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I’m a fan of revisionist stories. Paradise Lost isn’t supposed to be one (probably), but Milton created such a winning character in Satan that you almost can’t help yourself. Grendel is a brilliant book telling the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view. While I detested Wicked the novel, the Broadway play is fun, and if you’re not moved by “Defying Gravity” then I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
I would love to understand the history of these revisionist stories. I remember fondly the Fractured Fairy Tales segments of Rocky and Bulwinkle. Sesame Street often did this, too, with Kermit the Frog winning the race with the Tortoise and the Hare in one segment, and the princess turning into a sexy lady frog after kissing Kermit in another. So the genre has been around for at least a little while. Are there earlier examples?
My younger daughter Caroline and I just saw Maleficent, Disney’s latest updating of one of their more traditional fairy tales. I loved it. Lots of critics didn’t. Too bad for them.
In this version of Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent is a fairy with amazing, body-length wings with which she soars through the skies of the fairy world like a falcon. Stefan is a human boy who falls in love with her. When Stefan learns that touching any iron causes fairies unbearable pain, he throws away an iron ring on his finger. This act of kindness moves Maleficent’s heart, and they kiss. Maleficent believes it is true love.
But Stefan is weak and greedy, and is pulled into a power struggle for the throne. To become the next king, Stefan must betray Maleficent. When it comes, the betrayal is powerful – though this is a Disney movie, meant for families, the allusion to rape is palpable. Though Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, what he takes from her leaves her shattered and incomplete. Her grief leaps from the screen. it’s almost worse than death.
Maleficent’s revenge is to curse the new king’s infant daughter, Aurora. But in fact it’s clear that the curse isn’t what does the true damage to Stefan – rather it’s the public humiliation Maleficent forces upon the king that drives him over the edge. He dedicates himself to destroying Maleficent and her fairy world.
Just as in the original, Maleficent curses Aurora to prick her finger on her 16th birthday, causing Aurora to fall into a death-like sleep that will last forever. To further punish Stefan, Maleficent puts one condition on the curse – it can be broken only by the kiss of true love. Based on her experience with Stefan, Maleficent believes that such love doesn’t exist.
Stefan exiles Aurora into hiding – one gets the distinct feeling this is less for the infant girl’s protection than to clear the way for his own obsessive revenge. Maleficent – perhaps still feeling something for the young boy who stole her heart – keeps a close watch over the child she has cursed. Anyone who has ever loved a child will appreciate what comes next.
I won’t give away any more. While the ending is perhaps no surprise, it is quite satisfying and, like Disney’s recent movie Frozen, turns the traditional Fairy Tale gender power structure on its head. About time, too.
Anyway, I’m writing about Maleficent not so much as a movie review as a segue into a more general subject. Why is it now in our history that revisionist fiction has become so popular? I suggest it’s another result of the Flynn effect described by Steven Pinker in Better Angels of Our Nature. We as a society are smarter now than we’ve ever been in our history. Simple tales of good and evil no longer work for us. We want to see things from multiple points of view. We want to understand the motivations of both heroes and villains, and we want to judge these motivations for ourselves. Most of all, we want and expect to make choices that make sense to us, and damned be the author who forces her own choices on her audience.
We want to participate in stories, not just have them force-fed to us again and again. How do we participate? By changing the rules of engagement. By taking a fresh look at old assumptions. By recreating the characters anew. We demand and expect to play a creative, thoughtful, active role in storytelling.
Shakespeare is one arena into which revisionism treads only with the greatest of difficulty. The words are sacrosanct. And yet the most interesting parts of most Shakespeare performances are those unique interpretations of the stage directions, the casting, even the pauses within the unchanging text (see my thoughts on Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth, for instance). Why? Because we want to discover our own unique meanings in these ancient stories. We want them to matter to us.
The difference between Shakespeare’s contemporary audience and ourselves is not primarily a difference in genes – the timespan separating us from our Elizabethan pregenitors is too short for much genetic evolution. No, the difference is essentially cultural. We are more moral than audiences of Shakespeare’s time. (When was the last time you went to a cat burning?) We are less violent, as well, with a homicide rate far below Shakespeare’s and still falling. We are far more exposed to science, to technology, to logic, even to great literature. And, as Flynn’s studies of IQ scores clearly show, we are better able to reason.
You may or may not enjoy Maleficent. You may or may not be a fan of Broadway musicals like Wicked. You may or may not even see the value in re-examining stories like the Garden of Eden or Abraham and Isaac with a more modern, even revisionist, eye. But, less because of your genes than because of the culture in which you are immersed, you are better equipped than any of the myriad humans who came before you to take a fresh look at the literature, the root metaphors, the formative mythology, and the social assumptions of our culture – and to make them ever better. What a great time to be alive!