Behind The Changes That Brought "Into The Woods" From Stage To Screen
"I think if you did a literal stage adaptation, it would be a really crappy movie," Into the Woods screenwriter James Lapine told BuzzFeed News. WARNING: Major spoilers for Into the Woods, both the musical and the film.
For die-hard fans of the musical Into the Woods, the long-awaited film adaptation has been something both longed for and feared. Those who grew up with the show, particularly the original production filmed for PBS and preserved on VHS and DVD for endless viewings, have a strong attachment to the musical as they know it. And the film version, despite an all-star cast and high production values, was bound to see some changes.
Into the Woods screenwriter James Lapine knows the source material better than most: He wrote the book to the 1987 musical and directed the original production. In adapting his own work, Lapine was faced with a somewhat daunting task: Retain the heavy themes and complexity of the show while also translating it into something more accessible, cinematic, and yes, family-friendly.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Lapine spoke in detail about the differences between the stage musical Into the Woods and the film, which hits theaters Dec. 25, from — SPOILER ALERT — ditching The Narrator to letting Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) live, and why what shines on stage doesn't always work on film.
Be advised that the following interview contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Into the Woods, both musical and film: Read at your own discretion.
For the most part, the film is a faithful adaptation of the musical. Director Rob Marshall said that you were much more in favor of stepping away from the source material when it came to adapting Into the Woods, and that he had to talk you into staying faithful.
James Lapine: That may be a misrepresentation. I wouldn't have had a problem of trying different things with it, but I wasn't into turning it inside out, because somebody had already done it.
Did you look at any of those earlier attempts at film adaptations just to see what they had done?
JL: I didn't. In fact when that first movie project came out, I started reading it, and I just closed it, because it was really different. And I thought, Why? If I'm not involved, what's the point in looking at it? So I was happy to have this chance to try my hand at it and make it more faithful, I guess you'd say ... It was something that when the opportunity came, I offered my services. And it did sort of come out of the blue. I had a feeling eventually somebody would do it, because the show's popularity has also grown through the years.
You did so many different drafts of the show, which changed a lot as you were developing it. Did you consider bringing back to the film any elements that you had abandoned in the musical?
JL: When you're trying out on Broadway, it's very hectic and you're making changes night after night. There's a lot of pressures from producers to make some changes, and you're writing for actors who are in it, and sometimes the limitations of actors who are in it. So, 10 years later when we did a revival of it, I thought, Oh, great, I'm gonna go back and do all these things I wish I had done and tried. Of course, I went back and I tried a lot of them, and it turned out that actually none of them were improvements, so no, I didn't have any agenda that there was something I wanted to fix or add that wasn't in the original.
I know early on a lot of fans of the musical were concerned that the movie would be a lot lighter than the original. What were those conversations like in terms of figuring out how to balance those heavy themes with making a Disney movie?
JL: Well, first of all, it's really tricky. It's a tricky piece. It does have a sort of floating tone that begins fairly light and goes dark. I'd like to just say that there's nothing darker than Old Yeller and Bambi and some of the early Disney stuff. You know, it's funny that Disney has this rep, maybe it's more contemporary, of doing really light stuff. But those early Disney movies were actually quite dark. I think one of the real challenges of it was just literal, because if somebody dies on stage, we know they're on stage. If there is blood, it's fake. What we did when I directed it, I used to say to the actors, in the first act we have to find the drama in the comedy, and in the second act you have to find the comedy in the drama. Rapunzel would get stepped on and people in the audience would laugh, but that was actually the first turning point of going dark, structurally in the stage show with Rapunzel's death. She was sort of the first one to go. And then it got darker and darker and darker.
I think Disney was interested in just how these things could be portrayed on film because it's a literal medium and I think it felt that way to Rob as much as to me as the writer. I think they were concerned. Oh my God, it might be a blood bath. And I think all of us agreed, "No, we don't want it to be that." In terms of a lot of the things that are like, Are we gonna see the Prince [Chris Pine] shtup Cinderella [Anna Kendrick]? Which, no. That's not the movie we wanted to do. That was pretty much the discussions, but I think that was kind of just a lot of internet chat taking something innocently said by Steve [Sondheim] out of context, and suddenly everybody was getting hot and bothered about it. But the irony is, it's our show, meaning Steve's and mine. If we're not worried about it and are happy with it, it seems kind of weird that people are getting all up in arms.
What made you decide to get rid of The Narrator and also The Mysterious Man, and then to have The Baker (James Corden) take over as the narrator?
JL: The first real discussion when I sat down with Rob was the opening, and I actually suggested maybe it should be completely rethought and a new number written, and he said, "No, I really like it." But the opening is like 20–25 minutes on stage, and that's a really long time on film. And I also thought The Narrator was a conceit that really could only be done on stage. To have Morgan Freeman narrating over the movie just didn't seem like a very good option. But then, once Rob wanted to keep narration, because "once upon a time" is such a symbolic way to bring you into the story, because The Baker is telling the story at the end of the movie and the end of the stage show to his son, it seemed to make sense to do it that way.
