Popular Stories Retold by the Villain – Why Grendel Works and Maleficent Won’t.
I am looking forward to seeing the movie Maleficent. Or at least I was, until I read up on the plot synopsis. It seems to be following in Wicked’s footsteps, crafting a tale that feels the urge to apologize for the villain’s wickedness. “No, Maleficent wasn’t SO evil. She just had a troubled past, and everything she did has a very good reason for being done.” It isn’t an uncommon stance to take, nor is it altogether bad.
It just isn’t what we like about a good villain.
Having read Grendel over the weekend put this into perspective. Grendel, for those who don’t know, is the story of Beowulf retold from Grendel’s perspective. If any a villain could be reimagined sympathetically, it’s Grendel. Unlike Maleficent or the Wicked Witch, Grendel, in the original epic, reacts to those stupid humans in their meadhall driving him nuts with their partying and such. He’s a force of nature, defending his territory. Once he’s killed, his mother comes out to avenge her son. In my college class where we read Beowulf, we all basically seemed to agree that Grendel was more a victim than anything else.
So it’s intriguing how, in Grendel, the novel doesn’t bother painting him as some tragic hero, but rather as a genuine villain. If anything, here he’s more evil than in the original epic. Where as in the original material he’s just a physical brute for Beowulf to dismember, in this, he’s a nihilist who hopes to establish his role as a destroyer of worlds out of a deep seated depression and envy of mankind.
That is not to say he’s unsympathetic. Indeed, he’s incredibly sympathetic, in the same way that Macbeth or Richard III are sympathetic and understandable. Indeed, that leads me to the primary difference between Grendel and Maleficent, and why one is spectacular while the other is probably a very pretty ride.
Stories like Grendel make the villain understandable, but don’t attempt to justify a villain’s actions.
Stories like Maleficent feel compelled to make the villains into unsung heroes.
No one who likes Maleficent wants her to be a hero. She’s the self-proclaimed Mistress of All-Evil. She’s a glorious anti-christ with an empire of orcs and other beast-men. She has a pet raven named Diablo! She is 100% evil. And the movie Sleeping Beauty justifies this beautiful with a quote that claims she doesn’t understand love, and how “she probably isn’t very happy.” There is your motivation right there. Simple, but compelling.
But no, rather than tell a story about someone incapable of understanding human affections, watching from the outside, perhaps hoping to demolish them, instead it’s a story about a scorned lover who is on a totally justifiable war against the District 9 guy.
Again, the movie isn’t out yet, but, going entirely off of early plot synopsis, that’s what it sounds like the film is doing. The advertising isn’t helping, by playing the upbeat happy music whenever Maleficent appears, rather than the intense nightmare music from our childhoods.
Compare this to Grendel. There is an incident when he’s a child where he learns humanity is crazy, but his defining moment is when the dragon comes down and tells him that life is meaningless, that he is destined to be a monster, and that definition allows him to slip into the role of the destroyer.
While Grendel is a character you can understand and feel for, his actions are still diabolical. He doesn’t kill people out of necessity so much as because he enjoys to kill. He’s intelligent enough to philosophize with the humans about the nature of evil. His relationship with his mother, who is almost unintelligible, is also very humanizing, even as it turns dark as the story continues. It’s compelling stuff.
However, the reason we as audiences don’t see this story very often is because it isn’t very pleasant. Grendel is a very dark story. It’s very morbid. It’s bleak, hopeless, and claims that, in the end, nothing will amount to anything. Beowulf only appears in the last two chapters, and, while he is a terrifying angel–complete with fiery wings–he isn’t enough to bring a lot of light to this tragedy. Even the last couple pages, the image of Grendel, running through the woods, dying alone as he screams out for his mother is fairly disturbing.
The ending of Wicked is kinda upbeat. I’m sure the ending of Maleficent will be, too.
Either way…probably going to see Maleficent the moment it comes into theaters.