Into the Woods and Our Relationship with Fairytales

into the woodsAs a fairytale enthusiast, I could not help but watch Into the Woods, as soon as feasibly possible. I was both very pleased and very surprised.

The greatest aspect of stories is their affect on how we understand ourselves, our relationships, and our environment. For example, Beauty and the Beast was my first princess Disney movie and I identified with Belle’s search for an adventure much of my life. Because I felt a connection with Belle; I saw myself through her portrayal, considered many of my relationships to be similar to those she had with the town people; and thought of my small, tight-knit community as similar to hers. What I find funny is, just as she has a falling-out with her town when she bruises Gaston’s ego and expresses a different perspective concerning the Beast, so too did I have a falling-out with my tight-knit community when I bruised an ex-boyfriend’s ego and developed alternate worldviews. As is clear from my experience with Beauty and the Beast, stories inform our perspectives, while our perspectives also inform how we understand the story.

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Snow White from “Once Upon a Time”

Many times, current perspectives and understandings no longer fit a popular story; and it is then that stories are retold in new ways. For example, the Grimm brothers collected stories during the Romantic period, when gore and gruesome details were popular and “romanticized,” (hence the period’s name). Because Mr. Disney was working with a different audience, he retold some of these stories in new, less terrible ways. However, he was quite sexist and misogynistic by today’s standards and many of his stories are being retold in more appropriately feminist ways, like in the show “Once Upon a Time,” where Snow White is an independent capable woodswoman.

I was very pleased with Into the Woods because they incorporated both old versions and new versions of fairy tales. [SPOILERS] For example, as in the Grimm’s telling, Cinderella’s evil stepsisters cut off their toe and heal to fit into the gold – not glass – slipper and Cinderella has the birds attack the sisters, blinding them, after she has been identified by the prince. However, Little Red Ridding Hood deviates from more original versions when the “huntsman” leaves before the wolf can be skinned and the Grandmother skins the wolf to make a new coat for Little Red. [END SPOILERS] This pleased me because the new and more relatable version still incorporated more original versions that are no doubt embedded in our communal consciousness. In other words, Into the Woods integrated new aspects into some of the oldest recorded accounts, creating cohesion instead of furthering the cognitive dissonance between the old and the new versions within communal consciousness.

Into the Woods MerylIn addition, I found the character of the witch refreshing. Most of the time the witch character is thoroughly evil and often incredibly ugly. This witch was unique in that her ugliness is explained, someone steals her beauty from her, and she rejuvenates herself with the help of the thief’s son. Also, she isn’t evil, but incredibly pragmatic. When she has the idea to sacrifice a boy’s life to an angry giant, it is for the benefit of all, not because she enjoys death or killing. [SPOILER] And in the end she requests that the earth engulf her, signaling her intimate connection with the earth, as apposed to some evil source. [END SPOILER] While she does harm some characters, as told in the Grimm versions, she is no different than anyone else in that her hurtful acts are committed out of fear and the result of being mistreated by others.

I was also very surprised by Into the Woods. While I have read a couple retellings of fairytales where the “happily ever after” is not so happy, I had not encountered one quite as dark and complicated as this one. As in most fairytales, even the not so happy ever after accounts end in a different happily ever after. For example, in the teen book, Just Ella, Cinderella realizes that the prince is incredibly stupid and uninteresting. Because of this she runs away, but in the end finds true love with a different man. Just EllaHowever, Into the Woods’ after happily ever after is not so happy. [SPOILERS] Jack’s mother dies, the Baker’s wife strays (in her marriage and from the path) and falls off a cliff, Little Red looses her family, and Cinderella finds out that her Prince has cheated on her and leaves him. While those left find solace in each other and create a new family of sorts, there is no real happy ending. [END SPOILERS] It seemed to me that the creators ran out of time to tell the whole story, rushed the end, and didn’t create a satisfying conclusion. Nevertheless, I am one to give the benefit of the doubt and therefore I choose to believe this was on purpose, that the creators of Into the Woods brought the fairytales out of their fantasy world and placed them in the messy, confusing, and complicated world you and I experience.

Perhaps by bringing these old fairytales into a context similar to ours, the creators of Into the Woods made them more accessible and more relatable. Perhaps they understand the connection our society and we, as individuals, have with stories. Perhaps they also understand that the more different a story is, the harder it is to incorporate the morals or themes into our perspectives. While this is more than enough “perhaps,” stories are great in that their intended purpose does not hold more weight than the readers’/viewers’ understanding; we participate in the meaning making process. Therefore, this is only one interpretation of the surprising ending of the incredibly enjoyable Into the Woods.

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