Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Into the Woods, A Lesson in Literature Fantastical and Practical

I’ve been a fan of Steven Sondheim’s Tony-award winning musicalInto the Woods, for decades so I was excited to be in the theater to experience it again as a film. Though different from the staged musical, Rob Marshall’s adaptation for Disney still delights. I left the theater feeling light of heart in spite and because of the somber lessons delivered through music and action.

One reason for my delight is the intellectual delight of the story. Sondheim has entered into fairy tales with which we are familiar and imagined them anew. He has also woven several separate tales into one. Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk are residents of the same village, and each takes a walk into the woods, a metaphor for the paths of our lives, for the world wider than our hometowns.

Into the Woods in Winter
Photo by Al Griffin
The actions of the baker’s father impact the baker and his wife who has a soft spot for Little Red who’s rescued from the Wolf’s belly by the baker who’s on a quest to find four special objects that will transform the witch from whom the baker’s father stole rampion to satisfy the baker’s mother’s cravings while pregnant with the baker who also trades Jack five beans for a cow the color of milk and wins the cape the color of blood after rescuing Red. The baker’s wife claims Rapunzel’s hair the color of corn and chases Cinderella to claim the shoe of gold. Well, you see, it’s complicated and tightly woven. I admire that kind of vision and delight in the story’s fresh twists and turns.

Another reason that the filmed version of the story delights is the nature of fairy tales. They are fantastical. Ordinary folk confront the consequences of their own actions, and often those consequences are supersized beasts or shape-shifters. Animals sometimes speak, witches appear and disappear, and quests begin and end, usually with those ordinary folk having demonstrated some measure of heroism or wit. In other words, ordinary people grow and triumph, proving once more that humans can be spectacular.

A final reason the story delights is found in overall meanings. Jack, Cinderella, the baker, and Red learn that family has more to do with loyalty and shared purpose than with biology. Rapunzel and her Prince learn more than most of us would like to know about treachery and betrayal, but their love conquers all. They ride off to live happily ever after, we assume. 

Cinderella learns that a Prince Charming may not be the man of anyone’s dreams. As he admits, he was raised to be charming, not sincere. Cinderella’s vain stepsisters learn that Nature’s judgment can be harsh while the Baker’s wife discovers the woods may lead one astray, a lesson that Little Red learns as well. Many of the characters, especially the baker, feel Regret’s sting and vow to live in a manner that averts it. Every character must face Grief, a central figure in the human experience.

To revisit these truths in song is a delight. To experience the special effects and the fine performances delights. To laugh at Prince Charming’s vanity and gasp as the giant searches for Jack are delightful. To wonder with Cinderella whether her nightmare childhood or dream marriage is better delights. So see the film or watch the entire stage play on YouTube. You will be delighted.

Reading Challenge:

Read Into the Woods.

Writing Challenge:

Write a brief narrative telling the story developed through a fantastical work of literature such as Into the Woods or a fairy tale or E. B. White’s Charlotte's Web.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach