What’s in a Screenplay Writer?

After finding out about Linda Woolverton yesterday, I did a quick and cursory count of Disney’s screenplay writers and found, courtesy of their Wikipedia pages, that of the Disney fairy tale films (I didn’t look at their other movies, just those few), up until last year Linda Woolverton actually was the last female screenplay writer – well, the only one credited for the screenplay by herself. On Mulan, it was three men and two women; and on Brave, two men and two women, one of whom was also Disney’s first female director and is solely credited with the story; so I think that film can definitely be considered a “woman’s movie”, too. But then this last year there have been two big Disney fairy tale movies with a woman getting the sole credit for the screenplay: Frozen and Maleficent.

Methinks I see a pattern: Beauty & the Beast, Brave, Frozen, Maleficent. Belle is the first Disney fairy tale heroine who does not pine for a prince (her dream is to find adventure). And the other three are movies about the relationships of women; princes, if they’re even around, are just sort of window dressing. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

There was one point made in the article about Linda Woolverton that caught my attention: Woolverton definitely had to navigate a male-dominated field. “In one scene,” the article says, “the screenplay had Belle pushing pins into a map of the world–places she wanted to visit–while waiting for her father to return. When Woolverton saw the segment on the storyboard, however, she found her heroine decorating a cake.” Apparently both world map and cake were ultimately dropped in favour of a scene of Belle reading, but don’t you think that’s interesting? Even in 1991, an animator thought it was more likely a girl would be baking than travelling the world.

When we pick apart movies for their elements, feminist or otherwise, we tend to look through our here-and-now lenses and forget how much things have changed. Beauty and the Beast has been picked on for not being feminist enough – but look what it was up against.

I think Woolverton and everyone else did a pretty awesome job on this movie, and I’m not the only one: it was nominated for an Academy Award in the “Best Picture” category. That’s up against every other movie out there that year, live-action and otherwise! If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. And I’d like to think that Woolverton’s screenplay had a whole lot to do with it.

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And One More Thing…

…about Sleeping Beauty, even though it won’t make it into my paper any more (well, maybe it’ll make it into the edited version, in a little side comment). In the name of research, I had to go watch the Maleficent movie on the weekend. I wasn’t really that interested at first, as from what I had heard of the movie it sounded really dark – I was thinking Snow White and the Huntsman kind of dark, which I hate. Plus, I had got the impression that it was a prequel to the Disney cartoon, telling the story of “How Maleficent Turned Evil” (like Oz the Great and Powerful is a prequel [I hate that word] to The Wizard of Oz).

However, both those impressions were wrong. I’m not going to throw around spoilers, as the movie is still too fresh and many of you won’t have seen it yet. But I’ll just say this: it’s not a prequel to the Disney movie, but a retelling – it turns the whole story on its head and tells it differently. You can tell that already from the trailer (so that’s not a spoiler): Maleficent actually meets Aurora while she is growing up, while in the cartoon, Maleficent spends all of the princess’ growing years searching for the girl so she can put her under her spell; not only do they not meet until Aurora’s sixteenth birthday, Maleficent has no clue where she is. Well, not so in this movie. And that, as Forrest Gump says, is all I’m going to say about that.

The graphics are astounding, of course, and the actors are pretty cool, too. Pay attention to how Angelina Jolie’s prosthetic cheek bones are exactly echoed by the outline of her black hood; it must have cost them some shooting effort to get the camera angle just right so that’s noticeable as often as it is.

Doing a comparison study of this movie with the old one and speculating on why they told the story this way now would make a whole other paper. The old Disney movie is already a very loose adaptation of the written fairy tale – they made up characters and situations out of whole cloth. The character of Maleficent is an invention of Disney’s; in the written story, the evil fairy shows up, chucks her curse around (unplanned, just because she’s offended at not having been invited), and disappears, never to be heard from again. Disney makes her into this big, evil-villain antagonist who hunts the princess her whole life and has a personal vendetta against her. And then they needed someone to fight her, so enter Prince Philip (who is apparently named after the Duke of Edinburgh, the only prince Americans knew of at that time). The screen time of the Disney movie is almost entirely taken up with two characters who barely exist in the fairy tale. So Disney takes the bare-bones written fairy tale, and makes up a whole story around it; and now they’ve taken that story, dismantled it, and made up another story out of the pieces. Talk about an adaptation of an adaptation, hypertext becoming hypotext. And next time I’ll watch the old movie again, I’ll be seeing it through the lens of the new one; it’ll be hard to look at Maleficent and not think of her character as she is portrayed in the new film – so now the new movie is becoming a hypotext for the old one. Very head-spinning.

And speaking of spinning, I’m still sceptical about the way the movies show the spindle the princess pokes herself on, and this film is no exception. I’ve never actually closely examined a spinning wheel – do spindles on them really stick up straight in the air? I thought they were sideways, pointing at the spinner. And the princesses all carefully and deliberately stick their finger on the end of that sharp pointy thing. From the Grimms story, I’m pretty sure we’re not dealing with a spinning wheel, but a drop spindle, where it would be much easier to accidentally jab yourself in the hand, especially if you’ve never handled one of those things before. Ah well, if I ever write my own adaptation of the story, I might have to learn to spin so I can get it right.

So that, I think, is enough of snoozing princesses and ash girls for the time being. On to Beauty and the Beast.