I went to see the new film version of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods with some degree of trepidation, for two good reasons. The rather unfortunate mess that Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter made of Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd a few years back had made me a little dubious of Disney’s attempt to translate this twisted dark fairy tale to the big screen with any sense of nuance. On a deeper level, however, since having a kid I have found myself less and less able to handle movies with anything less than a happy ending (while recently visiting my family I had to explain to my three year old nephew that I was not in fact prepared to take the emotional journey required by Toy Story 3 with him). Into the Woods does not, to say the least, have an uncomplicatedly happy ending. Thats … kind of its whole point.
Still, refusing to give Peter Jackson more money for the unnecessary existence of a third hobbit movie, off we went Into the Woods. And you know what? Both my fears were unfounded. Not only was the cast quite fantastic (Who doesn’t love James Cordon? In my mind, the baker’s baby is named Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All) … But something about watching the story unfold this time around made me realize that Sondheim’s mix of unravelling fairy tales is not exactly as grim (ha! see what I did there?) as it might initially appear to be.
If you’re not familiar with it, Into the Woods intertwines the stories of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel with a new story about a Baker and his Wife trying to have a child. As it turns out, Rapunzel’s witch has cursed the Baker’s family to be barren and the couple have three nights to collect ingredients she needs for a potion and she will lift the curse. The items? The cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the slipper as pure as gold, the hair as yellow as corn. Not hard to figure out where they find these items. In the end, the Jack finds his giant, Little Red is saved from the wolf, Cinderella and Rapunzel marry their princes, and the Baker and Wife have their child. That is, however, only the first half of the story. And Sondheim’s real work is in unpacking the “happy endings” seemingly afforded all these familiar characters. Cinderella’s prince is self-defined “Charming, not Sincere,” the Baker and Wife find having a child is not all fun and games (to which I say … ha!), and Jack’s antics bring about the wrath of a giantess on the village.
It is easy to write off the second half of Sondheim’s play as an astounding piece of cynicism — there are no “happy endings” and we are at our most un-happy when we get exactly what we want. What’s so wrong with the fantasies of the happily ever afters?
As I’ve been listening to the soundtrack far more than I should probably admit over the last week, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s not the second act of Into the Woods that’s depressing. It’s the first. What happens in the first act? Every character is out to achieve their own wish. The Baker and his Wife are perfect examples. They desire a child and they have an opportunity to get one. All their actions — how they cheat Jack out of his cow or try to steal red riding hood’s cape — are justified in their minds (particularly the Baker’s Wife) because they are just trying to get their wish. And everyone at least nominally wins. But is that exactly a happy or uplifting view of humanity? Everyone is out to get their wish, on their own, for their own agenda? Are the Baker and his Wife any more sympathetic than Cinderella’s step-mother or step-sisters who cut off parts of their feet to achieve their own selfish dreams of marrying the prince?
Sondheim’s darker second act brings to light that simply getting what we want doesn’t necessarily make us happy. Having a child has put a strain on the Baker’s marriage. Cinderella is unhappy in the life of the court, and her prince is not exactly the most faithful husband. Simply going after our own agenda (even when we have the purest intentions) is not necessarily the best recipe for happiness. Not to mention the destruction that is brought about as a result of careless, seemingly inconsequential actions by characters throughout the first act. Ultimately, though, our characters whose stories merely bumped into eachother without truly intersecting come together to care for one another and create a kind of community and realistically happy ending.
There are many complicated themes and images running through Sondheim’s lyrics, but for me the heart of the musical (and film) comes in the Act II song “No One is Alone”, sung primarily by the Baker and Cinderella, with the great lyric:
People make mistakes,
Holding to their own,
Thinking they’re alone.
But, as Sonheim’s lyrics go on to both remind and warn us “no one is alone.” The characters find destruction when they look to their own wishes, “thinking they’re alone.” They find redemption, of a sort, when they remember they are not in fact alone. They have people to rely on, and they have people who rely on them. They have a community for support, and a community to whom they must be accountable. Life is complicated and messy. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. But we travel through these messy woods of life together.
There’s something to that for everyone, including those of us who muddle along this Christian spiritual journey. We face so many temptations to fulfill our own needs and our own desires everyday, often in ways that have detrimental impact on others that we do not take the effort to acknowledge. Increasing numbers of people in affluent, well-educated communities choose not to vaccinate their children, oblivious to the impact their actions have for those who cannot be immunized for various reasons. We all finished a festive holiday season, marked by giving and receiving … yet more stuff! Which we don’t really need and surely exploits workers in the developing world. And yet, I still gave my child her cheap plastic toys.
We can’t treat our lives or our spirituality as individualistic endeavours. Our highest value cannot be simply to go out an pursue our wishes, however well-intentioned they might be. A hard lesson in an extremely consumeristic era. It is not going to lead to a healthy world. And it will not ultimately lead to our own satisfaction. We’re never going to get it all perfect–that’s why we spent most of Advent with the prayer “come, Lord Jesus.” But the more we can think less of ourselves and more of how we can give of ourselves to others and the good of our broader communities, the more I think we can avoid the giants and the witches that would seek to bring us harm.