You might not recognize her name, but you definitely know her work. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton, 63, has penned such moderns classics as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. In 2010, with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, she became the first solely credited female writer of a billion-dollar-earning movie.
She followed that up with 2014’s Maleficent, her retelling of Sleeping Beauty, which was a massive box office hit and spurred a trend of Disney remakes from the villain’s point of view. (Emma Stone is set to star in the studio’s Cruella and Woolverton is currently writing a Maleficent sequel.)
All told, Woolverton’s movies have grossed $3.2 billion worldwide. She’ll undoubtedly add to that number this week when Alice Through the Looking Glass opens in theaters. As with Maleficent and the first Alice, Woolverton struggled with finding her way into the story — neither Alice movies are literal adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s books — but eventually was snagged by an essential truth.
“This one has so many references to the past and the Red Queen,” Woolverton tells EW. “The Red Queen [played by Helena Bonham Carter] is one of my favorite characters, and I think it’s because something bad happened to her and she almost couldn’t help becoming what she became. Her sister, the White Queen [Anne Hathaway] made a mistake in her youth and sealed the Red Queen’s fate.”
Woolverton was writing Through the Looking Glass while on the set of Maleficent and admits the themes bled into each other. “Not consciously,” she says, “but I’m really drawn to the idea of making a mistake and having to pay for it and eventually come back from it. Maleficent did the same thing. She cursed a baby, that’s pretty bad, but it was out of revenge. It was out of pain. And she was able to come back from it.”
The same was true of the Beast in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and is currently being remade as a live action film at Disney, due next March. The Beast, however, was not the title character that caused agita at the Mickey Mouse house. Here, Woolverton describes how she fought while writing the film on a daily basis to give Belle, the namesake Beauty, an idiosyncratic female voice.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s first film made from a traditional screenplay versus elaborate storyboards. And it was also your first feature film. What was the hardest challenge with writing Belle?
LINDA WOOLVERTON: It was hard. You have to understand that the whole idea of the heroine-victim was baked into the cake, especially at Disney. And that is nothing against them — they had been very successful with so many wonderful animated movies, which I loved. But they were reflective of the culture.
You thought that the one-note princess thing was a bit tired?
Well, yeah. I just didn’t think anyone was going to buy it, honestly. By the time I rolled around, I’d been through the women’s movement in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I definitely couldn’t buy that this smart, attractive young girl, Belle, would be sitting around and waiting for her prince to come. That she was someone who suffers in silence and only wants a pure rose? That she takes all this abuse but is still good at heart? I had a hard time with that.
You’ve said that your model for the character was Katharine Hepburn in Little Women.
Yes. That was a real depiction of womanhood. I think you can take on current issues of today through fairy tales or the mythic. And so that was my fight, always saying, “The audience is just not gonna buy this anymore.” Actually I need to acknowledge [lyricist] Howard Ashman — him and I really conjured up Belle together. Howard unfortunately wasn’t around to see the finished product [he died before the film’s release], but he was also fighting for this character.
Were you satisfied with how it turned out?
I am. I mean, you can only move the needle so much. Look at all the Disney princesses before her. Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale, but she has an independent, open mind. She loves to read and to explore the outdoors. But even so, every day was a battle of making it happen. Every single line of her dialogue was a battle. My daughter was born the same year that Beauty and the Beast came out, so I’m always aware how long ago it was. And in some ways it’s taken until now for people to realize that Belle was something of a first.