So I wasn’t originally planning on writing an entry for Into the Woods. My wife really wanted to see this and I did not, but I wasn’t in the mood for anything serious and I kind of owed her since she routinely watches what I want. Plus, I’d also seen it before as a play (more on that later). But watching it made me think about the hows and whys of adaptation and in turn led to this post.
As I said, I saw this as a play at a local university when I was in high school. To date it remains the most technically advanced play I’ve ever seen. (Obviously, I’ve never seen a real Broadway-style musical.) The set had separate facades for each of the main characters’ houses with paths leading backstage behind them, but when the characters exited to the rear, the whole set rotated and became the woods. At the time, I thought it was pretty cool; today, with a little more amateur film criticism under my belt, I see that it’s a very clever way of visually depicting the convergence of the characters and plots. I assumed that the film would look similar to this based on the director, Rob Marshall, and his experience in movie musicals. In his version of Chicago, the Cell Block Tango – my favorite scene – is extremely stagy. But Into the Woods, aside from the end of the first song (visually the best representation of staginess done right in the film), forgoes this altogether. Although clearly a set, the woods contain quite a few different locations. In the play, the characters keep running into each other because all paths DO lead to the same place; in the movie, it just feels random. But although the same location isn’t used for every scene as in the play, the set betrays itself a few times. Several characters walk by the same rock or tree twice in a row (clearly on different takes). Why discard staginess when it’s visually effective, but retain it when it’s distracting?
I don’t remember what I thought of the subject matter when I saw the play, but watching the movie I felt the whole thing was a little dated. I imagine in 1987 (when it debuted on Broadway) or even in 1994 (when I saw it), the idea of a “deconstructed” fairy tale was a little fresher. What I do remember from the play was the huge dichotomy between act one – the slight tweaking of familiar fairy tales – and act two – the complete subversion of their familiar happy endings. And that’s totally missing from the film. In the play, the first act is the fairy tale and the second act is real life. Bad things happen: husbands cheat, loved ones die, and the characters’ choices have consequences distinct from “happily ever after.” The play, by having the princes who have pursued and won Cinderella and Rapunzel cheat on them with Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, shows that marrying the princess isn’t always a happy ending, and sometimes isn’t even an ending at all. Each character’s ending gets a twist like this. On the other hand, the movie softens some twists (Rapunzel escapes with her prince, rather than being trampled by the giantess) and cuts others altogether (the aforementioned infidelity). Where the play neatly broke everything into happy ending and real consequence, the movie merely has happy ending and then some other stuff that happened.
However impressive it might have been to my teenage self, I doubt the University of Akron’s production could compare to a $50 million movie. That said, I still prefer it because it understood the play both technically – the characters and plots converge and get muddled in the woods – and thematically – be careful what you wish for (ironically the tagline for the poster, despite the fact that the movie never really addresses it). What’s strangest to me is how an experienced movie musical director let the staginess get away from him, and why the original writer and composer chose to cut most of the meaning out of their Tony-award winning play.