And a Little Bit Not

artwork by Ella Williams

Loyalty to the source material is a curious thing. In modern terms, although it’s clambered for and scrutinized mercilessly by hardcore fans, once the latest film adaptation of this-or-that book, or this-or-that comic, or this-or-that fairy tale has been released into the world, the fervour tends to boil down to a debate over whether or not the previous incarnation was better. When telling an old tale for a new time, it’s frustratingly impossible to maintain narrative cohesion and include every permutation of the original story. That is, unless the adaptor thinks an audience will lay down cash at the multiplex to see Hansel and Gretel use a saw to cut the witch’s throat while Satan looks on (as in an early French version), or the cannibalism in Snow White (a highlight of the Brothers Grimm telling). If Marvel Studios was more interested in maintaining the integrity of their characters than in ensuring their latest incarnations appealed to as many people as possible (and therefore made as much of a profit as possible), they might have made room in Avengers: Age of Ultron for the storyline in which Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch — twin siblings — engage in a romantic relationship. It happened in the source material, after all.

Do audiences actually want faithful adaptations of complicated texts? Or do they just want something they recognize? If it’s the latter, then moviegoers are in luck, since – by all indicators – we seem to be out of new stories to tell. Or is it just that the powers that be, nowadays, are less concerned with artistry than with the bottom line, less interested in hiding the “business” in show business? We live in a filmic milieu where every property gets a sequel, a prequel, a spin-off, or, if they’re lucky, a franchise, and it can be easy to forget that writers can craft new stories directly for the screen instead of exclusively pulling from earlier sources. Are moviegoers being conditioned by wave after wave of repetition to expect less? Have we been made to give in to the idea that films are no more than a product?

“Doomed” might seem a bit of a dramatic descriptor to use on the film industry, but stick with me. Doom — the word — is usually equated with death and destruction, but in its simplest terms, “doom” just means looking back over the patterns of a thing, recognizing a repeating problem and then doing nothing to avoid its looming. Variations on a theme has been the name of the game in storytelling since time immemorial, but we’ve used the same tropes to tell the same stories often enough that while the film industry is more profitable than ever, it is also more creatively stagnated than ever and doomed to repeat itself ad infinitum. Unless, of course, something changes radically.

I’m no great fan of the culture of remakes that we live in (looking at an individual plot graph may be satisfying or even thrilling, but looking at the same structure over and over again makes one seasick), so it was surprising to me then that I connected with Disney’s 2014 adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods as much as I did. The film is based on the 1986 musical which draws on the stories and characters from several well-known fairy tales, meshing and entwining their various plot lines into one interwoven tapestry. It’s the Avengers of fairy tales.

For their musical, Sondheim and Lapine reached back further than the landmark Disney adaptations and used the warts-and-all versions of the original folk tales, not shrinking from the bloodier, more explicit elements. They included Cinderella’s wicked step-sisters carving off parts of their feet in an attempt to fit into the prince’s slipper (as featured in the Brothers Grimm version), and the Broadway production (directed by Lapine) held onto the folk tale’s sexual undertones by featuring Red Riding Hood’s wolf with fully exposed genitalia, his dapper jacket making the southern exposure all the more striking. Ironically, but not surprisingly, it was the Walt Disney Studios themselves, those pioneers in the art of the “family friendly” film-going experience, who produced the filmed version of Into the Woods, softening the story significantly by removing the violent deaths of several characters and replacing the nude wolf with a less explicit (though equally suggestive) Tex Avery design.

With a string of live-action remakes (beginning with Cinderella and continuing on with next year’s Beauty and the Beast) just around the corner, the Mouse House could use Into the Woods to make a distinct claim on just about every marketable version of a fairytale. They dusted off the long-shelved property, put bonafide musical director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) at the helm, packaged it as magical fable and promptly set course for profitable shores, missing the point of the story completely. The film made money. Of course it did. The executives at Disney are shrewd enough to know that if they sanded off a few of the rough edges of the original, Into the Woods could be yet another means to a financial end. But Disney’s model of adaptation necessitates a kind of “sameness” in the finished product, andInto the Woods — a complex story of painful, but often necessary, upheaval and transformation — is a manifesto against maintaining the status quo. But still, the studio wanted people to buy tickets, so they pushed. Well, you know what they say: be careful what you wish for.

