Decentring Classics: Bringing Minor Characters to the Foreground with Alison Case

Good morning book fans.

Just thought I’d take a moment to tell you about a really fun day I had a few weeks ago. A small group of writers gathered together at Ponden Hall, the house that inspired Emily Bronte to create Thrushcross Grange in her beloved novel, Wuthering Heights. This was part of a range of events celebrating the Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing.

Workshop

Led by Alison Case, author of Nelly Dean, we delved into the lives of some minor characters of classic novels. Most people chose to write about Bronte characters. We talked about Bertha Mason, Mrs. Reed, Helen Burns, Adele Varens in Jane Eyre; Isabella Linton, Zillah in Wuthering Heights among others.

Being in the inspirational home of the Lintons, I felt drawn to Isabella and wrote a short piece for her. During our discussions about Isabella, we explored her motivations with a strong emphasis on her childish idealism. We also talked about Emily Bronte’s opinion of Isabella and came to conclusion that she probably didn’t like her very much. I was interested in the influence on Isabella of the gender norms and values in her society. She had very limited options as a woman living in a rural location. She would have felt all sorts of social pressures from her family and while she is portrayed by Bronte as being a heady cocktail of downtrodden, masochistic and selfish, I like to think that there’s a little bit of self-assured control in there as well. Yes, she made some unusual choices and reveled in the torture of young dogs, but she was moulded into the creature she became by societal pressures. I wanted to give her a voice that cut through all the incidental evidence we have about her through the eyes of Lockwood and Nelly Dean.

Here is Isabella at Thrushcross Grange, a few weeks into Cathy’s lengthy sojourn, following being caught by the dogs as she spied on the Lintons with Heathcliff. Isabella is writing in her journal.

Mrs Phillips is bringing tea and cake into the room. Again. I am busying my mind and hand in this activity so that I will not be tempted to indulge her fancy that I love her cooking or that I shall remain so petite with such richness in my belly. There Edgar goes taking his fill. He is feigning a deep interest in a small volume of Shakespeare. I know not who he is trying to impress. That wild child will no more step inside the house than I would step out of it today. Unlike my deluded older brother, I see very clearly where Miss Cathy’s heart belongs and it most assuredly is not with poor Edgar. Do not mistake me; I do not sympathise with the fool. Pity, perhaps, but pity cannot survive where the seeds of triumph take root and flourish. All in time. There is no malice, no real harm. We are siblings and therefore share a healthy rivalry. But all rivalries must one day declare a victor, only in our case perhaps a “Victoria” is more apt a term? My! How clever I am. One day, perhaps I will share this tome with H. What fun we shall have as we pore over these pages and find new ways to ridicule our respective siblings and their pretentious marriage. Of course we will likely stay away from the Grange for many months. While I am while sure my H will be as devoted to me as he is devilishly charming, I cannot trust Cathy, for what hold can my poor insipid brother have on her affections when such a man as H is present. Of course I plan to trust H implicityliy but care must be taken. C is wild and uncouth. I must not expose H to that. And of course, once the marriages are made and homes established I shall be declared winner. For I will have H, who is wanted by C who is wanted by E, all the while being adored by Heathcliff. It is such a plan. And now I think I will eat some cake after all.

Alicia Bruce, September 2015

I was largely influenced by the amazing array of homemade cakes that were brought out for us, mid-session. I think I heard every single participant say that this was the most beautiful writing workshop they had ever been on. I concur. Look …

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Can’t wait for next year’s Bronte Festival of Women’s Writing! 

While we’re on the subject, I believe there will be a celebration of all things Bronte at the Huddersfield Literature Festival 2016 which runs from 3rd to 13th March 2016, so keep an eye out for that.

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Talking Statues Competition Runner Up!!

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Hi everybody!

Just a quick post to let you know some exciting news. I entered the Talking Statues writing competition in October and guess what? I’m a runner up!!

