At first, the news that Disney was adapting Stephen Sondheim’s revisionist fairy tale musical “Into the Woods” seemed like cause for celebration. We would get Meryl Streep as the witch! Anna Kendrick as Cinderella! A gorgeous, big-budget adaptation of a sophisticated production!
We spoke too soon. The New Yorker reports that as Sondheim revises the musical, he is cutting some of the very things that made “Into the Woods” so fresh, disturbing and vital in the first place. Playbill says Sondheim explained those changes during a visit with high school theater advisers:
Kevin Gallagher, a teacher who is considering a production of Into the Woods at his school, brought up concerns over the nature of the relationship between Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. “So, what is the objection?” Sondheim asked.
“Infidelity, a wolf being lascivious, that the whole connection with Red Riding Hood is sexual,” Gallagher replied. “Well, you’ll be happy to know that Disney had the same objections,” Sondheim said.
Sondheim continued, “You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the [Baker's Wife].” He added, “You know, if I were a Disney executive I probably would say the same thing.”
That this is predictable is not the point. It is why these alterations might have been anticipated that is so depressing. Even as it buys up properties like Marvel and “Star Wars,” building gigantic franchises in each, and even as it makes fairy tales from new perspectives, like “Maleficent,” which fleshed out the villain from “Sleeping Beauty,” Disney seems convinced that even as it makes more movies, it cannot make different kinds of movies.
When “Into the Woods” opened in New York in 1987, it did so at a moment when many forms of art were taking up fairy tales as their subject matter. Sondheim and his collaborator James Lapine excavated the sexuality and violence that had been part of those stories from the beginning from beneath a layer of Disney-fied retelling, and then pushed beyond the happy endings that tend to foreclose greater considerations of that sex and violence.
“In the process of getting what they want, Mr. Lapine observed, the characters all commit certain questionable actions: Jack tries to sell a cow under false pretenses, then murders a giant and steals from his widow; Cinderella poses as a princess; Little Red Riding Hood tortures a wolf by filling its belly with stones,” Michiko Kakutani wrote in a feature on the development of the show. “Such acts had made Mr. Lapine wonder about the morality of the tales, and in working on the show’s book, he began to see Act II as an examination of the consequences of events in Act I.”
Disney might have treated “Into the Woods” as an expansion of its brand, the kind of movie that young viewers would graduate to after growing up on the Disney renditions of the original fairy tales. And maybe it will still serve that role, but as a much more modest step up. There is big money in happy endings, after all, and Disney can complicate its brand only so much.
This is the same problem the company has in other areas, and the reason we hear so many complaints about a juvenile strain in popular media. If your brand relies on the idea that Captain America is a good, trustworthy person, you can only go so far in encouraging your audience to think critically about the implications of giving a single person the ability to do great violence. If you are in the business of selling happy endings, your customers might get less enthusiastic as they become convinced that “ever after” is not an ironclad guarantee.
When we call a story childish, we usually mean that it tells us that everything will be all right, or even wonderful once certain circumstances have clicked into place. When we think of a story as adult, it is often because it undoes the very illusions that are so appealing, eating away at our ability to fall under their spell again. It is very hard to tell both sorts of stories from within the same corporate entity. The news about “Into the Woods” begins to make me wish that Disney was not even going to try.