Hannah Rowe finds 'Whispers of Redemption' in Maleficent, Disney's makeover of Sleeping Beauty.
The 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty has all you would expect from a fairy tale: a castle, fairies, a princess who needs rescuing, a handsome prince willing to do just that and, of course, a happy ending. It also has one of the most iconic Disney villains: Maleficent, a wicked fairy who is enraged at not receiving an invitation for the baby princess's christening. She exacts her revenge by cursing the princess to death by spinning wheel. This Maleficent is pure evil, who curses for petty reasons. In Disney's latest blockbuster, Maleficent, the infamous villain receives her very own origin story, and the classic fairy tale undergoes a makeover.
Warning: This article contains major plot spoilers.
In the new film, we first meet beautiful fairy Maleficent (Isobelle Molloy) as a child living a blissful life in her enchanted kingdom, The Moors. One day she meets Stefan (Michael Higgins), a peasant boy, who has wandered into her land, and the two orphans become friends. As they grow older, their friendship blossoms into romance, and the teenage Stefan (Jackson Bews) gives Maleficent a kiss of true love.
A few years pass: Stefan's visits have stopped, and the peace of the Moors is threatened by the greed of King Henry (Kenneth Cranham) of the nearby human territory. Maleficent, with her powerful wings and enchanted army, fiercely protects her land. However, the vanquished king will not accept defeat and promises his succession to the one who can conquer the 'wingèd creature'. At these words, an ambitious young man in his court, a certain Stefan (Sharlto Copley), returns to his first love to commit a horrific act of betrayal in order to gain the crown. Maleficent becomes consumed by hatred and anger for the wrong inflicted upon her, and she has her revenge at the christening of Stefan's daughter, Princess Aurora. In the scene that is practically verbatim from Sleeping Beauty, she curses Aurora so that on her sixteenth birthday she is doomed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall asleep forever. The only thing that can break the curse is true love's kiss.
Clearly, this is quite a different story to that of Sleeping Beauty, and Maleficent is a very different character, though she retains the horns and pronounced cheekbones of her previous portrayal. This Maleficent is not purely evil – very far from it. After the christening, she watches Aurora (Elle Fanning) grow; she meets her, speaks with her, and sees the healing effect she has on the Moors. She comes to love the "little beastie" and deeply regrets what she has done, to the point of desperately trying to undo the curse. She even takes Prince Phillip to the castle to try to wake the sleeping Princess with a kiss. Additionally, she has been given a backstory which makes her, not merely someone missed off a guest list, but a person betrayed and violated. The explanation for her cradle-cursing antics almost makes them seem justified.
This Maleficent is far more complex than her original incarnation. Jolie comments that this was one of the most challenging parts she has played because Maleficent "represents all sides of what it is to be human, even though she is not." Whereas Aurora is faultlessly good, and Stefan is so consumed by his greed for power that we struggle to see any redeeming qualities, Maleficent demonstrates both good and bad. As our narrator (the older Aurora) explains, Maleficent is "one who was both hero and villain". She cannot be neatly pigeonholed. As such she appears more human, and more relatable, than those who actually are mortals in the film.
Maleficent's story is a journey to redemption, both for her and her kingdom. Her attempts to reverse the curse are to no avail and even Prince Phillip's kiss fails. As she stands hopelessly at the bedside of Aurora, she says, "I will not ask for your forgiveness because what I have done to you is unforgiveable." She believes she is beyond redemption, and maternally kisses Aurora to say goodbye. It is then that the princess wakes and smiles at her "fairy godmother". Maleficent's actions of cursing an innocent baby were horrific, and yet she was not beyond forgiveness. Her 'true love' for Aurora has saved the day.
One of the film's producers, Joe Roth, says that he'd "like audiences to ... come away feeling like no one is beyond redemption." And don't our hearts leap as the one who describes herself as being "lost in hatred and revenge" is given a second chance? In his essay 'On Fairy Stories', Tolkien argues that this is the essence of why we love fairy tales. He identifies the "sudden joyous turn", or as he calls it the "eucatastrophe", as the thing that makes our hearts soar. The moment of Maleficent's kiss is the "eucatastrophe". Something within us rejoices as we see a lost situation become one of hope.
Maleficent's story of redemption is in some ways similar to that of Saul in the New Testament. We first meet Saul in the book of Acts, which charts the beginning of the Church. Saul was a Jewish religious leader and he hated Christians. Just after one of Jesus's followers, Stephen, has been stoned to death for speaking about Jesus, we are told:
Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem... Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison. (Acts 8.1-3)
Saul was zealous in his persecution of Christians – until he had an experience that turned his world upside down. Just a chapter later we read:
Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord's followers so he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them – both men and women – back to Jerusalem in chains. As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, 'Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?'
