sleeping Beauty telling her side of the story, is released, Samantha Ellis examines how giving marginalised characters a voice makes familiar tales far more powerful

If, like me, you grew up on Disney's 1959 animated film of Sleeping Beauty, then Angelina Jolie is about to bring your childhood nightmare to life. Her new film, Maleficent, tells the story from the perspective of the wicked fairy, with Jolie styled and prostheticised to look more unearthly than ever, all horns, green fire, jet-black robes, high collars and razor-sharp cheekbones.

She cackles, croons menacingly and drips venom with every word she speaks. She is perfectly, precisely like the animated villainess who scared the living daylights out of all of us – only more so. From what I've seen, Maleficent is deliciously dark.

Maleficent - film review

Maleficent feels subversive, the way that all perspective flips should be. Switching heroes and villains can put everything in question, from what really is "good" or "bad", to where our loyalties really lie. I've always found Sleeping Beauty tricky, because while Aurora is obviously the heroine, she's also boring. Do I want to spend my life charming forest creatures by trilling the same syrupy song over and over? Or would I rather be a gatecrasher who curses anyone who doesn't invite me to their party? I can see Maleficent's point. She's been snubbed and she's not like Aurora, passive even when she's awake; Maleficent goes to the party if she wants to. She gets revenge. She refuses to be sidelined and hooray for her.

In Charles Perrault's 1695 version, she's not invited because she's so old, everyone thinks she's died – an outrageous reason not to invite someone to a party. If an old fairy hasn't left her castle in years, it might be worth checking on her, not assuming she's dead. In Anne Sexton's poem "Briar Rose", Maleficent's anger is driven by jealousy – with "fingers as long and thin as straws, / her eyes burnt by cigarettes, / her uterus an empty teacup", she is painfully barren. And like so many childless women in history, she's been demonised, and now she's getting her own back.

But could she have even more reason to be furious? Would it be too far-fetched to say that the party she's not invited to is, perhaps, the patriarchy? Fairy tales peaked just as witch-burning did and it's no accident that Maleficent's name echoes the Catholic Church's 1484 treatise on witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, which sparked the whole thing. It feels very bold of Disney, and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who wrote Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) to revisit its hit film.

I love a good perspective flip. I remember watching David Greig's play Dunsinane, in which Lady Macbeth survives Macbeth to become a thorn in the side of the English (who are intent on colonising Scotland), sitting in the audience with another playwright and whispering, delighted: "Isn't this naughty?" It was such a thrill to see Greig gleefully tamper with Shakespeare, liberating to feel that no story is sacred.

The original Disney version of Maleficent

And I love the way that Jean Rhys's 1966 novel Wide Sargasso Sea, a compelling prequel to Jane Eyre, gives the madwoman in the attic a story and a voice. Rhys's heroine is a passionate, traumatised woman, dragged from her home in Jamaica, a paradise scented with cinnamon, vetivert and frangipani, to cold, hard England, where she is driven mad by the pressure to conform. Rhys grew up on the island of Dominica, and lived this story. She wanted to rip apart Rochester's dominant, white, male, European narrative to show that, as her heroine puts it, "there is always the other side". There's something endearing about her making a woman like herself the heroine; don't we all want to be the star? Rhys offers us just this possibility. She inserts herself into the story, making Jane Eyre a book she can see herself in, and maybe, as fan fiction goes mainstream, many of us read like this now. Perhaps we feel that anyone can read any story and dive in and re-imagine it any which way. The best perspective-flips can be exhilarating; if the story can change so radically, then surely anything is possible and maybe we can even escape the real-life roles we're trapped in.

But I also have a soft spot for Tom Stoppard's devastating 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which does exactly the opposite. Stoppard takes two nonentities, bit-players in Hamlet, and puts them centre-stage, where they puzzle at the meaning of life, ignored or bewildered by the Danish royals. They are ultimately the playthings of fate, or, rather, of Shakespeare, forced to bumble and plod and philosophise through to the ending he's written for them.

I've heard perspective flips called "vampire stories" or "parasite stories", suggesting that they damage the stories that inspired them. But is Jane Eyre any less alive, any less powerful, any less popular? Is Hamlet? I don't think so. I think they are enriched. The best perspective flips make us go back to the originals with new insights. Where the originals are troubling, a perspective-flip can give useful context. It is impossible to ignore the racism in Gone with the Wind. So I'm glad that Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone gives voice to the black characters in Margaret Mitchell's book; it's just a pity that it lacks the verve and flair of the original. Much better is Will Eisner's comic book Fagin the Jew, which redresses the anti-Semitism in Oliver Twist. I bet Charles Dickens, who was so mortified that people thought Fagin was a grotesque caricature that he tried to fix things by writing a sympathetic Jew in Our Mutual Friend, would be glad to know Eisner's book, too.

