Over the holiday season, I went with a couple of friends to see the film adaption of Into the Woods. I first watched Sondheim's musical during my senior year of college via the video recording of the original production on Broadway, and I must admit, I did not like it the first time. I enjoyed the first half, but I was uncomfortable with the moral ambiguity of the second half.
Nevertheless, I must admit I was excited when I saw the previews for the new film adaption (but who doesn't love the idea of Meryl Streep playing a fabulous witch, let's be honest)! Furthermore, my first impression of the story was removed enough that I thought I could approach the story again with a cleansed palate. And I must say that I enjoyed the second viewing much more than the first, appreciating the second half much more. Why? Because unlike typical traditional fables and fairy tales, I realized that Into the Woods is not meant to serve as a morality play/story.
I think that Sondheim was trying to write a modern fairy tale -- not modern in setting where a classic story of good and evil takes place in contemporary society, but modern in the sense that the characters, their values, and their choices reflect tendencies in 20th and 21st century society. In other words, if the story of Cinderella took place according to the values of modern society, what might have happened? I think this mode of interpretation is key to understanding the underlying themes of Into the Woods and reconciling these values with viewers who aline themselves with a more conservative value system. To be sure, this interpretation does not justify the moral choices of some of the characters, nor does it make it appropriate for young audiences. Nevertheless, I do believe it is an intriguing study for mature audiences that shows the artistic brilliance of Sondheim as a contemporary storyteller.
How does the show reflect tendencies in 20th and 21st century society?
#1. Indecision. One of my personal favorites is the character Cinderella. Cinderella represents the millenial generation, those of my generation who are floating from one job to another because they are uncertain what they really want in life. She knows she ought to marry the Prince and escape her impoverished, abusive life with her step-family, but she's uncertain if that's what she really wants. The outcome of her story proves that her misgivings are not unfounded, but her inability to commit to a decision is a common trait among many of my own friends and extended family.
#2. Greed/Ambition vs. Gratitude. This is represented most clearly by the Prince and the Baker's wife, who by the second half have had their wishes come true (a child for the Baker and his wife and a bride for the Prince. And yet, the fulfillment of their wishes leaves them unsatisfied and somewhat disappointed. Thus, they fall prey to lust and in a moment of passion commit an act of adultery. The trouble is that they ought to be satisfied with what they have. Both seem to have a good life -- not perfect, but good -- yet both are still unsatisfied. Although Sondheim's conception of dissatisfaction is realized in the form of lust and adultery, it is also actualized in our culture's rampant materialism. Jack follows a similar pattern though in a different way. He experiences a sexual awakening while visiting the giant for the first time. But lust and curiosity drive him to visit the giant again and again, eventually bringing trouble and even death to the villagers, including his own mother. As actress Emily Blunt (the Baker's wife) stated beautifully in the featurette regarding the themes of the story, "You should look at what you have rather than what you want."
#3. Niceness vs. Goodness. The Witch informs a group of the characters towards the climax of the film, "You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice." Similarly, when Cinderella confronts her prince about his infidelity, he retorts, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere." Nowadays, we are far more careful to be "nice" rather than good. Being nice to people as a general rule means being polite and not offending people, tolerating other views and life choices which we may not necessarily agree with ourselves. Now not all of this is a bad thing. It is important to be kind, to be polite, and to be tolerant of others, but we should never have to sacrifice things like telling the truth, making the right choice, or our own integrity, for the sake of niceness. And more importantly, as Red Riding Hood points out, "Nice is different than good." Being a nice person does not necessarily make you a good person.
In spite of some of the dark themes which Sondheim explores in his musical, I believe he demonstrates that there is hope for our society through the fate of Jack. The remaining characters ultimately refuse to give up Jack to the giant. While goodness and morality are more than just saving a life, this is one of the most crucial moments in the musical as the characters come to terms with the negative consequences of the choices they made during the course of the story. They have made mistakes in the past, but in the climactic moment they have the courage to make the right choice and work together to save themselves and their fellow villagers. They realize that they have made mistakes; they have not always made the right choices; getting what you wish is not always everything that you hoped for.
Although Into the Woods is certainly not a morality play, it rings true in its portrayal of fundamental elements of fallen human nature and I think this is one of the reasons it has become such a favorite with audiences. It shows us that we all have both light and darkness inside of us. In the words of Sirius Black, "What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are." Yes, we sin. Yes, we make mistakes. But in the words of Thomas Wayne/Alfred, "Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up."
So if there is a moral to Into the Woods, I suppose it would be this: learn from your mistakes, be careful what you wish for, and be grateful for what you have.