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I found out about Talking Statues via fellow blogger Gina on her blog Playwright’s Competition Calendar. (You should follow her. She shares lots of interesting news).  The competition was to write a 400 word monologue for one of eight statues, four in London and four in Manchester. I chose to write for the handsome chap pictured above, Stan the T-Rex. Stan lives in Manchester Museum. He is a bit scary looking at first but don’t let that put you off. He is very lovely really, plus he’s been through quite a lot so y’know, give him a chance.

I found it quite tricky to write just 400 words. After visiting the museum and sitting with Stan for an hour or so, I had many many notes to wade through. I began by absorbing as much information as I could from the displays around Stan. The brief was to be educational and informative as well as entertaining, so I wanted to be as factually correct as possible. I then just sat with Stan for a little while.  My initial draft was 1500 words, so trimming that down was very strange. I much prefer the longer version to my final 400 word piece. I might publish the full thing on here soon for your perusal, you lucky things you.

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The competition winner is BJ Edwards. His monologue has been recorded by an actor, which you can hear if you visit Stan at the museum. I haven’t made it yet but will hopefully pop in and visit him soon.

You can read all the runner up monologues, including mine (!) on the Manchester Museum website.

Enjoy

‘The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson

Its a ridiculously long title that fits a ridiculously tall tale. ‘The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson.

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It all starts on the one-hundredth birthday of Allan Karlsson. Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, he is waiting for the party he-never-wanted-anyway to begin. The mayor is going to be there. The press is going to be there. But, as it turns out, Allan is not…Slowly but surely Allan climbs out of his bedroom window, into the flowerbed (in his slippers) and makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, we learn something of Allan’s earlier life in which – remarkably – he helped to make the atom bomb, became friends with American presidents, Russian tyrants, and Chinese leaders, and was a participant behind the scenes in many key events of the twentieth century.

(Ta Amazon for this handy synopsis)

In the Interview with the Author at the end of the eBook edition that I read, Jonasson talked about his journey of writing this book. He wanted to write an uplifting story. Uplifting it may be, but its a little too far fetched for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some far fetched I do. But I also like a bit of substance to weigh it down, rather than a flimsy layer of a story that sticks over historical events somewhat haphazardly like a piece of rogue cellophane. Jonasson himself has said that the reason that Allan is 100 years old is so that he could fit in some of the main historical world events of the last century.

As robust as Allan has proved himself to be over the century of his life (surviving explosions, enduring psychiatric institutions, escaping prison, fooling at least five world leaders. Please!), I couldn’t help but read  his story through the thick rimmed spectacles of the eulogist. The story jumps between the past and the present. With every shift to the present, I had to stifle an anticipatory grieving as he fumbled through his next caper and/ or full bottle of vodka. I don’t want to ruin the ending so SPOILER but I found it very unrealistic that Allan didn’t die in the end. Not to sound morbid but with the main character being 100 years old, I kind of expected the end point to be his death. But I guess that would have ruined Jonasson’s perky upbeat book.

I have a slight marmite dilemma with this book. One of the things that I can’t decide whether I love or hate about it is the incessantly upbeat tone of the narration contrasted with the absurd and sordid criminal activities that go on. A lot of the time it feels like you’re being read a cosy night time story, lulled into a false sense of security by the flowing cadences, the simplicity of ‘this happened so then this happened’, the perpetually cheery Allan. Then WHAM. An explosion. A conveniently deceased antagonist. An elephant with a penchant for sitting on gun wielding gang members. IT MAKES NO SENSE JONASSON!

This book was written in Swedish and translated into English by Rod Bradbury. I always find it difficult to read a translated book (no offence Rod). I get distracted by the fact that it is translated. One of the things I love about reading/ writing is playing with language, experimenting with the shape, sound and the rhythm of the words. I love the specific nuances behind a northern phrase that probably wouldn’t transfer to the southern part of our isles let alone another language.