'Who are you, lord?' Saul asked.
And the voice replied, 'I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.' The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone's voice but saw no one! (Acts 9:1-7)
After this we are told that, "immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, 'He is indeed the Son of God!'" (Acts 9:20). The man who fervently tried to destroy the early church ends up taking the news of Jesus's death and resurrection to many different people groups. He is renamed Paul and much of the New Testament is composed of his letters to the early churches. In these letters, he is honest about his own journey, as can be seen in one of his letters to the church in Corinth: "For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I'm not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God's church" (1 Corinthians 15:9).
Maleficent and Saul both seemed to be beyond forgiveness. Initially, this would not have bothered them, as their actions seemed to them justified (Maleficent's because of her betrayal; Saul's because he didn't believe Jesus was the Son of God). However, when they meet the ones whom they are persecuting, the extent of their wrong-doing is laid bare before them. They desperately crave a forgiveness they believe to be unattainable for people such as themselves.
One cannot, however, transpose Saul's story straight onto Maleficent's. To do so would fail to truly appreciate either story. Forgiveness does come for both Saul and Maleficent, as does restoration with the ones they once persecuted (Jesus and Aurora), but the cost that has to be paid in each situation is very different. Maleficent finds forgiveness and redemption because her kiss saves Aurora from eternal sleep: through saving Aurora, she saves herself. For Aurora, the path to forgiveness seems remarkably smoother than the one with which many of us will be familiar.
Saul, on the other hand, cannot save himself. He has rejected Jesus as the Son of God and persecuted his followers. Rejection by God is what he deserves, and it is what a God of perfect justice – as the biblical God claims to be – demands. And yet, Saul is forgiven and he stands confident in that forgiveness. How can this be so? Saul himself explains it in his letter to the Romans:
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God's condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:6-8)
Jesus takes the punishment for Saul's wrongdoing. Saul rejected the one who created him, but he was not faced with rejection in return. God the Son had already faced that rejection on the cross as he received the judgement of God the Father for the sins of mankind. Saul’s redemption was not brought about by anything he could do, because the cost of forgiveness was far too high.
Maleficent’s path to redemption gives us joy because in her we see ourselves. As the director Robert Stromberg comments: "We have all done things that we hate, we all have done things that we regret, and hopefully some of us have been redeemed and find ourselves again, and others don't." As we watch Maleficent it fills us with hope because it speaks of a possibility that nothing is beyond forgiveness. It speaks to us of good overcoming evil and a restored kingdom. Perhaps we relate so readily to this because we have the desire for redemption deeply ingrained within us. If what Saul came to believe is true, and Jesus really is the Son of God and he really did die in the place of mankind and conquer death at the resurrection, then Maleficent’s redemption is but a whisper of what God offers humanity. I shall finish with the words of Tolkien, as he links the joy we find in fairy tales to the hope offered by Jesus:
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels – peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe... The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the 'inner consistency of reality'. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.
Questions for reflection
Why do you think fairy tales are so popular? What did you make of Tolkien's analysis of them? What do you make of the idea that the gospel story "embraces all the essence of fairy stories"?
If you have seen Sleeping Beauty and Maleficent how do their definitions of 'true love' and redemption compare? Which one presents a worldview that is most similar to the world around us? Which conclusion is the most satisfying and why?
What did you make of the story of Saul? Why do you think God would choose to reveal himself to him in particular? What did you think of the passage from the book of Romans quoted above (Romans 5:6-8)? Why might mankind be "utterly helpless"? What is God offering because of Jesus's sacrifice?
Keywords: Forgiveness, redemption, love, justice, revenge, power, fairytale
Film title: Maleficent
Director: Robert Stromberg
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (USA/UK)
Cinema Release Date: 28 May 2014 (UK); 30 May 2014 (USA)
Certificate: PG (USA); PG (UK) Contains mild violence, threat, scary scenes
 Quotations taken from the film or the film’s production notes unless otherwise stated.
 J.R.R. Tolkien 'On Fairy Stories' in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947); available online at Theology Network (accessed 7 June 2014).
 William Bibbiani, 'Maleficent: Director Robert Stromberg on True Love and Reshoots', Crave Online, 27 May 2014.
 J.R.R. Tolkien 'On Fairy Stories'.
© 2014 Hannah Rowe