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Sanitizing 'Into the Woods' Isn't Protecting Children. It's Lying to Them

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by Sam Adams
June 20, 2014 12:08 PM
2 Comments
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Meryl Streep in "Into the Woods"

In the past few days, my Facebook friends have been sharing an article called "8 Reasons Children of the 1970s Should All Be Dead," a compendium of the life-threatening conditions under which those of us born in that less-enlightened decade were raised. We rode in cars without seat belts, clambered on burning hot metal jungle gyms with scorched asphalt underfoot, and threw lawn arts that could split open a skull. Thanks to a glass Listerine bottle and a cast-iron radiator, I had 40 stiches in me by the time I was the age my five-year-old daughter now. And yet, most of us survived, a bit battered, perhaps, but basically unharmed. 


These days, parenting is a full-contact sport. We shield our kids from PCBs and GMOs, dodge gluten intolerance and nut allergies, and we'd never dream of leaving our kids in the car while we ran a quick errand -- a once-commonplace practice that could actually get you arrested now. There are good reasons for most of these practices, as long as they're kept in check by the constant awareness that the crucial responsibility of fostering a young person's independence is worth a few cuts and bruises. But we're on shakier ground when it comes to protecting our children from ideas, which is what Disney has done by bowdlerizing Steven Sondheim's "Into the Woods" for its forthcoming movie version.

In a New Yorker article earlier this week, Larissa MacFarquhar reported on a confab between Sondheim and a group of high- and middle-school drama teachers, who, as she points out, had spent years staging Sondheim's plays "in the face of administrative protests about immoral messages and lascivious or bloodthirsty content." It must have come as a shock to learn that with "Into the Woods," Sondheim had yielded to the entertainment-conglomerate equivalent of those same forces.

"You will find in the movie that Rapunzel does not get killed, and the prince does not sleep with the baker’s wife," he said.

The teachers gasped, but Sondheim shrugged. "You know, if I were a Disney executive I would probably say the same thing," he said.

A teacher asked what would happen to the song "Any Moment" if the baker's wife remained chaste. "Don’t say the song is cut."

"The song is cut."

The teachers cried out in despair.

As Alyssa Rosenberg points out in the Washington Post, Disney's decision to make "Into the Woods" without actually making "Into the Woods" likely has much to do with Disney's management of its all-powerful brand. (No official explanation has been, or is likely to be, forthcoming.) Disney is, after all, a family company, and while it's been commendably progressive in expanding the definition of "family," it's evidently still mired in an outdated and, frankly, delusional understanding of what "family-friendly" means.


At the end of her essay, Rosenberg sums up the traditional distinction between a "childish" story -- one that tells us "everything will be all right, or even wonderful once certain circumstances have clicked into place" -- and an adult one, which "undoes the very illusions that are so appealing, eating away at our ability to fall under their spell again." But those definitions are rooted in a peculiar definition of childhood that has much more to do with adult fantasies than the inner lives of actual children.

"Into the Woods" may not be a story for children -- I'd say its ideal audience probably begins with sophisticated teens -- but the fairy tales it's based on were, and some of them are as bloody and brutal as "Game of Thrones." Some offer moral instruction -- "Slow and steady wins the race" -- and some, like "Red Riding Hood" or "Hansel and Gretel," exist to teach children that the world can be an ugly and dangerous dangerous place, and you had better watch your back. They frighten children because they're meant to.

In recent movies like "Tangled," with its manipulative and emotionally abusive adoptive parent, and "Frozen," whose plot hinges on a moment of unforeseeable betrayal, Disney has flirted with these kinds of themes, even if they're safely put back in their boxes by the time the credits roll; "Maleficent" has a symbolic rape scene and still manages in the end to be more anodyne than "Sleeping Beauty." That's fine for younger kids. But what about the MPAA's ruling that the frankly realistic depiction of teenage substance abuse in "Boyhood" is not suitable for children under 17? Is there a 16-year-old anywhere in America who, even if they've never sipped a beer or smelled a joint, doesn't know that some of their peers are doing the same? (And, more to the point, if such a teen does exists, is there any chance he or she would be drawn to "Boyhood"?) In slapping "Boyhood" with an R rating, the MPAA is essentially arguing that adolescence is inappropriate for teenagers.