A large part of a story is the way in which it is told. This is why we have favourite authors that we go back to again and again (Joanne Harris, Kate Mosse, George R.R. Martin, hello to you).  If you take away the author and their style, yes you still have the story but I worry that this diminishes some of the intentions behind the story. Allow me to illustrate my point further. How many times have fairy tales been rewritten? With each retelling, the story is morphed into something very slightly different until we get Mr Walt Disney making a completely magical film called Beauty and the Beast in 1991 which nevertheless tells a completely different story to the original Belle et la Bête published in 1740. This is no way diminishes my undying love for Disney FYI. Also this analogy doesn’t really work because Madame de Villeneuve is long gone and if it were not for Disney’s version the majority of humans would never have known about this story. I think I just wanted to talk about my all time fave film…

So, yeah, The 100 Year Old Man... Didn’t love it. Probably won’t watch the film. Maybe I’d feel differently if I could read fluent Swedish.

We’ll never know.

 

NaNoWriMo 2014

The year is getting on, leaves are changing colour before plummeting to their mossy ends, and I’m getting a real hankering for mulled wine. This can mean only one thing. It’s NaNoWriMo time! November is National Novel Writing Month. 30 days, 50, 000 words, 1.2 million coffee beans.

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Why should you do NaNoWriMo? You shouldn’t. Not if you don’t want to. Its very damaging socially. Your intermittent ideas will force you to keep very unreasonable hours. Plus all those dehydrating coffees do nothing for your skin. But here’s why I’m doing it anyway.

When new acquaintances ask me what I do, I veritably lie and loudly pronounce “I’M A WRITER DONCHA KNOW!”  I then realise that I haven’t said this at all but only thought it quite loudly to myself whilst emitting a low giggle. Consequently, my almost acquaintance unfairly concludes that I am quite insane and immediately moves on with their life, in a less deranged direction.

Sadly this is not made up and is loosely based on at least two real life experiences.

While my authoring claims may be considered to be incorrect, my means of employment having never involved the assemblage of words, I am a writer. Sort of. I write all the time. At home, when no-one’s alooking, but I’m still a writer.

However, because monies must be earned away from my writing desk, my writing time has slowly been squeezed out over the past few years (blogging and inane twitterings aside). NaNoWriMo is just brilliant because it allows you, nay commands you to focus solely on one idea. It gives you permission and the time to release that story that’s been jumping up and down on your imagination box, tapping away at your neurological pathways and invading all available orifices.

There’s nothing like a goal and a looming deadline to get stuff done. 30 days to write 50,000 words can be quite overwhelming. But broken down into daily chunks, it really is manageable. It helps if you have a plan. E.g. knowing beforehand what you want to write about and some idea of character and/ or plot is always a bonus. Some people draw up a schedule for each day, so that they don’t have to think too much. They can just write one scene and move on.

From what I’ve seen on twitter and the interwebs, real writers don’t wallow around in dozens of half formed ideas and self pity. They have one book. They talk about it, they promote it, they give talks based on the themes from that book. So, that is what I’m going to do this November. Just write. One book.For this reason, I’ll be taking a break from reviewing and blogging. Cue loud sobbing and despair from my hoards of readers. Calm down dear ones! A break will be occurring apart from one book blog tour that I’m involved with for this book on 12th November. I also have a couple of reviews in the pipeline for the end of October. But after that, no more! Until December when I have a very exciting post coming up. I’ll be reviewing Matt Gerrard’s novel Shadow and Shade. But I digress.

So, that’s why I will be NaNoWriMo-ing in November. Anybody else getting involved? Its very easy to sign up. Let me know. Maybe we can be writing buddies and bully each other into achieving that 1, 667 word count every day. I can be found on the NaNoWriMo website under the imaginative name of Alicia Simone. Look me up. What fun we’ll have.

Happy writing x

 

 

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. In need of some direction for my next read, I turned to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 which is where I found it short-listed. Along with some others from the short-list, I ordered “The Goldfinch”. Eventually I picked it up, which after dabbling in kindle reading was quite a shock to my weakened arm muscles (its really big. 864 pages big).

I had no idea what it was about. Baileys told me it was good so I bought it. Before delving in, I gave the dust jacket a cursory glance to prepare my brain for what was to come. This is what I read:

“Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld.”

