Maleficent, 2014. Directed by Robert Stromberg.
Cinderella, 2015. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
It is intriguing that in a world which celebrates its obliteration of the “superstitious” and “supernatural” in support of the rational, materialistic, and scientific, there should still be an increasing market for the fairytale genre. And yet this is exactly what we have seen in the last few years, with a plethora of new live-action films, and even a television series, Once Upon A Time, into its fourth season. Furthermore, most of these are directly oriented toward an adult audience.
Why is this? Perhaps a simple answer would be that the familiarity and timelessness of these beloved tales lends them to being told and retold without growing old. However, on a deeper level, it is possible to wonder if the particular character of fairytales does not have something to say that is fulfilling a unique need of our modern world. Could it be that in a society of ever-increasing violence, uncertainty, amorality, and relativism, the form of the fairytale, with its clear delineation between good and evil, its simple, sharp images of love, truth, sacrifice, and hope, not to mention its insistence on the happy ending, is subconsciously speaking to a hunger for the full depth of the spiritually charged reality that we have lost in a post-Christian society? Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, among others, has spoken to the value of fairytale in the development of the child, and if this is the case, we should perhaps reflect more deeply on the impact of fairytale or fantasy on the adult mind as well.
Fairytales are a genre of storytelling designed to incarnate spiritual realities in a concrete, visible way, so that they become real to us. We should leave an encounter with a fairytale with a clearer experience and understanding of love, joy, grief, courage, selfishness, hatred, good and evil. A fairytale is therefore a semi-sacramental reality: it serves a symbolic purpose, seeking to signify in such a way that it recalls us more deeply to the realities it signifies.
Fairytales come to us from a variety of different cultures and worldviews. But they all come from an age steeped in a sense of the spiritual: from cultures that still believed in the symbolic nature of the world, seeing an endless depth within things, giving them the capacity to point beyond themselves. And in a society that has long reduced the world and mankind to a purely material, determined reality, it would seem that such a worldview still has the capacity to awaken a longing, an excitement, a sense of recognition.
However, we are resurrecting these stories in a world that no longer has the language in which to understand them fully. What happens to tales that come to us from cultures with a world-view so antithetical to our own, as we re-tell them through the prism of a modern world-view? What, then, do they communicate about man? About how we think of ourselves? About what Good and Evil truly are? Can we, in fact, authentically portray the essence of these tales in a world so unlike their own? Maleficent, released in 2014, and Cinderella in 2015, offer strikingly different answers to these questions.
Maleficent seeks to uncover the character of the original Sleeping Beauty villain, and show us the tale from her perspective. It is not simply, however, a role-reversal story: it is still Maleficent, albeit embittered and hardened, who curses the princess, and seeks her revenge relentlessly until the king is destroyed. The movie seeks to portray not the hidden goodness of Maleficent, so much as the justification of her failures. The plot of the story takes us from the idyllic world of the young, horned fairy Maleficent, through the tragedy and destruction inflicted both on her kingdom and on her own life by the heartless, power-hungry Stefan. The story focuses on Maleficent’s struggle to piece her life back together, ending in a final defeat of her human enemies, and a restoration of her kingdom.
A few examples will serve to highlight the undermining of the usual categories of good and evil throughout the film:
Maleficent, because of her own heart being broken, denies that true love exists, which is seemingly confirmed throughout the course of the film, as we are given no evidence to contradict this bitter statement. King Stefan exhibits only hatred and a gripping fear of his own demise. The “good” fairies are reduced to stupid, incompetent, powerless beings who can’t even meet Aurora’s basic needs. Prince Phillip is portrayed as a timid, spineless boy whose kiss cannot wake the princess. In contrast, it is Maleficent who finds she has the power to destroy the curse, when she herself, in guilt and remorse at what she has inflicted on Aurora, plants a kiss on her forehead, and breaks the spell. Witnessing the scene, however, there is something radically anti-climactic about it. Even Maleficent’s words only tell us that she regrets “losing Aurora” so that the focus is on what she has lost. And it is difficult to believe that Maleficent’s care for Aurora has any source besides a regret and nostalgia for the innocence and blithe happiness that she herself once possessed, and is reminded of by the young girl. This “love” for Aurora does not bring Maleficent to a transformation, it does not call anything out of her: in contrast, she succeeds in conquering her enemies on her own, and returning to the idyllic life she previously had, incorporating Aurora into her own self-made world. Love, in this context, does not require any risk, any giving of oneself, or any otherness. It is not portrayed as something real, something that we can place our trust in, something we can experience concretely. It remains an empty, evasive concept without the power to move, create, or restore. And it does not move or inspire us.
The second striking scene is Maleficent’s grand triumph, when her wings return to her, and she has the physical ability to escape the king. It is a jarring moment, to see this woman with black horns on her head, draped in black robes, as her huge, dark wings reattach themselves to her. We are supposed to be happy, to be relieved that she has regained her strength: and yet the darkness of the image, the emptiness of this sudden reversal, purely through her own efforts, and the strength of her wings, makes her moment of triumph feel hollow. Her success is one of external, physical power, literally being able to escape the control of the other. There is no transcendent force of goodness that breaks through the trials and terrors of life. There is no objective, spiritual evil, beyond the selfish choices of individuals driven by greed and betrayal.