Wicked

I wonder what Jane Austen would make of Longbourn. Jo Baker's novel re-tells Pride and Prejudice from the servants' point of view. It springs from Baker's awareness that, as her family were in service in Austen's day, she wouldn't have gone to any balls. Instead, she would have been stuck at home doing the laundry. Longbourn begins with housemaid Sarah scrubbing Lizzy Bennet's petticoats, and while Lizzy is one of my all-time favourite heroines, those muddy petticoats don't seem such a badge of rebellion and non-conformity when you consider Sarah's cracked, chapped and chilblained hands stinging from the lye and soap.

While Lizzy and Darcy are falling in love, Sarah deals with real physical discomfort, exhaustion, hard work, sexual predators, the slave trade (via the Bingleys' ex-slave footman) and war (the Bennets' new man-servant was once a soldier). The servants aren't interested in the Bennet girls' romances, except when their jobs are in danger; so, unlike most readers of Pride and Prejudice, they hope that Lizzy will say yes to Mr Collins because then she'll keep them on at Longbourn. This makes her decision feel more selfish than in the original. Sarah is a wonderfully engaging heroine – tough, clever, curious, scruffy – but the more she shines, the more Lizzy is, just a little bit, tarnished.

Luckily Longbourn is much too good a book to veer into "revenge fic", a sub-species of fan fiction in which writers inflict suffering on characters that they dislike. And luckily, too, not all perspective-flips lionise one character at another's expense. Sometimes they reveal that heroine and villainess aren't so different. So, Shared Experience's famous stage adaptation of Jane Eyre cast Bertha as Jane's shadow, constantly trying to shove Jane aside as she moans, writhes and grabs at Rochester. It's only by repressing her violence and sensuality that Jane can be so serene, so composed. The two women are villains, heroines – and perhaps we're all much more complicated than we like to think.

Elsa in‘Frozen’

Some of the best perspective-flips have come from feminists who are sick of being good girls and so go hurtling back through their favourite stories, reclaiming bad girls, femme fatales, sorceresses, mean girls (I've always had a sneaky affection for the Baroness in The Sound of Music), black widows, wicked stepmothers and witches. There's a great moment in the film Enchanted where Giselle remembers the time that "the poor wolf was being chased by Little Red Riding Hood around grandmother's house, and she had an axe". When she is told that this isn't the story that everyone else knows, she shrugs, "Well, that's because Red tells it a little differently". I love that Red is no victim but a violent, murderous girl, who is perfectly capable of writing her own story. Similarly, in Mirror Mirror, the Snow White revamp, Julia Roberts' wicked queen is trying to steal the story (as well as the kingdom) from her pretty stepdaughter. "This is my story, not hers," she snipes.

In the 2003 musical Wicked, it's the Wicked Witch of the West, so miserable and maligned in The Wizard of Oz, who is intent on telling her "untold story". Forget Dorothy; this story, both prequel and sequel to the film, is about Elphaba, a sweet, misunderstood, green-faced misfit and her blonde, vapid friend, Glinda. Elphaba is an underdog, an ugly duckling, an activist and a freedom fighter, and in the end, Wicked isn't really about wickedness, but about girl power and female friendship.

Disney's latest hit film Frozen also disrupts the heroine/villainess dichotomy – by doing away with a villainess altogether. Instead, it has two heroines: Elsa, who freezes everything she touches, and Anna, her angelic sister. Elsa has been taught to be scared and ashamed of her superpower and so, for a while, she looks set to become villainous, like the titular vamp of Hans Christian Andersen's story The Snow Queen. But then Anna does something so big and loving that Elsa stops being afraid and opens up to love, in one of the most heart-warming endings ever. An illustration from Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’

With Maleficent, Disney seems to be doing something quite different. From what I've seen, Aurora is a heroine who is attracted to the dark side, a heroine less like angsty, scared Elsa in Frozen than like the heroines in The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter's 1979 book of revisionist fairy tales – dangerously curious women who are ripe for corruption, not-quite-good girls who want to be bad. There's a glimpse of this at the end of Mirror Mirror when Lily Collins's annoyingly virtuous Snow White feeds the poisoned apple to her stepmother, with a glint of malice that suggests that, in winning, she has become a bit wicked herself. So, Maleficent seems to promise the story will be dirtied up a bit, as she opens the pretty princess's eyes to the darkness. "Aurora," she warns, "there is an evil in this world, and I cannot keep you from it."

But really, who wants to be delivered from evil when the devil gets all the best tunes?

'Maleficent' goes on general release tomorrow. 'Sleeping Beauty' is being re-released to coincide with the film, and is out on 2 June.

Samantha Ellis's 'How to be a Heroine' is published by Chatto & Windus

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific