If this is a review, it’s not a thorough one, and obviously not a timely one. In fact, I am thinking of a new feature for the blog that fits with my new library personae: Overdue Reviews. But in order to talk about the thing I missed most about this remake, we have to cover a bit of ground first.
Now I’m not going to be one of those fans of “the original” who trash the movie adaptation, or who is too cool for Game of Thrones because I read the books (I tried, honestly, but how many paragraphs can you really write about cheese and sausage?). I realized ahead of time that to put Sondheim’s Broadway musical Into the Woods onto the screen, there would have to be changes, just as there were changes to The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and now Game of Thrones.
I think The Hobbit would have to be the loser when it comes to most needlessly changed from book to movie adaptation, but that’s a discussion for another blog. I remember Josiah, my oldest, telling me at the age of 13 how the LTR movies differed from the books, and why they had to. I was impressed.
Similar justification can be made for Into the Woods, and movie adaptations are just that–adaptations. They need not be over-scrutinized against the original plays or books. And to be frank, it was a wonderful movie. It wasn’t quite the same as the original, but that’s probably for the best. It might not be what some people expected, but it was marvelously done.
Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods is probably my favorite musical since Man of La Mancha, and its conversion to film was no flop to be sure. In short, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I do wish there were a longer version though, but I appreciate that it was not stretched it into two or three movies the way The Hobbit was. I’m pretty sure that was a money grab, a capitalization on an already existent legend, but as I said, we’ll not get into that here.
If there was a failure in the movie, it was probably chiefly in the marketing. People who did not know the Broadway musical naturally assumed that if Disney was doing a fairy tale musical it had to be a great experience for the whole family, right?
Well, unfortunately, if you don’t at least have some inkling that this is an adult retelling, a sometimes darkly humorous blending of fairy tales, you are bound to be taken aback a bit. I mean, it’s hilarious as an adult to see what you know must have been true (had it been truth and not a story): that Prince Charming was an arrogant ass. In this case two Charming brothers were arrogant asses. And why did nobody ever imagine that the Giant’s wife wouldn’t try to get revenge? I mean originally these tales were from the brothers Grimm, so they are kind of, well, grim.
Another problem was that some folks I know who went to see the movie were not expecting a musical, let alone one in which most all of the dialogue was sung. In fact, I was surprised to find when I took home the DVD of the original Broadway cast with Bernadette Peters (We have both at the library) that there was actually a lot more spoken dialogue on stage than was saved for the movie.
And perhaps most importantly, when it comes to what to expect, well there is a certain magic about live theater that can’t really be captured on screen. It has to do with the action of the moment, the delivery of a line, the orchestra in the pit, the reaction of the audience. Even though there is a script and a score to go by, what you are seeing is happening live in front of you, and you feel part of it in a way that you just don’t get at the movies.
But then, who knows? Maybe Mel Brooks could have pulled it off. There were times in the onstage play when you knew for sure (the birds hanging from strings, the cow on wheels) that though these were professional actors, the play itself didn’t take itself too seriously. (Spoiler Alert!) There was that breaking of the fourth wall with the narrator being sacrificed to the Giant’s wife. Things like that you just don’t expect, and maybe had the movie done just a tad more of it, like they did during the marvelously over-done “Agony” duet of the Charming brothers–well, just maybe that might have made it more of a satisfaction for those who did not know what they were in for.
Still, as I said, it was wonderfully done overall, and while I have always adored Bernadette Peters’ portrayal of the witch, Meryl Streep certainly made it her own with her masterful interpretation of the role.
There were a few things that I missed, but probably they would have mostly just made the movie too long. Generally films don’t have an intermission these days, so some of those songs at the end of Act I and beginning of Act II were not really needed. Still it was something of a loss to me to not hear the Narrator say at the beginning of Act II, “Once upon a time! –Later.”
Young Jack was a bit younger in the movie, so that adolescent tension that I sensed between him and Red Riding Hood in the blame scene just couldn’t be there. Nor could you read all the sexual allusions involved in his song about Giants: “She gives you food and she gives you rest / and she holds you close to her giant breast, / and you know things now that you never knew before / Not till the sky.”
But again, I didn’t intend a full review here, and I fear I have meandered quite a bit. I’m kind of baring my soul here. Really. This musical gets to me like only truly great theater can. For a couple of good reviews you can click here for Adam Feldman’s from New York’s Time Out, or here for one by Lee Flailmarch, from whose blog the above comparison photo of Streep and Peters was borrowed.
But I wanted to talk to you about a song. And the only missing song that I could argue for, and some make a good case for its exclusion, is the Baker’s song, “No More.” Of course, had they included it, they would have had to include the meddling old sprite-like Baker’s father, who kept popping up in the stage version, but only appears as something of a dream or memory in the movie. In any case, aside from the exquisite “No One is Alone” and its brilliantly placed harmonies, the song I loved most from the original was quite literally “No More” in the movie.
Running away–we’ll do it.
Why sit around, resigned?
I concede that often a song gets to you because of the time in your life in which you first hear it. I was in the process of coming out to my family. I feared I might lose my children. I was uncertain what lay ahead, fearful. I sat in the audience at a local university while their marvelous theater department put on the musical. And the man I was in love with held my hand there in the dark of that theater (This was a radical thing for a former ministry student in central Pennsylvania in 1997). He told me later that he feared our affair was just my own trip “into the woods,” and that I would go back to my wife and that story. But such a thing was impossible, even if I wanted to.
Trouble is, son,
The farther you run,
The more you feel undefined
For what you’ve left undone
And more, what you’ve left behind.
And I can’t say I had decided what to do yet when I heard this. But I knew I would not ever leave my children. Even if it meant sleeping in my own apartment across town or a few miles away, I couldn’t, wouldn’t be an absent dad. Fatherhood, more specifically, fathering these three boys of mine was the most important thing in the world to me. Always has been.
With that in mind, perhaps you’ll understand why this song gets so deeply into my soul, and perhaps it will speak to you too.