A little girl and her grandmother are swallowed whole by a wolf, whose stomach is then slit open to retrieve them. A young woman’s cruel stepsisters chop off chunks of their feet to fit into her gold slippers. And a boy gets taken in by a woman offering him shelter, then robs them blind and kills her husband.
These are stories intended for children.
To call fairy tales dark would be an understatement. And yet, these are the stories we’re raised with — albeit often in sanitized, Disney-fied adaptations. As violent and occasionally traumatizing as these fairy tales are, they still offer the traditional “happily ever after” coda. Especially in their modern, kid-friendly iterations — which cut out many of the more unseemly, nightmare-inducing elements of the traditional folk tales — fables that were once dark morality tales to scare the shit out of children have become appropriate fare for toddlers.
Part of the brilliance of the musical Into the Woods, now a film in theaters Dec. 25, is that the book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim combine the versions of fairy tales we’ve come to know and love with the dark undertones that have been scrubbed clean over the past couple centuries — not only the grisly plot elements, but also Freudian subtext. Sondheim and Lapine were inspired by psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Thus, Little Red Riding Hood once again becomes a story of lost innocence: The Wolf’s carnal desires are reflected in his penis, prominently displayed in the original 1987 production, and the red hood retains its symbolic meaning — red for hymenal blood.
Into the Woods’ Little Red Riding Hood — who, it should be noted, was played by 16-year-old Danielle Ferland in the original production — sings “I Know Things Now” after her encounter with the Wolf. There are heavy undertones of a first sexual experience: “When he said ‘Come in’ / With that sickening grin / How could I know what was in store? / Once his teeth were bared, / Though, I really got scared— / Well, excited and scared.” Sure, it’s literally about getting eaten alive, but the Wolf’s ample package does a pretty blatant job of underlining the subtext.
As with any movie musical, Disney’s upcoming adaptation of Into the Woods has filled musical theater fans with a mixture of anticipation and dread. There are plenty who will see every new movie musical, and chances are, find a way to love it, flaws and all. In this case, it’s not difficult to have faith in the cast — most of whom ostensibly know how to sing — and director Rob Marshall. (Yes, even after his 2009 adaptation of Nine.) And naturally, it’s comforting to know that Sondheim has given his stamp of approval, and that Lapine himself wrote the screenplay. The real red flag here is that the film comes from the same studio that popularized so many of the fairy tales from which Into the Woods borrows: Disney.
You can’t Disney-fy Into the Woods because Into the Woods is already a deliberate subversion of Disney-fied fairy tales, challenging the notions of heroes and villains and ensuring that “happily ever after” comes with a caveat or several. To make the work more kid-friendly is to rob it of its thematic weight. (Check out ABC’s fun but light Once Upon a Time for a glimpse of what a family-friendly fairy tale mash-up looks like.) And I’m not only referring to the aforementioned Freudian subtext: “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” are still parables of lost innocence, whether or not that’s spelled out overtly. The real danger of treating Into the Woods like any other Disney film is that doing so undermines the musical’s refusal to give its audience a true happy ending.
The emotional power of Into the Woods lies largely in its second act: The Giantess, the wife of the Giant that Jack slew, climbs down a second beanstalk to wreak havoc on the kingdom. Spoiler alert: Many, many characters die. And suddenly the “noble” acts of our heroes and heroines are called into question. To Jack, climbing the beanstalk is an adventure, but to the Giantess, it’s robbery and murder. In that case, does Jack deserve to die? These are complex moral questions that force the audience to confront long-held beliefs about the fairy tales they grew up with and in which they placed value. “Right” and “wrong” are relative concepts, as are “good” and “evil.” These questions of relative morality are exemplified in this biting exchange between the Witch and Little Red Riding Hood:
Witch: Since when are you so squeamish? How many wolves have you carved up?
Red Riding Hood: A wolf’s not the same.
Witch: Ask a wolf’s mother.
