From Stage to Screen: Into the Woods
Hello, Flickcharters, and welcome to a brand new column here on the Flickchart blog. Since the musical movie is making a comeback these days and I am a massive musical theater nerd who also happens to love movies, this From Stage to Screen feature will be looking at some of the newer movie musicals, especially in light of how they compare to their stage versions. They may come out strong as an actual improvement, or they may be but a pale glimmer of the show’s Broadway glory, or anything in between. To start things off, let’s look at the Christmas 2014 release Into the Woods.
The movie was directed by Rob Marshall, who directed the wonderful musical Chicago and the boring musical Nine, so this could have gone either way. The cast was a nice mix of well-known movie stars (Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick) and lesser-known theater actors (Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, Billy Magnussen). James Lapine wrote both the screenplay and the original production’s book, as well as directing the show. Composer Stephen Sondheim was heavily involved with the movie, even writing an original song for it that ultimately got cut. All in all, it sounds like a good recipe for a movie musical to me.
What’s the Plot?
The plot stays essentially the same in both the movie and the stage show. We follow several fairy tale characters: Cinderella, Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and the cast of a little-known fairy tale about a baker and his wife trying to undo a witch’s spell. The first half weaves all these stories together, but each one concludes with the happily-ever-after ending we all know and love. The “junior” version of the show, intended for children, stops here.
The second half, however, turns it all upside down. One by one, all the happy endings fall apart. Actions in the first half have consequences in the second. Wishes that came true in the first half aren’t so satisfying in the second. Strong themes of responsibility, growing up, and concern for others guide the characters to a successful, if perhaps not blissful, ending.
What Was Different in the Movie?
Be warned: This section has spoilers galore, so if you’re deciding whether to see the movie, scoot right on past it to the next part. But if you loved (or hated) the movie and want to know what it gained or lost in the transfer to screen, here you go.
Most of the changes between stage and screen were small—a song reprise lost, a location changed, nothing very important. However, there were a few that had a huge impact on the film as a whole.
1. Less death. In the stage show, Rapunzel is killed by the Giantess who appears in Act Two. In the movie, she instead abandons the Witch to run away to safety with her Prince. Though some fans of the show have argued that this ruins the entire movie by altering the Witch’s motivation, I think it has some fascinating implications. The Witch is determined to give the Giantess what she wants by sacrificing Jack, and this is much more interesting if she thinks she still has a chance to protect Rapunzel. Then when the group refuses to give up Jack, she loses all hope of saving her daughter and allows herself to die. I actually think that’s a much more plausible way to end her story arc.
The other important death is that of a character who doesn’t even exist in the movie: the Narrator. In the show, the voiceover you hear at the beginning: “Once upon a time, in a far away kingdom…” is spoken by an actual man on stage. He remains a physical presence throughout the first act, only to be killed by the characters themselves in the second act, as they offer him to the Giantess as a substitute for Jack. (It doesn’t work.) This has a fascinating effect: When the narration stops, there’s a sense that nothing in this world is safe or guided anymore. It’s a great transition into the darker parts of Act Two. Did I miss this in the movie? A little bit, but the gimmick works better on stage than it would have in a movie, where a visible narrator would feel out-of-place.
2. No pause between acts. This is the change that bothered me the most. In the stage show, there’s a clear delineation between parts one and two. There’s an intermission, and when Act Two picks up, all the characters sing a short song about how they are still somewhat discontent, despite their wishes having come true. It’s not until after this song that the Giantess arrives and things start getting much worse. The movie moves from the happy ending to the Giantess’ arrival immediately, making it seem that the only thing preventing their happy ending was an interruption. One of the movie’s key themes, however, is that endless happily-ever-after bliss is unsustainable in the long run. This theme gets lost a little in the movie version, and, worse, makes the dark ending feel more like tacked-on filler than a deliberate deconstruction of the entire first half, which is pretty much the entire point of the show in the first place.
3. Younger cast members. The most talked-about change before the movie’s release was the decision to cast young children in the roles of Little Red and Jack. On stage, they are typically played by adults or older teenagers.
Watching Johnny Depp’s “Hello Little Girl” song in the movie… well, there’s a reason why they’re usually cast younger. The first act focuses a lot on the children beginning to grow up, and their songs have definite undertones of sexual discovery, making them uncomfortably mature to be sung by young kids.
Did it work? Well… I think it did lose something in the first half because the deeper song meanings are too easily lost amid thoughts of, “Wait, what happened to that little boy when he climbed the beanstalk?” However, the second half of the movie was much more powerful with the children being children. They seemed young and vulnerable and scared, and watching them band together to defeat the evil had a bigger emotional impact. It’s also harder to sell a movie audience on a 25-year-old as a child when the camera is inches away from their face. It was a loss, but in my opinion, it was a necessary one.
Overall, I wasn’t bothered by most of the changes. I thought all but one of them were necessary for this medium, and few of them damaged or “Disney-fied” the story in the way that I was so worried would happen.
How Are the Songs?
You can’t review a musical without talking about the songs, and I was quite happy with these. The original songs aren’t changed or tampered with much. The actors did a good job, given that so many of them aren’t really known as singers. Stephen Sondheim’s music is notoriously difficult to sing, but there weren’t any distractingly bad performances here.
Musical theater veterans Anna Kendrick and Lilla Crawford are excellent, as I expected. Casting Meryl Streep worried me, since she was so awful in Mamma Mia! (along with the rest of that cast), but but here she delivers a powerhouse performance and some very good singing. Probably the biggest surprise was Chris Pine, who not only plays Cinderella’s Prince perfectly but also has a very nice singing voice. He and stage vet Billy Magnussen knock it out of the park with “Agony,” their melodramatic ode to the woes of unrequited love—a definite highlight of the movie.
How Do They Compare Overall?
Show: My plan for this column is typically to rank the show in my hypothetical mixed-media stage & screen Flickchart (using a placeholder movie to generate matches) and see where it comes out, but I actually already know where this one ranks, since I happen to have the filmed version of the Broadway cast ranked at #20. So that’s a high mark to hit.
Movie: The movie currently sits at #288 on my chart. Not quite as great as the stage version for me, but it’s an excellent adaptation that I would happily add to my own movie library.
I Liked This. What Else Should I Watch?
If you’re interested in seeing the stage production for comparison, look up that 1991 filmed production of the original Broadway cast, including beloved Broadway diva Bernadette Peters as the Witch.
What did you think of Into the Woods? Does it hold up against seeing it in a live theatre? Let us know with your comments!