There is that moment in the opening where we see The Witch (Meryl Streep) getting cursed. And there are other moments that are flashbacks to what the characters are describing, which obviously you can't do on stage. How did you decide what to include and what not to include?
JL: I included everything when I wrote it, and then we de-cluded it as we went along. (laughs) I think I started out really overwriting everything that I wanted to see and wanted to explain and wanted to do. Of course, then the script was 150 pages. It had to be 120 or less. So, then we chose what we wanted to see, what we wanted to do, what the budget allowed, what it didn't allow, things like that. I think initially being the adaptor of my own work, I was excited to go do all those things I couldn't do on stage.
So you did write a scene of the Kingdom of the Giants?
JL: Yeah, and I had the ball scenes, which were fun.
That could have been a lot.
JL: Yeah. You know, it was mostly financial. It wasn't like I was going to add them as much as you would see them as you were singing "Steps of the Palace," or you'd see them interspersed a little bit. Maybe the ball stuff was not, and the Kingdom stuff was more of a dumb show kind of thing.
Moving on to The Wolf (Johnny Depp) encountering Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), that's a scene fraught with sexual tension.
JL: Well, the story is.
Of course. But it didn't seem that toned down to me in the film. It still seemed sexual. I know there was talk that it would be tamer. Is that just because The Wolf's penis isn't clearly visible?
JL: I just think people are making things up in their head. I think they remember it a certain way. Or maybe because he's got clothes on. Originally, I had written a man who kept morphing into a wolf going back to a man, but Rob took it a different way, or maybe that was just too high tech. And I think he worked with Johnny Depp on figuring out what that was. But I think it's got a lot of sexual tension to it. And yeah, it wasn't maybe as literal. But you've gotta remember, the original was in a big theater. You're looking at a naked wolf, but it's not in your face. But you're doing a movie, his testicles would be right there, so that wouldn't have worked. It didn't even work in the play. People didn't even want to see those testicles from the 15th row.
There are definitely elements of grotesquerie that were left in the film but that happen more off-screen than they do in the show — the stepsisters getting bits of their feet hacked off, Rapunzel's Prince (Billy Magnussen) getting blinded. I imagine those were part of the same conversations about not making it a "bloodbath," as you said.
JL: I think that was pretty much up to Rob as the director, but I find the girls' feet being cut just as strong even though you don't see it. Sometimes the suggestion of it is more shocking than the literalness of it. I think in that respect it worked well.
Yeah, the blinding was a little vaguer in the movie than it was on stage, just in terms of how it happened. But you know, the story seems to carry. Hey, it's called show business, and I think the idea is to create something that... we decided we wanted it to be a PG movie. That was a discussion: Should it be PG? Should it be PG-13? And the decision was to make it something that you could feel comfortable bringing smaller kids too. Not too small. But you know, I find that kids, things go over their heads. I think the textual aspects of it can be really sophisticated and even suggestive, like Little Red, and a kid won't pick up on that. But if you're hacking a toe off, a kid's gonna get freaked out.
Stephen Sondheim gave you credit for, with the Cinderella story, giving her more agency — she decides to leave the slipper behind for the Prince. Why was it important to you to tell the story that way?
JL: I don't remember. (laughs) I think I did it as sort of a post-feminist take on it — that she actually was the one who engineered her own fate in a way rather than leaving it to fate. I have no idea — I mean, it was 30 years ago — what, at that moment, the inspiration was for it, but I often wondered, Well, why didn't she just pry up her shoes? So that's why I decided, just logically, maybe she purposely left it there.
Let's talk about Rapunzel, who doesn't die in the film. There was also early backlash about that. I assume the choice to keep her alive had something to do with the fact that she's a Disney Princess?
JL: Oh, no. There was a lot of discussion about the body count and how many people were dying in the second act. There was just a compromise, frankly, in not having her die. It wasn't like I thought she had to die, as long as "Children Won't Listen" would resonate. And I thought, Yeah, it wouldn't matter, dramatologically. She's less damaged in the film version than she is in the stage version. So I guess that was a compromise, yeah.
She's also never pregnant with twins. There are elements of her story that get condensed, in a way.
JL: I think people imagine that somehow there was all this pressure on us, and "We're not gonna make the movie unless…" kind of talk. And it wasn't that at all. There were points that we all discussed, sometimes at length and sometimes with intensity, between Steve and myself and Rob and the studio people, on just what it should be, but it was a collaboration as you always have, and you figure out what's really important to you, what's important to us, and I think that's where we all met.
You know, the stage show is the stage show. It's not changing. So, I just kept really reminding myself that it's not like we're changing what we did, we're just doing a new version of it in a different medium, and that's all. I think if you did a literal stage translation it would be a really crappy movie.