The knowledge that there is no objective right course of action is, frankly, terrifying, and a concept that most children are ill-equipped to handle. Thankfully, fairy tales — at least, the 20th-century iterations — depict a more black-and-white world of good and evil. Kids rarely question the motivations of their heroes, because fairy tales don’t ask them to. (Yes, a more modern film like Frozen complicates this somewhat, but in the end, love still conquers all, and it’s clear where our allegiance lies.) Into the Woods explores the complexity of morality, which is something its source material was less willing to do. The result is especially effective for adults who grew up reading these tales without the sort of thoughtful analysis that Sondheim and Lapine’s work requires.
The characters of Into the Woods may be doing what they think is best, but by and large, they are motivated by their own selfishness. The Witch puts it best in “Last Midnight,” her final song before vanishing: “Had to get your prince / Had to get your cow / Have to get your wish / Doesn’t matter how / Anyway it doesn’t matter now.” The Baker and his Wife think little of fooling Jack into selling Milky White for magic beans or ripping out a chunk of Rapunzel’s hair to break the Witch’s spell. Cinderella says nothing as her stepsisters are repeatedly mutilated on her quest to become princess. And finally, in Act II, the surviving characters band together to murder the Giantess — who, yes, has caused tremendous damage, but only out of an understandable desire for justice.
So, how does Disney handle the inherent moral ambiguity in its adaptation? Can Disney’s Into the Woods be challenging and complex while still being Disney? That remains to be seen, but diehard fans of the musical have been nervous for some time. And who can blame them? Casting Little Red Riding Hood and Jack as children — Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, respectively — offered the first inkling that something was off with the adaptation. It makes sense, insofar as adults playing those characters onscreen might strain credibility, but it seriously inhibits the film version of Into the Woods’ ability to explore the R-rated subtext of these characters’ stories. Not to mention the fact that Jack as a little boy makes the conundrum of how to handle him in the second act far less fraught: Who is going to root for murdering an actual child?
Then there was the troubling news last week that significant changes had been made for the film, at Disney’s request: the Wolf has been desexualized (no surprise there), the Baker’s Wife and the Prince no longer have sex (mostly tragic for the removal of the song “Any Moment”), and Rapunzel doesn’t die, crushed beneath the Giantess’ foot — as if Disney would allow one of the official Disney princesses to bite it. As it turns out, Sondheim may have spoken too soon. Now that he’s seen a rough cut, he contends that it’s a faithful adaptation. And we can all breathe a sigh of relief, because “Any Moment” hasn’t been cut.
And yet, doubts linger. As faithful as Into the Woods may appear to be on the surface — and at the risk of being cynical, it seems unlikely that Sondheim would reveal his true thoughts about the adaptation as this point — it will always be a Disney film and one, judging by everything we’ve heard so far, that is largely appropriate for children. To be fair, Disney can do many great things, including telling compelling stories and teaching worthwhile lessons. But how can it do Into the Woods without being willing to dive deep into the darkness? This is a show that teaches us that our actions have serious, sometimes fatal consequences, that we never really know what we want, and that we will always end up wanting more. The musical ends with Cinderella’s plaintive, “I wish!”
None of this is to say that the Into the Woods film won’t be good. The question is, will it succeed on the merits of its gorgeous score and strong performances, or retain the thematic potency of the original musical? Let’s hope, changes aside, the film doesn’t shy away entirely from the hard truths that have made the show such a lasting classic. Even if Rapunzel doesn’t die, she’s still locked in a tower for most of her life, separated by her Prince who ends up blinded by the Witch, and banished to the desert, where she gives birth to twins. If that’s too much for Disney, it should never have attempted adapting Into the Woods in the first place. Tangled, this is not.
The best children’s entertainment can also be enjoyed by adults, but the reverse doesn’t usually hold. In censoring Into the Woods, we deny grown-ups thought-provoking entertainment — but perhaps worse, we deny children the ability to discover the film when they’re old enough to understand and grapple with the issues they once overlooked. The show succeeds in part because the audience feels nostalgia for these characters, now painted in a less-than-flattering light. It’s a bittersweet revelation that perfectly encapsulates the “loss of innocence” theme central to the show. If Disney forgets that, the film will have missed its mark entirely. To sanitize Into the Woods is a great disservice to anyone who has or will one day feel the sharp pangs of growing up — and leaving childish things behind.