Maleficent is important. She is important because she is an icon, a symbol. She is a symbol of evil, a powerful sorceress and a fire-breathing dragon who delights in tormenting others. In fact, she is almost equated with Satan himself, as though she were a she-Devil. In the original Disney film, Sleeping Beauty, she is said to wield the fires of Hell. She is said to be pure evil. Not only that, but Satan’s symbol is the serpent, or dragon (Rev. 12:9), and Maleficent has the ability to take the form of a black dragon. Take these three things, as well as her headpiece which has horns, and you have a symbol of pure evil, a representation of Satan himself.
But wait! That’s only part of the story! There is another side to Maleficent, as can be seen in the modernized version of Sleeping Beauty, titled Maleficent. Maleficent didn’t start off evil. She was betrayed by her lover. That’s why she turned evil. And in fact, Princess Aurora herself actually earns Maleficent’s affection, and serves to redeem Maleficent from her evil. Maleficent has regrets about the evils she has wrought. What we find in this modern retelling of a classic fairytale is a villain who is not two-dimensional, but three-dimensional. The villain is no longer pure evil, but a person with feelings, and a reason for their evil.
I am actually quite fond of this idea. However, I believe that this modern portrayal of a classically evil character has an underlying view of humanity behind it. Consider Into the Woods. Originally a play, Disney took it and made it into a musical. In it, classic ideas and symbolic figures are turned on their heads. Prince Charming is only that—charming, and also lascivious! The witch of the story has been hurt and abused by others, and that’s why she has put a curse on the baker and his wife.
As a writer, I’m very fond of three-dimensional characters who have a lot of depth and can change and grow in a story. These characters are known, in literature, as dynamic or round characters. But two-dimensional and one-dimensional characters, also known as static or flat characters, also have their place. Often, they serve as symbols of two absolutes: good and evil. In a post-modern society, thinking in such absolutes is frowned upon. In fact, in post-modern thinking there are no moral absolutes.
I watch quite a few movies, and I think there has been a shift in cinema. The bad guy is no longer the bad guy. Or at least, he’s not as bad as he was before. And the good guy is no longer the good guy, or at least not as good as before. This shift in cinema, particularly in Disney I think, speaks to an idea very common to modern man and his estimation of man: humans are born basically good. It is only when bad things happen to and warp them that they become evil and do evil things. Additionally, there is no pure good or pure evil.
This estimation of man is the predominant view in today’s culture, at least in the United States. It is especially prevalent in psychology, despite psychology’s father, Sigmund Freud, believing that humans were inherently selfish, not good. This colors how we view human beings, their suffering, and their failings. This idea leads to the disintegration of personal responsibility and becomes a game of “who done it”. Suddenly, a man’s struggle with pornography becomes no fault of his but from the way he was raised or from experiences he had in early childhood. People are no longer violent because they naturally have violent tendencies or simply aren’t good people. No, video games and easy access to guns have made them this way!
But is it so wrong to have evil be evil and good be good? Doesn’t it create an unrealistic duality that cannot be seen in reality? I don’t think so. To see this duality as unrealistic necessarily implies that there is no such thing as this duality. But this is patently false for the Christian. Christians know that there are moral absolutes, and that there is someone who is purely good and someone who is wholly evil. They are God and Satan respectfully. As for man—man is sinful. People naturally fall on the spectrum closer to evil than to good.
It is true that man is not wholly evil but that their whole being has been affected by sin. As bad as any person may be, he or she could always be worse. But man is not naturally inclined to good, either. Absolutes serve to demonstrate how man ought to be and how man ought not to be. Absolutes in stories serve to teach truth: there is a dualistic reality of pure goodness and whole evilness. Even if it is not found purely in human beings, human beings exist in that reality and they will always be closer to one side of the spectrum: good or evil.
Not only do absolutes teach the truth of our morally dualistic reality, they also teach children how they should be and how they should not be. The world is not some fluffy, idealistic place where people are basically good and friendly. People are selfish. The world is hard. It is cursed! Evil is real, and evil will be punished. There are consequences for one’s actions. But this means that good is also real. And because good is real, and good is stronger than evil (God is infinitely stronger than Satan), we know that good will triumph in the end.
This gives us hope! And every man and woman and child, no matter who they may be or where they come from, needs hope. Hope is that spirit in man that drives him forward, longing for better things and striving for better things, and indeed waiting for better things. So, while it can be good to have evil characters who can be related to, it’s also important to discern the view of mankind behind the creation and portrayal of such characters, and also to remember this: whether man does good or evil, there is only one who is purely good, and there is also one who is wholly evil.
This post was written by Joshua Wagner. Joshua is 26 years old and happily married to his wife, Heather. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Biblical Counseling at Crossroads Bible College. He is passionate about the Church, art and literature, theology, philosophy, and writing.