You think it wouldn't work in the same way?
JL: No, I don't think so, because I think stage time is different than film time. And I think you need to drive things forward. There's a different sense of variety. Maybe if Rapunzel had died, the incurring further deaths might just get really tedious and boring, so it shifted the emphasis to Jack's Mother (Tracey Ullman) being the first one to go. The stage show's 25 minutes longer than the movie, so I think there's a consolidation. There's a kind of narrative drive that you bring to screenwriting that you wouldn't necessarily feel compelled to bring to the stage, so I think there's a lot of reasons why it ended up the way it did.
When it came to cutting songs and changing lyrics — "On the Steps of the Palace," for example, is more firmly in the present tense — was that a discussion between you and Sondheim, or just a part of the same collaborative process?
JL: Well, what happened was, Rob and I — obviously Steve was on board to do it — agreed with him very happily that we wouldn't show him anything till the first draft. So we took the liberties with that. I dummied in lyrics because I wouldn't deign to suggest I could rewrite his lyrics. But direct address songs in theater, it just doesn't work in movies. I mean, we're not pretending we're singing to the audience. It had to be in real-time so that she could be making her decision at the time. The way Rob shot it; it's a frozen moment in time. Each of those changes, like Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) sings "Giants in the Sky" to The Baker, we decided to do that so, again, it wasn't presentational. Same with Little Red Riding Hood telling her story to The Baker. So they were done to make them cinematic.
Things that were cut were cut mostly because it's a different structure. You can't really do "Agony (Reprise)" because then you would have really wanted to see the other princesses, and there wasn't an Intermission when it all took place. In the stage show, it's basically a year later. There's a time lapse, and we took the time lapse out. So that affected the cutting.
It might have been strange to shove Snow White and Sleeping Beauty into the movie.
JL: Well, then the Princes are real whores, if they're getting married and immediately cheating. The idea is, if you remember the stage show, that a little boredom has set in in Cinderella's world, both for her and him, so you begin to understand that they miss the thrill of it all.
Does that mean you feel like Cinderella's Prince is even worse in the movie? He gets married and then instantly seduces The Baker's Wife (Emily Blunt).
JL: You know the idea of the Giant and the Woods is that disorder claims them. It's that kind of Shakespearean principle of everybody, midsummer, kind of getting screwed-up from all the elements and kind of coming back to their senses. I think for him, meeting The Wife, there's a kind of madness that's just taken over the place because it's all coming apart.
You cut "No More," but you kept in the scene where The Baker encounters the spirit of his father. The film in general seemed to really focus on The Baker's fears of fatherhood more than the show.
JL: I think that's true. One of the things I sort of wrestled with, and that was coming maybe a little bit from the studio, is spelling things out a little bit more. They wanted to know why Cinderella goes to the ball. That one I could never quite spell out because it seems so obvious. But I think the fear of fatherhood was something that we chose to emphasize more in the movie. I mean, it is there in the way that it's played, but you know, when you're a writer-director on stage, you can direct it to make it clear to the audience without literalizing it. But I think in the movie version, I bent to the opportunity to make it clearer.
Do you think the film will be similar to the musical in the sense that, if you've seen it as a kid, you'll get something totally different out of it as an adult?
JL: I think it'll be a similar experience. I hope, because it doesn't really have to do with it being it a film; it has to do with the story. The story is essentially intact, so if you're watching it as a kid, you're gonna relate to Little Red and Jack, and if you're showing it to your kid, you're gonna suddenly be relating to the parents.
The ending of Into the Woods has always been bittersweet. There's a tremendous amount of loss. But does the ending of the film feel any more like a happy ending to you?
JL: I think it feels less happy than on the stage, definitely less happy. I was surprised. The film was darker than I thought it was gonna be, actually. It has a real dark ambience about it, the last third of it.
Well, in a film, you can't really have all the dead characters get back on stage again.
JL: Exactly. Well, you could. We wrote that. I initially wrote that out of the woods, all of these people appear and we follow them singing this song as they go out of the woods, and then we discussed: Do we want to see them back at The Baker's house cleaning the place up? There was much discussion about how to end it. And this is what Rob chose to do. But there was a lot of discussion about it. It's touching, I think.
You do have The Baker's Wife appearing to The Baker, as she does in the show.
JL: And he did it quite literally, which surprised me. I sort of imagined it to be more spectral or something. No, I think in many ways it wraps up much jollier on stage than it does in the film. It's a lot of laughs, and they're all jumping around singing "Into the Woods" at the end. It's more of a parable. But we had the "Midnights" in there. The stage version followed the form, and this follows the film form, so you couldn't really do it.
I think the purists will be fine. And you know, I don't ever want to do anything that everybody likes, not that I've ever had that problem. (laughs) But that's OK. There may be a few people who are gonna prefer the stage version, but that doesn't mean the stage version is going away.