Once upon a time, as the story goes, in a small village by the edge of the woods, there lived a baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt). More than anything, the couple want a child, but meddling in their fate is the witch who lives next door (Meryl Streep). The baker’s father, years earlier, had stolen a handful of special beans from the witch’s garden, and in retribution the witch placed the baker’s family under a childless cloud. The witch herself has also been cursed; for allowing her garden to be pilfered, the witch’s mother cursed her with ugliness – a curse that can be lifted if she makes a magic potion under the light of a blue moon. The catch (and, of course, there’s always a catch if the curse is worth its salt) is that the witch can’t touch the ingredients herself. And so, with the promise of restoring fertility to the baker and his wife, the witch sends the couple into the woods with a list. The ingredients are as follows:

1) The cape as red as blood
2) The cow as white as milk
3) The hair as yellow as corn, and
4) The slipper as pure as gold

Thankfully, in this same village, are living

1) A sweets-loving girl who’s on her way to visit her grandmother’s house
2) A foolish boy who needs to sell his cow at market
3) A fair maiden, locked away in a very tall tower with nothing to do but grow her hair, and
4) A young woman, forced to dote on her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, who longs to attend the ball at the king’s festival

Phew! That was lucky, wasn’t it?

But once the characters get everything they wish for, they must face the often bitter consequences: a charming prince does not become a faithful husband overnight; if you slay a giant, you should expect retribution from his family; a child may come at the expense of the mother. “Happily ever after” doesn’t exist. It’s not as simple as that.

There is no “the end.” There’s “the end of THIS story/the beginning of ANOTHER story,” which is another way of saying “the now.” The time of reflection on what’s just occurred. The moment before you start moving again. The end of a story can be immensely satisfying because it can fill you with a sense of purpose as you begin something different. Brimming with potential, you can go into the woods, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll be home before dark. You can’t ever go home again. But that’s ok. After Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) has her encounter with the Wolf (a wonderfully subversive Johnny Depp), she reflects on the many valuable things she now knows. “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?” she sings. “And a little bit… not.” That’s life. It’s not a single moment, or a tidy package. It’s change and reflection and acceptance and further change. It’s as much the time in the village as it is the moments spent in the woods. With luck and determination, it’s mostly good. But it will always be a little bit not.

Little Red is my favourite character because she is indomitable. She enters the woods with the confidence of youth (“The way is clear/the light is good/I have no fear nor no one should/The woods are just trees/the trees are just wood/No need to be afraid there” [“There’s something in the glade there,” the more fearful Baker completes the line]), and despite everything she does not allow her frightening experiences to overwhelm her. By the end of the film, you’re goddamn right she’s wearing a brand new wolfskin coat. She has literally been to the belly of the beast, and has every right to be fearful of the world (and especially the woods), but she’s more confident than ever, ready to take on something — anything — new.

God help me, I cannot abide the cynicism that renders the world a hopeless thing. Though it’s fearful, though it’s dark and though you may lose the path, though there are always wolves and giants and spells, you have to go into the woods every now and then. When we reach the end of the film and each of the characters has been through terrible loss, they take stock and band together, taking Little Red’s motif and updating it: “the way is dark/the light is dim/but now there’s you, me, her and him/the chances look small/the choices look grim/but everything you learn there will help when you return there.” When you find yourself wishing more than doing, don’t be afraid to change your pattern. Hard to say exactly how it’ll turn out, but what a thrill the journey will be.

The dilemma lies in convincing a major motion picture studio to take financially uncertain chances and audiences to gamble the price of their tickets on a different, possibly uncomfortable kind of film, a feat about as easy as slaying a giant. But what’s easy and what’s needed are rarely the same thing, and I would counsel you to think on the story of the irrepressible Little Red as she reflects on her encounter with the Wolf:

Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood.
They will not protect you
The way that they should…
And though scary is exciting
Nice is different than good.

We seem to be nearing the end of a cycle of storytelling where the old stories aren’t serving us any further, and the only so-called fresh ideas take the form of an ironic twist on a classic tale. Look at the Shrek series in which the monster is given the hero’s role and the damsels in distress are far more dangerous than their captors, but even this trend started nearly fifteen years ago, mutating into a series of films which insist on giving villains a sympathetic back story (Maleficent, Snow White & The Huntsman) as though “more story” equates with “new story.” Many would say that these nice, clever films are a gentle step in the right direction. Many others would say that they’re not nearly good enough. The final song of the film says that as you enter the woods, you need to think and listen, minding both the past and the future. The resonance of the old archetypes remains, but we also need new stories. We’ve lived in the village for long enough. It’s time to go into the woods.