The uncut version of "Into the Woods" is available on Netflix, at least through the end of the month, and any teenage who wants to see "Boyhood" will find a way to do so with or without parental approval. (If Piper Chapman can sneak into "Dazed and Confused," so can you.) Meanwhile, Disney will go on pretending that children don't understand death, even though my daughter is utterly obsessed with the concept, or infidelity, even if there's a better than even chance their parents will be split up by the time they're out of college. And my friends and I will keep showing our kids "My Neighbor Totoro," whose young girls wait out their mother's convalescence from a life-threatening illness, and other movies that decline to lie to children about they world they're already a part of. 

Update, June 23: Sondheim now says the New Yorker "misrepresented" the nature of his collaboration on the film, and further that he had only seen a rough cut of the film when he made his comments. "For those who care, as the teachers did, the Prince's dalliance is still in the movie, and so is 'Any Moment.'" Left unexplained in the whirlwind of spin is why Sondheim would, as the New Yorker reported, write a new song to replace one that was never cut from the film, but we may have to wait and see there.

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2 Comments

  • Marisa | June 20, 2014 3:20 PMReply

    Thank you for writing this article. My mother, wise woman that she is, had Into the Woods on Laserdisc, and we watched it ad nauseum. I remember poring over the cover art and being horrifically fascinated by the twisted artwork. When I would watch it (with my older sister and younger brother) we sang along to every single word and loved every minute of Act One (though the Wolf's costume would only make sense once I was older).

    But here's the thing--after watching Act One, my younger brother and I would voluntarily leave to go to bed, leaving my older sister to finish out the play. Why? Because we decided on our own--without parental supervision--that we could not handle the story after Act One. Keep in mind I was around eight or ten years old and my brother around five or seven. We didn't understand everything that went on, but we knew we didn't like it and couldn't understand it. I always thought about what was happening as I managed to get through more and more of Act Two, trying to work out why the characters acted in the way they did, and why everything wasn't happy and didn't work out for the best in the end. I think this retrospection (again, completely independent of parental supervision!) helped guide me towards exploring literary venues and exposed me to far more difficult topics than I would have encountered as a child of today.

    It's funny that you mention My Neighbor Totoro: the same thing happened for me with another Miyazaki film--Princess Mononoke. My mother did forbid me to watch that with my sister initially, and the one time I disobeyed and snuck a peek at the movie I was instantly turned off by the violence. But as I matured I kept revisiting i t and examining how my perception changed over time, and by the time I was in high school it was one of my favorite movies.

    For me, exploring mature topics through the arts has always been a comfort and I know it is for children of today as well. When you're too afraid to ask a parent or an adult about a mature topic (primarily because of the perception that 'you shouldn't be thinking/doing that, and you'll get in trouble if you ask for help'), books, movies, and other forms of media can be a valuable way for children to get different viewpoints, and to gather possible answers to their questions. Personally, I would rather have my hypothetical future children explore these topics through the arts, and teach then to analyze and examine their beliefs and preconceptions rather than try to shelter them from everything and have to scramble to answer when a particularly galling topic gets through my firewall.

  • FP | June 20, 2014 3:19 PMReply

    While the assessment of Disney is spot on, as is the idea of an adult's vision of childhood vs. the inner lives of children, conflating those ideas with the idea that BOYHOOD is inappropriately rated R is a false analogy.

    I have no desire to defend the out-of-its-mind MPAA, but if content in the film is deemed to be too much for early teens to handle on their own, any parent can see it with him or her and perhaps should. It's not rated NC-17. Just because there's an assumption that all teens are at least aware of drug use even if they've never done any themselves does not mean a group of 8th graders should see it without parental oversight. It also does not mean there won't be a number of teens on their own by fall and going forward who won't see it online or TV. Rating it R stems the tide for all of three or four months, while the best teen films last decades.

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