Given the string of upcoming and recent releases of film, I don’t exactly have the most faith in companies to give audiences a re-telling of a fairy tale that isn’t completely white and just dreadfully dull. And, well, honestly, going into Into the Woods I had the same sort of feeling. Unlike many others here, I’d never seen any form of the stage production and only vaguely knew what the story involved (see: “something about fairy tales”). Based on the previews it just looked like Disney trying to grimdark another movie with Johnny Depp in it to make some bank à la Alice In Wonderland. While, yes, the movie did have Johnny Depp in it and was a little darker in spots than I think it should have been—despite the movie’s admittedly dark undertones—luckily Into the Woods managed to sidestep all the “quirkiness” that Alice tried so desperately to include and delivered on an entertaining, but not entirely poignant, film. This may say more about the writers than the characters, but it was something that ended up hurting my overall reception of the film.
When news broke that Into the Woods, one of the most popular works by the immensely celebrated Stephen Sondheim, would be made into a movie, there was plenty of excitement to go around. When that news included the fact that it would be produced by Walt Disney Studios, however, that excitement was more than a little dampened. Many fans, myself included, were worried that the squeaky clean company with a penchant for glossing over (or straight-up re-writing) anything objectionable in a fairy tale would make drastic changes to the musical and its very adult overtones.
When Playbill released some comments Sondheim made regarding the film’s production, it seemed all our fears were realized.
The beloved musical Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is set to be adapted as a movie! If you’re unfamiliar with the musical, it is a re-telling of multiple fairy tales whose stories and characters intertwine when they go on their individual journeys “into the woods”. The well-known “happily ever after” ending of each tale is only half of the musical’s story, which continues to explore how these characters grow and learn after their adventures and realize that “witches can be right, giants can be good” and that “wishes come true, not free”. It’s a really excellent musical that I suggest checking out. The original Broadway production was filmed and released on DVD so you can purchase it from Amazon for as little as three bucks to stream online.
According to broadway.com, Rob Marshall will be directing the movie with theatrical juggernaut Disney producing. I’m seeing this as a double-edged sword, really. Working with Disney should mean ample funds for production costs so we can expect great locations/sets, costumes, and special effects which, though not a definite necessity for this musical, will definitely be appreciated. On the other hand, Disney is primarily a children’s entertainment company and despite the use of fairy tales in this musical, it is a very complex and adult story. There are marital difficulties, dark implications, sexual undertones, and overall just a lot of moral complexity that I worry Disney may try to tone down or gloss over.
So far Meryl Streep is confirmed for the lead role of the Witch, and I have confidence in her ability to handle the character. This is arguably the most important role in the story, as it is the Witch’s plans which make the characters’ paths cross in the woods and brings the stories together. She’s also probably the clearest example of the moral ambiguity of the musical, which presents her as controlling and calculating, but also loving and guarded. Her songs “The Last Midnight” and “Children Will Listen” show the heart of her character as well as the show.
Additional names loosely attached to the project are Johnny Depp as the Baker (though he’s also been rumored as the Big Bad Wolf), Jake Gyllenhaal as Cinderella’s Prince, and Chris Pine as Rapunzel’s Prince. I don’t have much of an opinion on the Princes, but I think Depp could make a fantastic Baker and it would be (or at least should be) a role unlike his usual schtick. The Baker isn’t creepy, offbeat, or larger than life; he’s kind of just lovable and a little goofy with a soft heart. It’d be nice to Depp take on a character who’s not so grandiose.
One of the best things about this musical being made into a movie is that very few of the characters really need to be played by strong singers and since Hollywood seems nigh on incapable of casting people in musicals who can both act and sing, this one should be very doable. I look forward to this movie, and hopefully it lives up to the strength of its source.
I have noticed something when watching television or movies and reading books or comics: we humans seem never to know if we would rather believe in free will or fate. If I had to pick I would say that we are more inclined to approve of free will, but fate still seems to be a hard and fast concept that we cling to, and it shows up in much of our pop culture.
It seems to mean that any time the concept of fate is really introduced into a story the author tends to quickly subvert fate with free will. Take, for example, Harry Potter. In book five when Harry learns that a prophecy predicted he would be the only one that could defeat Voldemort he was upset, until Dumbledore pointed out that after everything Voldemort put him through Harry would want to kill him anyway, regardless of what any prophecy says. Furthermore, Dumbledore stresses that Voldemort had had to choose between Harry and Neville (as the boy to potentially kill him) and if Voldemort had ignored the prophecy, then Voldemort’s choice would have ensured that the prophecy would never have come to pass. And finally, in book seven, Harry has to freely choose to sacrifice himself or else Harry might not have survived his encounter with Voldemort. Despite the strong sense of fate, the books make it clear that the characters’ choices, their free will, are what’s important and not some higher cosmic power.
In the TV show Heroes, a painter has the power to see the future and his prophecy tends to be accurate. However, the prophecies also tend to change. Isaac, the prophetic painter, predicts something vague enough that can be interpreted in numerous ways. The tag line in season one of Heroes for a while was “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.” Isaac constantly draws pictures of serial killer Sylar killing Claire, an immortal cheerleader. Isaac’s pictures show a blonde cheerleader with her head sawed off. However, another character, Peter, saves Claire. So doesn’t Isaac’s prediction hold true? Kind of. Sylar mistakes another blonde cheerleader for Claire, so it could be argued that Isaac’s prediction holds true. However, the characters also have often traveled into the future where they see horrible dystopian-like realities, that are later stopped and changed, no matter what Isaac has predicted. In Heroes, the characters act like your fate is inevitable, unless it’s really bad and they decide to change it. The writers couldn’t seem to decide whether to follow fate or free will.
There are many other examples of course (Supernatural, Oedipus, Brave, Thor, Beowulf, Star Wars, Saiyuki, Doctor Who, Into the Woods, Dark Souls), but this theme of fate versus free will is something that consistently comes up in our pop culture. I think it’s because on some level humanity likes fate. We like the idea that God or some other higher power has a plan in which we play a part, maybe even a starring role. However, we find the notion of being bound to a fate, especially one we may not like, distasteful. We like have autonomy, but we also like the idea of being destined for something great or important.
What do you think? Are our lives governed by some kind of fate, free will, or is it a bit of both?
Tune in next week and get some religion.