I Have Questions about Into the Woods

I’ve never seen the original production, but I saw the movie when it came out in 2014. Musically, it’s brilliant. Those songs lodge themselves in my brain and I can’t stop singing them for weeks after I hear them. The lyrics, cinematography, cast—everything is fantastic. But I’m not quite sure about the story. I know there are some differences, mostly things that were left out of the movie, and it’s possible that that affects the things we’re talking about. But let’s go on what I’ve seen for now. (Spoilers ahead.)

Into-The-Woods_3142052c

The story is a combination of several fairy tales, demonstrating the consequences of things like Jack’s climbing the beanstalk, the bakers’ desire for a child, Cinderella’s going to the ball. And as TIME Magazine’s review pointed out, almost everything that goes wrong does so because of a failure in parental responsibilities. Here’s what I want to know, though: In this examination of consequences and parental failure, why are the casualties almost exclusively women?

The death toll in this movie is surprisingly high, even for a fairy tale. At the end of the movie, the giant, the giant’s wife, the wolf, Jack’s mother, Red Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, the baker’s wife and mother, and the witch are all dead. Cinderella’s two sisters have been blinded (as was Rapunzel’s prince, but unlike the sisters, he has his sight restored by magic). The giant and the wolf—the only male deaths—don’t count, because those are from the fairy tales and weren’t written for the play. In fact, they’re the only deaths that come from the fairy tales. Is there a reason?

Next there’s the question of Red Riding Hood and Jack, their respective explorations, and the movie’s treatment thereof. Red Riding Hood, on her way to her grandmother’s house, is confronted by the wolf. She is on the path at this time, I would like to point out; despite the implication that Red Riding Hood’s “straying” from the path is what allowed the wolf to eat her and her granny, I fail to see how her actions had anything to do with it. The wolf is a predator, and he came to her. On the other hand, everything about Jack’s story is a specific choice he makes. He decides to climb the beanstalk; he steals the golden egg; he goes back to steal the harp.

Both of these characters sing a song following their adventures, and have you noticed how different the tone is between the two of them? In an incredibly blatant example of victim-blaming, Red Riding Hood apologizes and offers justification for her actions, though she actually did nothing more than exist. Jack enthusiastically climbs a tree while singing his song, using all those “explorer” poses to indicate that he’s discovering new worlds, “free to do whatever pleases [him].” There are consequences for him, sure, but they’re clearly the result of his multiple thefts—his own actions—not the exploration itself.

And then there’s the ending, with the strange semblance of a nuclear family cobbled together from the survivors of this fairy tale massacre . . . Because Cinderella is ashamed of having wanted something glamorous instead of her life of cleaning ashes, apparently? I can’t actually tell whether she’s meant to be there in the capacity of the baker’s new mate, as one of the children, or as something else entirely; the way the final scene pulls away from them gathered on the log, listening as the baker—clearly the hero—comforts them with his newly embraced fatherhood, she kind of blends in with the kids.

There’s a lot going on that I’m just not sure about. The female characters are all pretty outstanding, actually, until they’re killed off. There are these lyrics, sung by the witch:

Nothing we can do.
Not exactly true:
We can always give her the boy…

No?
No, of course what really matters
Is the blame,
Somebody to blame.
Fine, if that’s the thing you enjoy,
Placing the blame,
If that’s the aim,
Give me the blame-
Just give me the boy.

THE OTHERS
No!

WITCH
No?

You’re so nice.
You’re not good,
You’re not bad,
You’re just nice.
I’m not good,
I’m not nice,
I’m just right.
I’m the Witch.
You’re the world.

I’m the hitch.
I’m what no one believes,
I’m the Witch.
You’re all liars and thieves,
Like his father,
Like his son will be, too—
Oh, why bother?
You’ll just do what you do.

There’s Red Riding Hood, who learned more from her experience than the adults around her seem to have done:

And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn’t known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.

Now I know:
Don’t be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.

Isn’t it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit not…

I loved the scene with the baker’s wife in the woods, as she questions the restrictions of her life:

What was that?

Was that me?
Was that him?
Did a Prince really kiss me?
And kiss me?
And kiss me?
And did I kiss him back?

Was it wrong?
Am I mad?
Is that all?
Does he miss me?
Was he suddenly
Getting bored with me?

Wake up! Stop dreaming.
Stop prancing about the woods.
It’s not beseeming.
What is it about the woods?

Back to life, back to sense,
Back to child, back to husband,
You can’t live in the woods.
There are vows, there are ties,
There are needs, there are standards,
There are shouldn’ts and shoulds.

Why not both instead?
There’s the answer, if you’re clever:
Have a child for warmth,
And a Baker for bread,
And a Prince for whatever—
Never!
It’s these woods.

Just a moment,
One peculiar passing moment…
Must it all be either less or more,
Either plain or grand?
Is it always “or”?
Is it never “and”?
That’s what woods are for:
For those moments in the woods…

Oh, if life were made of moments,
Even now and then a bad one—!
But if life were only moments,
Then you’d never know you had one.

First a Witch, then a child,
Then a Prince, then a moment—
Who can live in the woods?
And to get what you wish,
Only just for a moment—
These are dangerous woods…

Let the moment go…
Don’t forget it for a moment, though.
Just remembering you’ve had an “and,”
When you’re back to “or,”
Makes the “or” mean more
Than it did before.
Now I understand—

And it’s time to leave the woods.

And then she dies.

The themes of moral ambivalence are what make this such a unique, mesmerizing production. The protagonists are, as the witch points out, largely thieves and liars. Their dreams are perfectly understandable, justifiable. But they all seem to be punished just for wanting things, even the ones who didn’t steal anything to get them, and maybe that reflects the random cruelty of the world, because this play/movie satirizes the happy endings of fairy tales. Is the disproportionate effect suffered by women an intentional part of the satire? Or is it the subconscious misogyny that infuses most things in the world? Given that it was written in the 80s, it could easily go either way.

I’d like to see the play, especially since I found out Bernadette Peters plays the witch in the original Broadway cast, but also to find out which of these elements were created in the film version and which were always there. Maybe I’ll be able to figure it all out then.

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