If I had read this in the mellow light of a bookshop, I most likely would have put it down as it doesn’t sound like my usual cup of coffee (black no sugar in case anyone’s taking notes). But I had it so I read it anyway.

Since finishing the book, I’ve had a look at some reviews and am surprised by the polarity of opinions about it. Vanity Fair give far too much of the story away before giving Tartt some backhanded compliments, followed by some outright insults. The Sunday Times is also fairly mean. The Guardian is much more upbeat about the whole thing. I’m not going to tell you what happens. Tartt does that very well all on her own. I do want to talk about her characters, her voice and some themes that I took away from the book.

I’ll start with our tragically naive protagonist, Theo Decker. What a guy. Its been 11 years since her last book so I imagine that Theo Decker has been with Tartt for some time. In a 800+ page book with a single narrator, I don’t doubt that he’ll be sticking around a little longer. We meet Theo in his 20s before hurtling back in time to 13 year old Theo.  Because of what happens, the novel deals a lot with “what ifs”. When looking through Theo’s eyes, its hard not to constantly ask this question regarding him as a person. In some ways, when comparing 20 something Theo to his younger self, despite everything that he’s been through, he’s still exactly the same naive little boy. Its almost as if his personal growth was stunted that day in New York.

The relationship between Theo and Boris is essentially harnessed in “bad” things. Drugs, truanting, theft etc. Many more “what if” questions arise around this friendship. Boris is the antithesis of Theo and exactly what the book needed, if not Theo himself, who arguably would have done very well without Boris. In a much different way. If Theo is stunted and naive, Boris is worldly wise and fearless. Boris is also quite fun to read with his myriad of accents from his wandering childhood.

There are many other characters of course, which don’t take up too much airtime but nevertheless perform prominent and pivotal roles within the plot. Most of these characters are physically absent throughout the narrative, being abroad, away at school or dead. But Theo still carries them with him. The most striking example of this is on page 783 (I’m now going to tell you something that happens in the book even though I said I wouldn’t do that) when Theo is holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room. He is in trouble. He’s done some terrible things. He’s full of fever and other questionable substances. He’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. He flicks through the channels on the TV and this happens:

“I stopped astonished at the sight of my twenty-five-year-old father: one of his many non-speaking roles, a yes-man hovering behind a political candidate at a press conference, nodding at the guy’s campaign promises and for one eerie blink glancing into the camera and straight across the ocean and into the future, at me. The multiple ironies of this were so layered and uncanny that I gaped in horror.”

There are many more examples of weird coincidences throughout the novel. Not only that but it is so visual, that all along I kept saying how great this story would be for a film and/or TV show. And now The Hollywood Reporter tells us that it’s happening!! Very exciting! I feel I should get some kind of cut. No?

The main lesson that I took from “The Goldfinch” is that good can come from bad. Its so simple and yet so powerful. You might argue that it was unnecessary for Tartt to pre-empt this pearl of wisdom with 835 pages, but I would disagree. Theo’s realisation at this point throws a whole new light on all that has passed. It ultimately allows him to feel acceptance and move forward philosophically rather than look back in anger (I heard you say…little Oasis kicker for you there). While reading the closing pages, it is difficult to decipher Theo’s voice from Tartt’s. It is clearly Theo speaking, but what he says is clearly very important to Tartt, or she would not have devoted a whole novel to illustrating the points that she lays out here.

I don’t say this about many characters, but since I’ve finished “The Goldfinch”, I miss Theo. I’m used to his voice and his tone. But because I am a 100% certified bookaholic and must therefore be holding and/ or be near a book 24/7, I confess that the “The Goldfinch” was still warm when I reached for the next one. Oh the shame. While this is good for my book addiction, it does not allow me to forget Theo. This morning I found myself reading “Lolita” in Theo’s voice, which is all sorts of wrong. But that is testament to Tartt’s creation.

Tartt has created a masterpiece not unlike its namesake painting. In it she champions the importance of the Arts. This is seen in the dangerous lengths that her characters go to, to protect Art as well as portraying the black hole that it leaves once its gone.

