… is that she’s sleeping. For a hundred years, no less. Zonked out, snoozing. Zero activity level. And the prince isn’t much better. All he does is be born royal, show up at the bramble hedge at just the right time, walk in, and kiss the girl. End of story. This tale is the ultimate in passivity, in the Grimm’s version at least, which is the one we’ll stick with in this study. Neither the princess nor the prince has any agency; nobody does anything, really. Even the kiss is sort of a knee-jerk reflex – there’s a pretty girl, let’s smooch her; and oh look, it woke her up. Happily ever after, the end. There really is no plot to that story. Something happens to a princess, something else happens to a prince, they meet, finis.
I’ve been watching a number of different film adaptations of the story, and they all have trouble with that fact. You see, the issue is that with that hundred-year sleep, there is no way that the prince and princess can fall in love before she zonks out. There is nothing she can do to make her happily-ever-after come true; and there isn’t anything the prince does towards it, either – in the written fairy tale, he doesn’t do any of that slashing-at-the-hedge-with-a-sword, he just walks up to the brambles and they part for him so he can walk in (and then they slam shut behind him again, locking out his entourage). And what’s more, he’s got no motive to go kiss the princess; there’s no True Love in the picture until he lays eyes on her. The only reason he even walks up to the overgrown castle is that he’s a prince, and princes have to do adventurish things like tackle a briar hedge full of skeletons of other poor sods who didn’t get their timing right. Romantic? Not so much.
Only one of the movies I’ve watched so far, the 2009 Dornröschen, even retains the hundred-year sleep. It’s a one-hour TV movie, so they don’t have as much time to fill as a feature-length film. They build interest by interweaving the story of Fynn, who doesn’t know he is a prince, with the flashback story of the princess, told to Fynn by his uncle who is training him as stable boy with knighthood skills on the side. The real clincher is when Uncle August hands Fynn a miniature of the princess, painted by someone nearly a hundred years ago who still remembered her – so Fynn can fall in love with the beautiful princess before he even sees her in the flesh, as it were, and has a motive to rescue her. There is a rival, Jerk Prince Eric, who doesn’t make it through the hedge; and as at this point we don’t know that Fynn is a prince, there is the question of how this is going to work out. This version is probably the closest to the Grimm’s tale, without bending the timeline or the basic plot too much.
Another film that at least retains a long sleep is the parody Dornröschen – Ab durch die Hecke (Sleeping Beauty – Over the Hedge). In this one, the sleep only lasts fifty years, during which the prince keeps hacking at the hedge every single day, turning old and grey in the process. Finally he twigs to the fact that the wording of the curse says the hedge is impervious to even the strongest knight, so he gets his squire (equally old and grey, and in love with the princess’ maid) to try his hand at hedge-hacking, with immediate success. The princess, who’s fallen asleep just before blowing out the candles on her birthday cake, uses her candle-wish to wish them young and handsome again, and happily ever after ensues. This version also includes a good fairy who wears a frying pan on her head, and the Darth Vader theme plays every time the bad fairy shows up. It’s quite funny.
But this shows the main problem with the “fall in love before the curse takes effect” idea – even if the prince is willing to wait out the time of the sleep, and even if he finds a hack for the curse so the time is shortened (haha, get it? A hack!), he’ll be a doddering senior by the time she’s done. Or otherwise, you need to ditch the hundred-year period for the sleep entirely, which is of course what Disney did. In that version, it’s more like a hundred-minute sleep; you’re not even sure why the good fairies bother putting everyone else in the castle to sleep while they go fetch Prince Philip. He seems to be able to escape from the Maleficent’s castle very quickly (after she so obligingly hands him the motivation on a platter, by pointing out to him that his love is actually the princess and is cursed with a magic sleep), and his battle with the witch in dragon form takes about five minutes. By the time everyone wakes up, they’ve been sleeping a couple hours, at best.
The same goes for the very charming 1978 Czech film Jak se budí princesny, dubbed into German as Wie man Dornröschen wachküsst (How to Kiss Awake Little Briar Rose). In this one, the king and queen try to marry off the princess before her birthday so she can escape the country before the curse takes effect. But she falls for the wrong prince, the younger brother of her intended, which messes up the wedding plans. Well, Prince Jaroslav has this cute Ringo-Starr thing going for him, how could she resist him? So when she and the whole kingdom fall under the curse, of course he rides ventre-a-terre to the rescue, after climbing out his bedroom window on a rope (he’s been grounded for upstaging his older brother on the get-a-princess-to-fall-in-love-with-you front). Again, it takes him about half an hour or thereabouts to get into the castle and break the curse, but at least this prince puts in an honest effort, including digging a drainage ditch until his hands are raw because the evil fairy (the queen’s sister, in this case) tries to flood them out in the castle dungeons. He also plays the recorder to the princess’ lute (well, the sound track does, anyway) and wears a dashing cavalier’s hat with swirling white feathers – he’s easily the most romantic of those princes. His brother, of course, is a jerk.
So here we have the most basic romance storyline of “boy meets girl, boy has trouble getting girl, boy overcomes trouble, boy gets girl” – bingo, a plot. It’s not really the plot of the fairy tale, though. I don’t think you actually can make a movie of that particular fairy tale without pulling in a plot from elsewhere. The Disney movie capitalises on Maleficent, the evil fairy; their plot is, really, “good fairies vs. evil fairy” – the fairies are pretty much the only ones doing anything active, they take agency. The prince and princess, on the other hand, just react to what goes on around them.
And that’s the problem with Sleeping Beauty – she sleeps. And her prince isn’t much better. As Mr Bennet says in Pride and Prejudice, “You are both so compliant, nothing will ever be resolved upon.” Well, at least there won’t be a lot of arguments in that princely household.