It seemed an unlikely pairing – a bold, subversive stage musical filled with innuendo and the family-oriented House of Mouse. It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that fans of Stephen Sondheim’s darkly comic play, Into the Woods, would be concerned about its adaptation for the big screen by Disney. Given that the point of Into the Woods is its biting satire, devotees feared the removal of its teeth. As the source material is a brutal deconstruction of the fairy tale genre – focusing sharply on the way in which these traditional tales deal with such thorny issues as gender roles and sexuality – the idea of Disney diluting those messages to enable a PG rating was poorly received in many quarters.
The box office results from the Christmas Day opening of the film tell a different story, however. Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), and starring Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Johnny Depp, and Chris Pine, Into The Woods made a solid debut – according to Forbes – with a $15.08 million take from 2,478 theaters. For context, the highest earner from the same opening window was Unbroken, which took $15.59 million from 3,131 theaters.
As with most cinematic adaptations of beloved source material – be it literature or stage play – it remains to be seen whether this initial success for Into the Woods is the result of a devoted fan base turning out on opening weekend, or whether the solid business is the result of solid filmmaking that appeals to a general audience – something which hangs on the filmmaker’s handling of the more difficult aspects of the play.
This applies most specifically to a scene featuring the young and innocent Little Red Riding Hood (played onscreen by 14-year-old Lilla Crawford) and The Wolf (played onscreen by Johnny Depp) who, in the original stage play, is very clearly a sexual predator. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, producer John DeLuca explained the importance of striking a balance with Into The Woods onscreen – removing the more obvious and troubling allusions from the sight of the younger audience, while retaining enough innuendo to communicate those darker points to the adults.
“You have to – he [the wolf] has to be the temptation of pulling her off this path to the flowers, to the awakening. The temptation of something alluring, something attractive. But no, we couldn’t hit it over the head.
“We were aware of the implications, and we really wanted to hire kids on this – you don’t do that onstage – they’re [usually] older… So we just found our way, not making it too heavy on the pedophilia front.”
The balance was achieved, in part, with subtle alterations to the score – as music producer and supervisor Michael Higham described.
“It’s a very difficult thing because it’s inherent in the lyrics. We emphasised the woodwinds to make it feel a little lighter – especially the flutes. And we just made it jazzier – played more on the walking bass line. Inherently, when it has a jazz feel, it just feels lighter.”
From the perspective of young actress Lilla Crawford – playing the role of Little Red Riding Hood – the difference lies in the way in which the performers approach the material, and what kind of predator they portray the wolf to be.
“You can play it so many ways, so just don’t play it that way! We kind of staged it as maybe that creepy guy who’s like, ‘Hey, get in the van’, and he turns out to be a kidnapper. That’s kind of how it was.
“This movie is a reality check, but it’s also mixed with fantasy. It’s all about growing up and becoming an adult, leaving your childhood and becoming a young woman. I think so many girls my age can relate to that – even I can – and that’s what’s so special about Little Red Riding Hood in this version.”
For producer DeLuca, the audience views movies through the frame of their own experience and values – which is something that changes over time. The result is that each age group brings a different perspective to the piece.
“The child [in the audience] sees life much differently: you can see what you look for in something, and the child sees this crazy wolf that she has made human. He just wants to eat her, he really wants to devour her – he’s hungry! So many people that have brought their kids to see it, the kids love it because they see it from their vantage point.”
While the filmmakers seek to reassure fans of Sondheim’s Into the Woods that their quest to retain most of the biting edge of the source material has succeeded, audiences will inevitably give their verdict through their movie ticket purchases over the remainder of the holiday season.
[Image via HitFix]