There are so many other things I could say about this book but the wordcount is bordering on silly and you probably have a life to be getting on with, so I’ll leave it with this: yes, its big and bulky and yes, it is mostly very deeply sad, but a good book is worth sticking with. There will be moments when you think, “C’mon Tartt! Lighten up!”, but then, 800 pages later, you’ll read a line. And that line will put it all into perspective. A light bulb will flicker on above your head and you will feel so very wise. I can’t tell you which line that will be because it will most likely be different to the one I picked out.

And then, when you’ve read that big book all by yourself, you can treat yourself with some sort of delicious cake. There you go. Cake. You deserve it.

Write Now

Hello lovely readers

Hope your week has been fun thus far.  Today, I’m going to do a slight sales pitch for your eyeballs.  So, simultaneous apologies and allure-isms coming your way (this is a real word.  I know this cos I’m a writerer).

If you are a writerly type who enjoys a jaunt to the theatre, and you are located in the West Yorkshire area, then you should really know about Write Now.  Its a writing group specifically focused on writing for theatre.

A writer friend recently asked me, What actually happens in writing groups?  So for he, and anyone else who wants to know, here is a brief summary of what  actually happens in our writing group.

WHAT

Our main focus is writing for the stage but we do sometimes discuss screenplays too.  We talk about writing techniques including developing character, relationships between characters, place, purpose, motives, backstories.  We share reading recommendations, play recommendations, competition deadlines.  Sometimes we go watch a play together.  We talk about our goals and how to achieve them.  We read plays of established playwrights and some that we have written ourselves.  Oh, and we do some writing too.

All of this stuff might seem pretty obvious to any seasoned writer but talking about it really helps to hone our existing ideas and often create whole new ideas.  I always leave a Write Now sesh with at least five brand new characters and/or stories germinating in my head.

WHERE

Large Meeting Room, In the Attic, Up the Spiral Staircase, Through the Bar, Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, England, Planet Earth.

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WHEN

Every other Tuesday, 7-9pm term time only.  (email letscreate@thelbt.org for Autumn dates)

WHO

Unlike a lot of other writing groups, we have the advantage of having a real life, published, working, human playwright to lead the way.  Emma Hill is our resident expert in all things theatre.  The rest of us are theatre and writing enthusiasts.  Apart from Emma, there are no professional writers among us (yet) but we are all really good and brilliant and funny.

WHY

Traditionally, writing is a solitary activity.   But writing for theatre definitely lends itself to writing groups.  We are able to bring our works in progress to the group and hear our characters come to life, through group readings.  This is where we discover if our ideas actually work and whether our characters are believable.  Yeah, you can always ask friends and family to read your scripts but there’s something quite delicious about sharing your work with peers.  We give each other honest and constructive feedback. Everyone has the opportunity to discuss any issues / ideas that they have about their own stuff.

MISCELLANEOUS

There are usually about 6 sessions per term. Each session is £8 and paid upfront at the beginning of term.  I think the cost is slightly less for students but I am not a student so I don’t take note of such things.

I originally joined Write Now following an active search for writing groups and stumbling across it on the LBT website.  I have always been a writer in secret but I wanted to meet other writers.  I was also interested in developing my somewhat non-existent dialogue writing skills within the stories I was scribbling.  What better way to do this than to dive into a writing medium that deals almost solely in dialogue!?

If you are a writer in West Yorkshire, wanting to develop your scriptwriting skills (or even if you just find yourself at a loss for what to do of a Tuesday evening, we’re not picky) Write Now is the place for you!  So, do pop along, wielding the writing implement of your choice, a sprinkling of theatre lovin’ enthusiasm, a big wodge of lined paper and join the fun!

Check out the Lawrence Batley Theatre website here

Email letscreate@thelbt.org or call 01484 430528 for more information

Hero and/or Villain and True Love’s Kiss

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So I went to see “Maleficent” last night.  Definitely a firm favourite already.  I can’t wait to get this in my DVD collection.  The idyllic scenery is breath-taking, Ange is on fire as the eponymous hero and/or villain while the story is captivating.  The nuts and bolts of the story as we know it are there, but rearranged quite darkly.  The characters that we expect to be “good” find themselves ferreting about in the shadows, while the “villain” is twisted into a much more favourable light, as you will see.

