Before I saw the new movie adaptation of Into the Woods I made the mistake of rewatching the American Playhouse take on the original Broadway production, which first aired on PBS in 1991. (The Chicago Public Library has a few copies in their collection, if you want to make the same mistake.) I consider that performance one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen, live or otherwise, and by placing it at the front of my mind, I was basically setting myself up to be disappointed by any other interpretation of the musical. Knowing that the movie was a full-fledged Disney production helped to lower my expectations, though—Into the Woods calls into question the values underlying many classic fairy tales (like the worship of wealth and fame or faith in the supremacy of traditional, heterosexual unions), while “Disney entertainment” is virtually synonymous with reassuring, old-fashioned storytelling. The two would seem to cancel each other out.
I shouldn’t lay all the blame on Disney for the film’s inconsequentiality—any Hollywood studio would have trivialized Into the Woods by making a cinematic spectacle out of it. The show is stagebound in the best sense, as its thematic content is so closely tied to its use of theatrical conventions. For instance, the onstage narrator of the play literally stands between the audience and the fairy tale characters, drawing us into the fantastic stories while acknowledging our detachment from their sensibilities. As played by Tom Aldredge in the 1987 Broadway production, the narrator is a wry presence who flatters our modern-day cynicism, describing the events in a way that underscores their patent unreality, as though asking why we should bother taking them seriously. When the play turns dark in the second act—as a giant lays waste to the storybook settings, destroying the characters’ ideals in the process—we realize that the narrator was in fact appealing to our complacency, encouraging us to scoff at the stories’ fantastic conventions without asking us to think about their ideological underpinnings.
There’s no onscreen narrator in the movie, and the offscreen narrator doesn’t deliver his lines with much personality; we’re not meant to relate to him or question his authority. In the play, however, the characters do just that, forcing the narrator to make an early (and most unpleasant) exit early in the second act. Yet in freeing themselves of this voice of authority, they also shake us from our comfortable distance from the show’s themes of death and disillusionment. It’s one of the crucial moments of Woods and a brilliant metaphor for the loss of childhood innocence, and the rest of act two features reprises of numerous songs from act one, the music and/or lyrics considerably less upbeat this time around. The movie cuts quite a few of these reprises, encouraging us to leave intact our memories of the jauntier first act. Indeed much of the movie’s second half registers as an afterthought, in large part because it glosses over much of the subtext of the first.
An egregious example of this glossing over is in the filmmakers’ treatment of Little Red Riding Hood’s encounter with the Wolf. In the play, the Wolf’s appeal to the girl is a fairly obvious metaphor for sexual temptation—Riding Hood knows the danger of getting close to strangers, but she has trouble quelling her curiosity about this mysterious charmer. (When the Wolf is slain and Riding Hood sings of her newfound knowledge of the world—which she considers fun and also “a little bit not”—it’s hard not to think about the loss of virginity.) The Wolf’s appeal is a vaudeville-style showstopper who entertains even as he gets under your skin.
Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s songs, tends to avoid hummable tunes, and when he does write one it’s usually to illustrate a false promise or downright lie. It’s one of many ways he’s subverted the musical-comedy form, employing the showmanship we associate with musicals to confront bitter truths we typically go to musicals to forget. In the Broadway production, the Wolf is played by the same actor who plays Prince Charming, who’s revealed to be a total cad after he marries Cinderella. By having the same person play the two roles (which is much easier to get away with on stage than on film, since theater permits a greater suspension of disbelief), Sondheim and James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed the show on Broadway, draw similarities between the lecherous come-on of a sexual predator and the false promise of the storybook marriage. (Sondheim and Lapine were involved in the making of the film, but the Hollywood apparatus so overwhelms their personalities that I barely detected them.) “Cinderella and Rapunzel serve the occupation of ‘Princess’ adequately, until they behave as individuals [in act two],” notes literary scholar S.F. Stoddart in an essay titled “Happily . . . Ever . . . NEVER: The Antithetical Romance of Into the Woods.” “Then, the blissful state of marriage becomes another form of entrapment.”
Johnny Depp plays the Wolf in the movie version of Into the Woods, though Prince Charming is played by Chris Pine (the actor’s terminally superficial presence serving a purpose for once). Moreover the actress who plays Riding Hood is significantly younger than the one who appeared in the Broadway show. Onstage, Riding Hood was both child and young adult—she was able to subtly comment on the character’s loss of innocence while playing it straight. Prepubescent Lilla Crawford, who plays Riding Hood in the film, is simply incapable of doing this. The filmmakers manage to hint at this scene’s subtext (the song is so unsubtle that it would be hard for them not to), but it comes off as a stray innuendo, something Depp can use to score a vaudevillian laugh. Yet the scene bears little weight on the film as a whole.
For me the most damnable deviation from the original play is how the filmmakers depict the Baker and his wife, arguably the show’s central characters. At the start of stage musical, the childless couple make a deal with a witch, who promises to make the husband potent if he tracks down four magical items that the decrepit-looking witch can use in a spell that will make her young and beautiful. These four items turn out to be Riding Hood’s cape, Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s slipper, and the milky white cow that belongs to Jack (of beanstalk fame), and to get them the Baker ventures into the woods, crossing paths with the other major players. Though he asks her not to, his wife follows along, demanding an equal stake in all aspects of their partnership. As played onstage by Joanna Gleason (who won a Tony for her performance), the Baker’s wife is a feisty second-wave feminist who’s not afraid to come off as bossy when asserting her place in a male-dominated culture. She’s also comfortable admitting her weaknesses—she can hold her own with men, but she refuses to sacrifice her “feminine” sensitivity or her noncompetitive worldview. Gleason makes clear how difficult it is to maintain this balance, and one comes to admire her for all her hard work.
By contrast, the Baker’s wife whom the movie gives us doesn’t seem to struggle nearly as hard. Her equal partnership with the Baker is presented as a given from the opening scene of the film. In fact she seems like the Baker’s surrogate mother, since James Corden plays the Baker as an overgrown child. Compared with the worthy sparring partner whom Chip Zien created onstage, this Baker doesn’t register as a symbol of patriarchy or even a worthy sparring partner (and Emily Blunt, who plays the wife here, doesn’t seem especially tough herself). When, at the movie’s end, he forms a nontraditional family unit with three other survivors of the giant’s rampage, the Baker doesn’t seem to relinquish his authority, since he didn’t seem to have any at the start. This speaks to the filmmakers’ betrayal of what Into the Woods is all about—in the process of making the musical more kid-friendly, they’ve minimized the qualities that made it so valuable for adults.