As a piece of culture, Into the Woods holds deep, personal significance for me. As a junior in high school, I played the Baker in our school production, and it was an amazing, empowering experience. One snag was that I didn’t really have the pipes at the time to give the pivotal song “No More” the power it needed, so it was with some satisfaction that at the theatre program’s 25th anniversary celebration last month, I was able to perform the song pretty well, and thereby give a sort of gift to Mr. Garrison, the program director, and tie up a loose end in my creative life.
My expectations for the new film version of Into the Woods were relatively low. I knew there would be high production value and skilled performances from most of the cast, but I had heard about some pretty troubling-sounding changes to the plot, and that the show was going to generally get Disney-fied.
I am delighted to report back that the film is excellent. It’s not without flaws, and there are definitely some important cuts and changes, but in general I can say that they are at worst understandable, done not to gloss over the darker or more difficult aspects of the show, but to tell the important parts of the story and still have a film that wasn’t too long for a general audience.
I’d like to set down some thoughts on those changes here, so obviously, beware, for if you’re not familiar with the show, HERE BE SPOILERS.
First, though, some highlights, just off the top of my head:
- This production was obviously taken very seriously, with a deep love of the material. This was not a cartoon version of Into the Woods, not played for yuks or to please the Hairspray-going crowd. It was a sophisticated, meaningful interpretation of a masterful piece of theatre.
- Meryl Streep is a marvelous Witch, chewing scenery with teeth only she possesses, and astoundingly sympathetic. Her performance of “Stay with Me” is gut-wrenching, especially now that I’m a parent. (There were a lot of “now that I’m a parent” moments that hit me harder than I expected.)
- The painful moral ambiguities of the original script are sharply in focus, perhaps more so than in a stage production, because one level of abstraction is removed: we’re not watching people lit up on a platform surrounded by an audience, but something more “realistic,” making the bad, ugly, and stupid things the characters do and the awful choices they have to make all the more weighty.
- Little Red Riding Hood is perfectly cast. Lilla Crawford better have a mighty nice career after this.
Now let’s talk about some of the things in the film that are a departure from the stage production.
Cut song: “Goodbye, Old Pal”: An understandable omission, I assume for time. We don’t need a song to know that Jack will miss his cow.
No Wolf/Prince cross-casting: The original stage production had Robert Westenberg playing both Cinderella’s Prince and the Wolf, a cross-casting that has a lot of symbolic weight. I didn’t expect a film version to do this, of course, as you obviously want to milk more handsome-actor star power out of casting two famous guys in two roles. No big surprise, but it would have been neat to see nonetheless.
No Mysterious Man: This is a big one. In the original, the Baker is pestered throughout his quest by an enigmatic, crazy old guy who turns out to be his long-lost dad, and they have an important reconciliation which leads to the song “No More.” In the film, however, the Baker’s father is reduced to the role of a ghost of sorts, really only appearing in the Baker’s own mind. (Additionally, the father is also often cast with the same actor as the Narrator.) I barely noticed this change until the Big Moment, at which point I felt pretty certain that the thrust of this aspect of the story, the Baker’s journey to outgrow the shadow of his father’s mistakes, was plenty clear. This brings us to…
Off the top of my head, Little Red’s “I Know Things Now,” after escaping the digestive system of the Wolf, is lovely, but I think far less necessary than “No More.” While it’s great to have this song to illustrate Little Red’s “coming of age,” I just don’t think this secondary character’s self-actualization is nearly as important as the Baker’s defeating his greatest internal demons in a gorgeous song. So while I understand the filmmakers’ decision to cut “No More,” and that they handled it well, I think it was the wrong decision.
No on-screen deaths: In the stage production, the Steward clocks Jack’s Mother over the head as she rails against the Giant, killing the poor woman on stage. In the film, she’s pushed, not hit, and we only know she’s died much later when the Baker reveals the fact to Jack. “She didn’t make it.” Similarly, in the original, in a fit of rebellion, Rapunzel runs from her mother, the Witch, only to be almost immediately squashed off stage by the Giant, which is witnessed by the other characters. In the film, she simply rides off with her prince.
I have to wonder if a calculation was made that with the aforementioned lack of abstraction normally provided by theatre, the on-screen death of these characters would be too unsettling and distract from the greater story. I’m not sure that’s true, but it didn’t materially affect the story, so I can’t really complain.
There were some other changes that were immediately apparent to me (no full-cast numbers beside the opening, no “Agony” reprise), but these don’t warrant much analysis.
If an audience member comes to the film of Into the Woods without any knowledge of the stage incarnation, these missing pieces obviously wouldn’t matter a whit, and that’s probably the best thing you can say about them. They simply don’t hurt the story by their absence, or by the given change. They do, however, speak to the priorities of the filmmakers that might differ from my own (such as prioritizing Little Red’s “growing up” moment over the Baker’s triumph over his despair). But if that’s the worst thing I can say about the changes, then there’s not much to complain about.
I was scared of what might be done to my beloved show when it was turned into a movie for a mass audience. I am relieved and delighted by what I saw today.