I’ll just say this now.  While I’m not a fan of spoilers, I fear that there may be some lurking below.   So, if you haven’t seen this film yet and you don’t want to inadvertently find out any crucial info that may ruin your enjoyment of the film, I wouldn’t risk it.

Anyone still with me?

I’ll take that as a yes…

Moving on.  I do enjoy a retelling of a classic tale (hence my all consuming obsession with Once Upon a Time), because it allows the audience to delve that little deeper into the world of the story.  Classic fairy tales can sometimes be seen as a little outdated with regards to morals and ideals, particularly with regards to a woman’s place in the world.  But by retelling these tales and putting a modern spin on it, we still get to keep the characters and the stories that we know and love while experiencing them from a different perspective and learning something new about the world that we thought we already knew.

(SPOILER ahead) One of the most important messages in “Maleficent” as a retelling of “Sleeping Beauty”, is that the hero and the villain of the piece are not always as they seem.  First impressions are powerful things, but dig a little deeper and your assumptions are probably wrong.  At the end of the movie, the narrator, who turns out to be a grown up Aurora, tells us that the prophecy stating that either a hero OR a villain would unite the two lands, was wrong.  She says that in the end, it was one who was both hero AND villain in the form of Maleficent, the good fairy turned bad.  I found this statement particularly interesting, as we have been discussing this very thing in this week’s Write Now session – the protagonist hero with a dark side.

(More SPOILERS in this paragraph) I don’t agree with Aurora’s closing statement.  I don’t think Maleficent was ever the villain at all. She was always good.  She just reacted, quite understandably, in a negative way to the violation and heartbreak that she suffered at the hand of Stephen.   She experienced intense pain and torture at the loss of her wings and the betrayal of her childhood sweetheart.  But she does not let this pain defeat her. She powers on and takes a stand against the real villain in the piece – Stephen.  Sure, some of the things she does seem a little mean.  Yes, it isn’t socially normal to curse a baby on her christening day. And yes, turning birds into humans into wolves into horses into dragons to do your bidding and thereby perpetrating casual slavery does seem somewhat tyrannical, I’ll give you that. But what was the girl to do?  She was heartbroken!

Throughout the film, Maleficent shows her true nature in her developing relationship with Aurora.  She can’t help but shower Aurora with motherly love and in the end, it is this love that saves Aurora from the curse.   I like the idea of exploring the nature of true love’s kiss.  It’s an intrinsic fairy tale device and is something that has cropped up in a few movies recently – showing true love’s kiss as being something much more substantial than that between a boy and a girl who have met once before if at all.  Not good messages for the young brains absorbing these stories.

In “Enchanted” (2007) Princess Giselle desperately longs for her prince to come along so that she can experience true love’s kiss.  Her wish comes true when the very dashing Prince Edward gallops into her life. This film begins with a typical fairy tale happy ending; a situation that is all based on looks and chance meetings. As the film develops, Princess Giselle realises that she has nothing in common with her “true love” and she eventually finds a meaningful relationship with the right person.  Happy times.

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In “Frozen” (2013), true love is depicted as sisterly love, rather than the traditional romantic connotations.

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Again, in “Maleficent”, the nature of true love is depicted as that deep bond between family and friends rather than random handsome boy who has just met random beautiful girl.  After all, Aurora is awakened from the curse by the only person who truly loves her despite everything that they have been through. And despite the “prince” being drafted in to plant a smacker on the poor girl.

In Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) Maleficent was a pure baddy.  There was not a jot of good in her.  “Maleficent” 2014 has shown us that there is more to the story than we thought.  Would a straight up villain save the day and undo the wrong that she has inflicted? No, no she would not.  Maleficent will always from now on be a hero in my eyes.  Good job, Disney folk.

In conclusion, I love this film.

The End.

 

PS the soundtrack for Maleficent is so beautiful.