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Maleficent Writer Linda Woolverton on Adapting Fairy Tales for a New Generation

Women and Hollywood By Susan Wloszczyna | Women and Hollywood May 30, 2014 at 11:34AM

The woman whose films have made well over a billion dollars discusses how she was able to keep the integrity of Maleficent's villainy while also making sure we still rooted for her.
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Linda Woolverton
Linda Woolverton

More than a decade before Frozen's Jennifer Lee became the first woman to direct a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature and Brave's Brenda Chapman became the first female director of a Pixar film, there was Linda Woolverton.

During the early stages of the Magic Kingdom's big-screen cartoon comeback that began with 1989's The Little Mermaid, Woolverton was the screenwriter behind the first animated film to compete in the best-picture category, 1992's Beauty and the Beast. She would go on to be Tony-nominated for the 1994 stage version, the studio's first foray into adapting an animated feature into a Broadway show. 

For Beast, Woolverton set a new standard for fully fleshed-out fairy-tale heroines far beyond the vapid Disney princesses of yore with Belle, a bookworm unaware of her beauty who sacrifices her freedom to save her father and just happens to find love in the bargain.

Now, the writer has taken on the challenge of re-inventing one of Disney's most iconic animated villains in live-action form with Maleficent, one of this summer's few female-driven big-budget adventures, starring Angelina Jolie and opening today. Not only do we learn why this once-carefree fairy girl turns into a vengeful and bitter sorceress who curses a baby to fall into a death-like slumber on her 16th birthday, but we watch Princess Aurora (a ray of innocent sunshine in the form of Elle Fanning) forge a bond with a woman who should rightfully be her enemy.

Woolverton, 61, talks about the trend of turning animated classics into live-action features -- she also did the script for 2010's Alice in Wonderland -- and how she managed to re-imagine the self-proclaimed Mistress of All Evil from 1959's Sleeping Beauty as a sympathetic yet still chilling character. 

Sleeping Beauty was the first film I ever saw in a theater. As a result, I have mixed feelings about how these storybook tales we grew up on are deconstructed into vehicles to appeal to a new generation. The progressive female part of me is glad that these depictions of womanhood are being updated for the 21st century. But the baby-boomer kid inside of me feels as if someone thinks there is something wrong with the films I loved as a child. 

I understand where you are coming from. I grew up on them as well. These iconic characters became part of all of our beings. There is nothing wrong with them. But they reflect the point of view of their time. Many versions of the same story can exist. The purpose is not to wipe out the other one, but to do it in a different way. Besides, it is fun to have a reason to go back and look at the original again. 

What was the first Disney animated feature that you remember seeing in a theater?

I think it was Bambi. It really sticks out for me because it has the most heart-wrenching moment ever -- it's never been topped. The death of Bambi's mother killed me. I do think Disney films have such a powerful reach, one that speaks to people all over the world, generation after generation after generation. The world is a different place. We as women came through a revolution. We are not the same as we were then. These new films speak to today's generation but still have reverence for the past.

What do you think of the astonishing success of Frozen, whose plot has some similarities with Maleficent, with its redefining of what true love is and whose core relationship is between two women?

It's wonderful. I'm so thrilled that these movies with female protagonists are blowing the top off the box office. There is a sea change for female characters, from the lead character in Divergent to Katniss from The Hunger Games. I'm no longer stuck in a little ghetto. These films have a broad reach and make money. They used to think boys don't go to female movies and that is wrong. 

Shouldn't more women be involved behind the camera in these fairy-tale inspired movies? Given that only men have gotten a chance to direct comic-book adventures, why don't more women directors oversee these female-oriented fantasies like Maleficent? Robert Stromberg, who is making his directing debut with Maleficent, is highly qualified to handle the technical elements involved in the effects and production design, given that he won art-direction Oscars for both Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. But these films also could greatly benefit from a woman's touch.

Robert brought an absolute visual genius to Maleficent. But I agree that women should be involved more in all aspects of the film industry. In my career, it was interesting. When I first started with Beauty and the Beast, there were very few women in the room and now many more women are involved. But there are very few female directors doing large-budget movies. Women have a lot to say and a point of view that is just as important as men's. We are seeing incremental change. 

You have become an expert in knowing how to re-invent fairy tales for contemporary tastes and attitudes without losing the essence that have made them endure so long. What is your secret? 

You have to look at the story and ask, 'What are the icons?' You need the rose in Beauty and the Beast. You have to have Aurora prick her finger on a spinning wheel and go away for 16 years. You find those and work around them through the point of view of the protagonist. 

Did turning a villain into the central figure in Maleficent present a greater challenge? There is a reason that she is often ranked high among the popular villains in Disney lore. Even Angelina Jolie, who never warmed to the princess characters, has said the evil fairy was her favorite with her wicked sense of fun and serene elegance. 

It was very difficult to turn a villain into a hero and yet keep her a villain. There is a line there that is tricky. I was so lucky to have Angelina as a member of the team. She kept saying throughout the process, "She is still a villain. Still a villain." But we had to create a situation where you root for her. She could only be so bad.

SPOILER ALERT! Probably the key scene -- and the one that most people will be talking about -- is Stefan's betrayal of Maleficent for the sake of gaining the kingship after they shared true love's kiss in their youth. Obviously, you had to provide a better reason for her vengeful nature than simply not being invited to a royal party. But the fact that he drugs her and slices off her magnificent wings after their reunion feels like an act of rape or a castration. It is truly horrifying, even for adults, and heartbreaking. How did you decide on that moment to be the catalyst for Maleficent's evil ways?

I had to figure out what possibly could have happened to her to make her want to hurt an innocent baby. Something that would equal that act. In the animated movie, she had no wings. She just threw her robes open like wings. I thought, 'Is that it? Did someone take her wings?' They stole her soul and her heart had to turn cold. I knew that was the right answer. We depicted it in a way that is horrible, yet you can tolerate it and still feel it. Angelina does a great job in portraying her anguish. 

Yet some critics are simply interpreting her need to avenge as simply the act of a woman scorned.

That is part of it. She did love him.

This is a PG film. Was there concern that this scene and a few others might be a bit much for young children?

We really didn't think that so much. It is wings, nothing that any of us have. We didn't cut off her legs. We killed Mufasa in The Lion King. We killed Bambi's mother. The world is an intense place. Storytelling helps children to be strong. Hansel and Gretel is about eating children. Fairy tales have never shied away from that. 

The one change I regretted: You had to turn Sleeping Beauty's three delightful fairies, Flora, Fauna and Merriweather, who shelter Aurora and act as her caretakers until her 16th birthday, into the pixie comic-relief version of The Three Stooges. While I understood that Maleficent had to hold the most sway over the princess to make the plot work, I still wish they weren't such bumblers.

I had to undercut their influence. This is a Maleficent story, between her and Aurora. However, I do love those three from Sleeping Beauty very much.

What's next? You are still doing the script for the Alice in Wonderland sequel due in 2016, Through the Looking Glass

I just finished my version. 

Sacha Baron Cohen joins the cast as a character called Time. Will Alice be going back in time? 

That could be. The cool thing is that everyone is coming back again. I am also doing something for TV. I am out there pitching it. It is exciting for me.

Will it be about fairy tales?

Nope. Not a fairy tale.

This article is related to: Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, Linda Woolverton, Women Writers, Interviews, Bambi, Beauty and the Beast


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