Adapting Sondheim: Hollywood’s Narrative Device Problem

Why do movies get rid of Stephen Sondheim’s most memorable narrative framing devices?

Disney had a minor publicity kerfluffle last week concerning one of their upcoming projects, an adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods.” It’s a combination of famous fairy tales with dark humor and dark magic, featuring an all-star cast that includes Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, and Christine Baranski.

At an event hosted by the Academy for Teachers, Sondheim expounded upon the censorship issues he and the show’s writer, James Lapine, had to make in order to make their dark fairy tale more family friendly. Removing infidelity, preventing certain characters from being killed, toning down overt sexuality…you know the drill.

(I’m desperately trying to avoid spoilers here, at the top of the post, but there will be spoilers later. Consider this your official warning!)

Well, you can image how up in arms the theater community was at hearing that one of their most beloved shows was being rewritten so thoroughly. Earlier this week, Sondheim issued a press release disclosing that his comments weren’t entirely factual, and that certain plot points were not in fact being wholly excised from the show.

In all the hoopla about the script changes, I checked out the movie’s IMDB page to examine the cast again (just to double check who was playing who). Reading through the cast list again and again, I realized something: the page didn’t have an actor listed as the Narrator.

Which is weird, because the Narrator is a crucial part of the show. Without him, none of the interesting stuff really happens.

(Official spoiler alert #2)

For the uninitiated, the Narrator performs the role you typically assume a Narrator would: following the events of the show, giving insights into characters’ motivations, and generally keeping the plot together.

About 2/3 of the way through the movie, the characters need to sacrifice someone to a Giantess, and decide to sacrifice the Narrator. After all, they reason, he’s not really involved in the action. He’s just a bystander with no real impact on the story.

Or so they think.

It’s after the death of the Narrator, however, that things go completely off the rails. Without him acting as their guide, the characters move into uncharted fairy tale territory, opening their lives up to the darkness lying just below the surface of “happily ever after.”

It’s one of the most simple yet ingenious twists on narrative form I’ve ever seen in theater. It’s bold, different, and above all, the kind of dramatic twist that can (and does) sell tickets.

So why’d they get rid of it?

This isn’t the first time a screenwriter has taken an axe to one of Sondheim’s ingenious framing devices.

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” perhaps Sondheim’s most famous musical, relies heavily on a Greek chorus of sorts that intones the infamous “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” in different iterations throughout the show. The ballad introduces the show and ends it, capitalizing on moments of heightened emotion within the show as well. It’s a powerful narrative device that frames major events onstage within a greater dramatic context, and creates a sort of operatic tragedy essential to the show’s core.

Yet, in the 2007 adaptation directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the ballad is excised. Just like “Into the Woods,” a Sondheim musical has been defanged by removed a powerful narrative framing device.

So, what’s the deal? Sure, screenwriters have to make compromises when translating works from stage to screen, but did they have to take these out? They’re two of the most famous pieces of Sondheim’s oeuvre, and I think they should have stuck around. Removing them makes the movies less powerful.

I know you theater nerds have opinions, so let’s talk it out.

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