The School for Good and Evil is Netflix’s newest book-to-film adaptation that should have been left alone. The magical schools that separate heroes and princesses from villains is a topic that has already been covered before. So, what is so special about this one? Spoilers: nothing. Although the story successfully explores the not so black-and-white “good” and “bad”, it also limits a person’s place on the moral spectrum based on their physical attributes. You will either love or hate this visually beautiful but occasionally insensitive movie.
Soman Chainani’s book series “The School for Good and Evil” was recently adapted into a movie by Netflix. The story follows two out-cast young girls, Agatha (Sofia Wylie) and Sophie (Sophia Anne Caruso), from a medieval town called Gavaldon. As Sophie gets increasingly dissatisfied with the poor and un-princess-like life, she wishes to get into a magical school: the School for Good and Evil. As a loyal friend, Agatha gets dragged into Sophie’s desire to escape from Gavaldon and ends up in the ‘Good’ school. Unexpectedly, Sophie gets admitted to the ‘Evil’ school, infuriating them both as Agatha wants to go back home and Sophie truly believes that she belongs to the ‘Good’ school. This marks the beginning of chaos within this fairy-tale-like world as they both scheme to reach their goals of going to the place they believe they belong.
People in the ‘Good’ school are attributed the characteristics of being vain, egoistic, dumb, and especially being bullies. While people in the ‘Evil’ school are described to be passionate, smart, violent and ugly. Although the movie tries to break away from stereotypes of displaying villains as pure evil and heroines as absolute moral compasses, it also confirms that evil must look ugly and good has to appear pretty. This raises a lot of problematic questions since Sophie’s nose starts to change its shape by becoming more hooked and her hair gets wavier as she embraces evil. The other students from the ‘Good’ school and some teachers around her also reassure the audience that having such a nose means that one’s appearance is ugly, which is unlike the naturally beautiful Sophie who has straight blonde hair and a pretty tiny nose.
Classical tales have always described witches to have hooked noses and curly hair. So, one might believe that it is no surprise that Sophie goes through this transformation and turns into a “hag” as many people on social media declared. However, historians have explained that this stereotypic description comes from old and discriminatory tales, which has made us understand that this characterization is actually quite antisemitic. The physical appearance of a stereotypical witch roots back to the 13th century when Jewish people were forced to wear pointed hats so that they could be identified and be targeted for antisemitism. Since Jewish people held non-Christian gatherings, their activities were described as Satan-worshiping and using black magic, leading to the belief that anyone with a pointy hat is a witch. Therefore, people with physical features like hooked noses and curly hair were deemed to be evil. This stereotype continues to be reflected in popular culture, and contributes to the villainization and alienation of the Jewish society. Everyone must understand that solely appearance does not describe the personality of a person and there are no specific physical attributes that can be deemed ugly.
The School for Good and Evil also has a lot of queer-baiting which is increasingly used in media products to appear to be progressive and LGBTQ+ allies. Throughout the movie we see that Agatha is more comfortable in wearing pants and boots, and struggles in dresses that the ‘Good’ school provides her. This could be explained by the fact that she is from a poor background and cannot afford dresses like Sophie’s. Yet, in the end of the movie, we see that she returns back to her old stereotypically masculine clothes even if she has access to new feminine clothes through her magic. Her decision to wear such clothes makes one question her gender identification as her hometown Gavaldon appears to be from the medieval times, which are times when women were generally expected to wear skirts and dresses. However, since the storyline fails to focus on Agatha’s character, besides her role as Sophie’s sidekick, the audience never gets to understand her mindset. Due to this, Agatha also appears to be obsessed with Sophie and jealous of Tedros because of Sophie’s attention to him. I genuinely felt a relief when Agatha kissed Sophie, clearing my doubts of any god-awful queer-baiting. But I was wronged and left utterly disappointed when Agatha kissed Tedros before going back to Gavaldon.
In the end, The School for Good and Evil had great visual effects but nothing ground-breaking that could not have been made 5 years ago. The plot of the movie was saved by Sophia Anne Caruso, Sofia Wylie, Charlize Theron’s acting and Michelle Yeoh’s very few scenes. If the writers decided to change parts of the book in the movie, like omitting Agatha’s whole character development, they could have at least made it more relatable for this generation’s young adults. The jokes were childish and the newer songs like Billie Eilish’s You Should See Me in a Crown were used at the most awkward times. All the budget that went to the VFX team, costumes, and set should have been used on filming longer sections of Sophie and Agatha’s relationship. Although the actors did a phenomenal job, the scriptwriters failed to capture the essence of the original storyline and created an irrelevant and sometimes ignorant script.
Edited by Patricia Beschea