As a result of having the distinctions between good and evil levelled, the story itself lacks any real depth, any real drama. When Maleficent ends with the assertion that “we are both hero and villain,” we do not experience any comfort, or relief. This is the same as saying, “There really is no difference between the two: we alone are our own enemy, or our own salvation.” In a world that is all too aware of our continual failures to achieve peace, goodness, and happiness through our own devices, this is hardly a satisfying conclusion.
Maleficent, in the end, does not take us beyond ourselves, and the confines of our everyday world. The victory of the happy ending, the eu-catastrophe (to use Tolkien’s term), remains unconvincing. We do not leave the film and look upon the world with new eyes. If anything, we leave it disenchanted with the world and with ourselves.
In contrast to this, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, released in 2015, pierces us like a shaft of light through the clouds. This film succeeds in embodying spiritual realities in symbolic form, just as real fairytales have always done: goodness, love, self-sacrifice, patience, forgiveness, hope. Cinderella not only portrays these qualities, but it does so by capturing the spirit of fairytale.
Beginning with the structure and story-line with which we are familiar, Cinderella tells the traditional tale of the girl who loses her mother, and her father, and is left with a heartless stepmother and stepsisters, who reduce her to the status of a slave. The symbolic nature of this plot line in itself is beautifully developed, as Cinderella struggles not to identify herself with the external appearance she has been reduced to, or the manner in which she is being treated, but to hold on to the truth that her dignity lies deeper than anything that can be taken from her. From the beginning, we are brought into the drama between what appears on the surface, and the deeper truths hidden within the characters. Through the circumstances of Cinderella’s life, from the stepmother’s apparent geniality in the beginning, to the prince’s hiding his identity on first meeting Cinderella, the whole story forces us to wrestle with the tension between what things truly are, and what we wish to make them, or what others would have them be.
Several moments stand out in the story as examples of the movie’s success at incarnating spiritual realities:
The stepmother stands in front of Cinderella and offers her everything she ever wanted, in exchange for letting her rule the kingdom: Cinderella is promised the title of queen, the prince of her dreams, the chance to live happily ever after, all with the catch that the stepmother gets to be the one that runs the country. The scene is powerfully done. The stepmother is triumphantly sweeping out of the room, confident that she has won, and then Cinderella looks at her and says “No.” She couldn't keep her stepmother out of her own life, but she can protect the prince and the kingdom from her selfishness. “Whatever happens to me,” she says, I have the freedom to sacrifice all of my own dreams to protect what I love. Cinderella is apparently giving in, refusing the chance to have everything she ever wanted. At face value, it is the saddest of defeats, and we feel almost like she should have taken the compromise. But looking at Cinderella’s face, listening to her voice, we see that precisely her act of self-surrender, seemingly so powerless, is what generates instead an incredible sense of power, freedom, and fulfillment. The director has successfully captured and communicated the externally hidden reality: that we are most free, most human, most ourselves in choosing self-sacrificing love.
Again, when the “happy ending” has been realized, and the prince and Cinderella are walking out of the house hand in hand, Cinderella turns around to see the stepmother on the stairs. As she looks at her calmly, and says simply, “I forgive you,” the stepmother sinks down, completely disarmed and overcome. She is powerless in the face of the utterly gratuitous and free gift of Cinderella’s forgiveness in the face of all that she has inflicted on her over the years. And again, what we are used to calling a weakness, a failure, is suddenly revealed in its full, hidden truth: it is Cinderella, rather than the step-mother, who is utterly free, utterly herself, utterly unconquerable in her victory, when she looks at that woman whom she has every reason to hate and despise, and offers her the gift she least deserves: forgiveness. That unconquerable goodness has a miraculous quality to it. And watching that scene, watching those two, one cannot help but believe that this power is so much more real than the one the stepmother exhibits, restoring hope in the possibility of real goodness, real love.
Maleficent does not recall us to something more, to the greatness inherent in ourselves and the world. It is the tragic, nihilistic tale of a woman who learns to live without real love, sacrifice, or communion. It embodies the human drama which unfolds when a true sense of good and evil are evacuated from our lives. The entertainment industry, however, gives us a million stories like this one. Cinderella, on the other hand, reminds us that true self-sacrificial love is something real, something that truly does fulfill us. It is the honesty and integrity of Cinderella that in the end proves to be stronger than the malice and selfishness of the stepmother. A film like Cinderella has the capacity to bring into focus the true, eternal story, within which the tragedy of fallen man is but a passing chapter.
We need, more than ever before, stories such as this, that truly confirm for us the truth that we can rely on something beyond ourselves: in the definitive, final victory of Good over Evil. Because only the truth of such a victory lends any purpose, meaning, or hope to the defeats that we experience inevitably in our daily lives.
Siobhán Maloney is an assistant to the Office for Cultural and Pastoral Formation at the John Paul II Institute in Washington D.C., where she received her M.T.S.